Fallout from fatal tailgate crash unclear

Two days after a U-Haul truck ran over three people at the Harvard-Yale tailgate Saturday, killing one and injuring the other two, the causes and legal implications of the crash remain unclear.

The incident, which killed 30-year old Nancy Barry of Salem, Mass., appeared to be the result of a “vehicle malfunction,” said William Dow ’63, the New Haven-based lawyer representing the vehicle’s driver, Brendan Ross ’13. But U-Haul Company of Connecticut President Pete Sciortino said in a Monday statement to the News that Dow’s claim has no factual basis, and New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman called the conclusion “premature.” The NHPD’s accident reconstruction team is still conducting its forensics investigation into the U-Haul and its mechanics, Hartman added.

The truck, whose cargo area contained several beer kegs, was rented by members of the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon and bound for Sig Ep’s tailgate outside the Yale Bowl when it swerved and accelerated, hitting the three women. Hartman said Ross was taken to the NHPD’s Union Avenue headquarters after the incident, where he passed a standard field sobriety test. The U-Haul truck, a Ford F-350 with a V10 Triton engine, has been impounded and is being preserved for inspection, Hartman added.

Ross, who was accompanied in the front seat of the truck by two male juniors, is not in custody and no charges have been filed against him. Dow did not respond to additional requests for comment Monday. When reached Sunday morning, Ross declined to comment.

Though Hartman said Sunday that the NHPD will not conclude its investigation for “some time,” intense media coverage of the incident has already prompted speculation about the legal consequences of the crash.

Jeremiah Johnson, an Olathe, Kan.-based personal injury and product liability lawyer who has previous experience with accidents involving U-Hauls and Ford vehicles, said some F-350 models with V10 Triton engines have been known to have closely spaced gas and brake pedals. A driver could accidentally push both pedals when intending to brake, he said, which would cause the truck to accelerate because of its engine and brake construction. A driver’s automatic reaction of pushing on the pedals harder would only cause the truck to speed up more, Johnson added.

Based on photographs of the truck, Johnson said it appeared to be a 2006, 2007 or 2008 Ford F-350 model with V10 Triton engine. As of Monday evening, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website listed at least six complaints pertaining to pedal spacing and unpredictable acceleration in 2006-’08 models of the Ford F-350 with V10 Triton engine.

Eric Hageman, a Minneapolis-based personal injury attorney who handles cases involving truck accidents, said U-Haul could only be held liable for an accident like Saturday’s if it were proven that the company “did something wrong.” If, for instance, Ross was given the vehicle despite being unqualified to drive it, or if it could be shown that the vehicle was put on the road despite a known need for repair, a case could be brought against U-Haul, Hageman said.

If the problems with the vehicle were due to a manufacturing error and U-Haul did not alter the vehicle, Johnson said a case could be made against Ford rather than U-Haul.

In the event that the vehicle was not in proper working order when given to Ross, the victims of the accident could file a wrongful death or a personal injury lawsuit against U-Haul, according to Lawrence Buckfire, a Southfield, Mich.-based personal injury lawyer who also handles cases involving truck accidents. Ross could potentially file a case against U-Haul, assuming the truck were shown to be in faulty working order, if he could prove that he sustained “psychological injuries” as a result of the accident, Buckfire said.

But if the vehicle is shown to be in proper working order, U-Haul’s liability will be significantly reduced and the victims could sue Ross, Hageman and Buckfire agreed. But the two lawyers said the victims would be unlikely to file such a suit, considering Ross’s age and presumed lack of assets and substantial insurance coverage.

Hageman said that often, with accidents involving rented trucks, drivers are simply inexperienced and do not know how to operate the vehicles properly. He added that the Graves Amendment, a federal statute, substantially limits the liability car- and truck-rental companies face in the event of accidents if their vehicles are shown to have been properly maintained and loaned.

Brian Warren, executive director of Sig Ep national, who came to New Haven following the weekend’s events, said Monday that details about the rental, such as who had rented the truck specifically and whose money was used, were not yet clear. He added that while he and the national organization are “supportive of Brendan,” he did not yet know whether the fraternity would provide Ross with legal support.

It is not yet clear whether Ross will face any legal action from Barry’s family. Barry’s mother, Paula St. Pierre, said her top concern was simply “getting [her] child home” to Salem, Mass.

Barry was with two of her friends when she was struck by the U-Haul, which swerved and accelerated into the Yale Bowl’s D-Lot at around 9:39 a.m. before running over the three women and crashing into another, smaller, U-Haul. Barry was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital shortly afterward and was pronounced dead at 10:16 a.m.

“We’re all devastated — how do you deal with the loss of someone that was your whole life?” St. Pierre said. “How do you lose your best friend, your best sister, your aunt?”

Barry, who graduated 6th in her class at Salem High School in 1999, had recently accepted a job with Bennett & Company, a lingerie company in Newburyport, Mass., where she helped design the company’s clothing, St. Pierre said.

Beyond her creative interests, Barry’s greatest joy came from her two nephews, ages four and six, St. Pierre said. The 6-year-old has not been “able to go to school” and the 4-year-old has been “very confused” since Barry’s death, St. Pierre added.

St. Pierre said she was not aware of the full details of the incident, just that her daughter was “hit by a U-Haul full of alcohol,” and that the U-Haul also struck two of Barry’s friends, 30-year-old Sarah Short SOM ’13 and Harvard employee Elizabeth Dernbach. Short was released from Y-NHH after being treated for leg injuries, while Dernbach was released from St. Raphael’s Hospital after being treated for minor injuries.

Neither Dernbach nor Short could be reached for comment Monday. Yale spokesman Tom Conroy did not return requests for comment about what action, if any, the University will take regarding the incident.

Antonia Woodford contributed reporting.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    A thorough, factual, praiseworthy piece of journalism, calming the waters of unfounded speculation: a real service to your readers and the community.

  • J_Johnson

    I’d like to add a bit to my comments in the article:
    (1) The U-hual did not require any special license to drive, a regular driver’s license would be fine. The U-Hual that the student was driving is essentially a Ford F-350 with a box on the back instead of a pickup bed. It is mechanically similar to the same F-350 that you can buy at any Ford dealer in the country. Thus, no special licensing is needed.
    (2) There may or may not be a product defect with the U-Hual, more investigation is needed. The truck should contain a data recorder which would allow police to determine what “inputs” the driver was giving, meaning whether he was steering, braking, accelerating, etc. This data should go along ways in determine what happened and whether there is a sudden acceleration or pedal spacing problem with the F-Series truck that was involved in this accident. I will try and post some of the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency’s sudden acceleration complaints on the F-350 pickups on my injury law firm’s website http://www.kcatty.com .
    (3) Even if there was nothing wrong with the U-Hual, the driver should not be criminally charged, absent unknown circumstances. This is a tragedy, but a criminal conviction will not change that. The driver may be responsible for the medical expenses, lost wages, pain, and suffering for those hit (and their families), but this is no different than a normal traffic accident in a legal sense – unless he: (a) was drunk or high, which does not appear to be the case; intentionally drove recklessly (“watch these people jump out of the way while I accelerate through this crowd”), which does not appear to be the case; or intentionally tried to run someone over, which no publicly available evidence suggests is true.
    (4) The Yale administration should not ban tailgating or neuter tailgating because of this accident. This country’s shift towards a nanny-state should not be tacitly endorsed by such prestigious institutions. As I stated above, this was essentially a Ford F-Series pickup truck with a box, available at any Ford dealer in the United States. Banning U-Hauls or similar vehicles makes no sense unless Yale is willing to ban pickups altogether, since they are essentially the same vehicles.

    Finally, while this is a tragedy, keep in mind that statistics suggest that EVERY year, more people are killed or injured in traffic accidents going to/from the football games than were killed and injured in this accident. Banning or neutering tailgating MIGHT save lives at the school, but it will kill or reduce a tradition that has gone on since the first football game.

  • Floyd_Pomeroy

    Running over 3 pedestrians and hitting 2 parked cars is not a normal traffic accident in the common sense sense…

  • CharlieWalls

    U-Haul shows a truck of this type to weigh ~7,800 lbs. Add a few kegs (apparently) and you are talking about ~4 tons of truck on a grass field with people. This is NOT like driving a pick-up from a Ford dealer regardless of the long comment by Johnson. One wonders the reason Mr. Ross’s truck arrived later than several others. Mixing moving trucks with milling people on an undifferentiated open field puts enormous weight on careful, slow driving. It calls for some thoughtful reorganization for the future (e.g., no moving trucks in the area after 8:00 a.m.).

    • J_Johnson

      http://www.edmunds.com/ford/f-350-super-duty/2008/features-specs.html?style=100840656

      The Ford F350 weighs very close to that from the factory.showing a curb weight of ~7400 pounds. Of course you can also buy the F450 pickup which weighs well over 7800 pounds.

      Vehicles of this weight are always available for purchase without any sort of special license or purpose.

      Other heavy vehicles sold:
      2011 F250 ~7800 pounds
      2011 F350 ~8000 pounds
      2011 Ram 2500 ~7500 pounds
      2011 Chevy/GMC 2500 ~7450 pounds
      Caddilac Escalade ESV ~6000 pounds (~6200 if a hybrid)
      Maybach sedan ~7000 pounds (equipped)

  • River_Tam

    Good article, awful headline.

  • gibbygervais

    ^^^ Agree. Article from the NYTimes does a good job presenting both sides of the argument: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/21/nyregion/at-harvard-and-yale-tailgate-rules-spark-debate.html

  • Ciarrai

    It’s a little early to be assuming that Ross is blameless. What of the writer that claims to have seen a broad smile on his face as his truck moved through the site? You can tell that there is money in the air when the lengthy piece by Johnson is announcing his personal injury law firm’s website. The vipers are around the dead body. By the way, J. Johnson, f— tradition. Human life is number one and “tradition” is about 10,000,000. How about you take care of your business and let the NHPD sort this one out.

    • J_Johnson

      Human life is paramount, but there is no way to insure the accidents do not happen.

      Do you drive? Then you are risking your life. Likewise, the players on the football field are risking their lives to play the game.

      If we are to follow the logic of those who want to limit tailgating, then we would also simply stop playing the football game. If we carry that logic further, than we might ban driving altogether, since it is the most dangerous form of transportation.

      I don’t have a Connecticut law license, meaning I don’t have a dog in this fight. I was simply contacted by the author and gave my input.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “What of the writer that claims to have seen a broad smile on his face as his truck moved through the site?”

    The world can change in a millesecond. It did so in Dallas on this very date in 1963. It did so for Mr. Ross and for Ms. Barry and her family last Saturday. A “broad smile” one second may mean absolutely nothing the next second.

    There is a recklessness in not presuming innocence.

    It is, if I may use the hackneyed term, “un-American.”

    • charlesgyer

      I normally disagree with almost everything you say, but I must applaud you here. Absolutely spot on.

    • J_Johnson

      “There is a recklessness in not presuming innocence.”

      100% correct.

  • Boogs

    I think it’s time to do away with the U-Hauls. Or, as a previous poster said, insist that all U-Hauls and larger vehicles be in place well before the normal gates open at 8.30. But I’m pretty certain that this will be the death-knell of U-Hauls, given past pressure to ban them. It would be pretty crass for anyone to oppose that change in light of this incident — all for the convenience of getting more drunk more quickly.

  • gibbygervais

    ^^^ Agree!

  • tm

    Agree! It is time for Yale admistration to do the right thing.

    “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” 1 Corinthian 13: 11

    “For God For Country For Yale” in this order.

  • Floyd_Pomeroy

    Is it negligence or an accident if he hit the gas pedal rather than the brake? Seems like an obvious question which is not being discussed.

    • River_Tam

      Accident, I think, unless they can demonstrate that he had distracted himself in some fashion (ie: was negligent). I am not a lawyer, though.

      • YC11

        Just because an incident is what one would typically call an “accident” does not mean that it is not a result of negligence. A true accident (where one would find no negligence) would be something to the extent of having a seizure and being completely unable to control the vehicle.

        • highandelm

          I’m no lawyer, but I’m fairly certain “negligence” implies that the driver would have known better but made the accident regardless. If he had known beforehand that the trucks work the way they do adn that the pedals are extremely close, but still did what he did, then that would be negligence. Or if he knew that the vehicle were in faulty working order prior to pulling in but still went ahead, that would also be negligence. Just making the accident if he truly had no idea that he was doing something wrong doesn’t make it negligence (unless, of course, he SHOULD have known that he was doing something wrong, which he shouldn’t have because U-Haul provides no training. You just need a driver’s license and you’re in.).

    • The Anti-Yale

      “not being discussed”.

      And rghtly so since we are not vultures who feast off human suffering.

      • Floyd_Pomeroy

        The article is about the legal implications of the crash. You are of course free to not spend your morally exalted time replying to every comment.

        • The Anti-Yale

          “Is it negligence or an accident if he hit the gas pedal rather than the brake? Seems like an obvious question which is not being discussed”

          IT WAS DISCUSSED IN THE ARTICLE (see quote below) . FEASTING ON THE INCIDENT IS UNSEEMLY.

          Moral Exaltation is in the astigmatised eyes of the beholder.

          “Jeremiah Johnson, an Olathe, Kan.-based personal injury and product liability lawyer who has previous experience with accidents involving U-Hauls and Ford vehicles, said some F-350 models with V10 Triton engines have been known to have closely spaced gas and brake pedals. “

  • The Anti-Yale

    “spend your morally exalted time replying to every comment.”

    EVERY?

    Three comments out of 25?

    Apparently Moral Exaltation is in the astigmatised eyes of the beholder.

  • highandelm

    I’m no lawyer, but I’m fairly certain “negligence” implies that the driver would have known better but made the accident regardless. If he had known beforehand that the trucks work the way they do and that the pedals are extremely close, but still did what he did, then that would be negligence. Or if he knew that the vehicle were in faulty working order prior to pulling in but still went ahead, that would also be negligence. Just making the accident if he truly had no idea that he was doing something wrong doesn’t make it negligence (unless, of course, he SHOULD have known that he was doing something wrong, which he shouldn’t have because U-Haul provides no training. You just need a driver’s license and you’re in.).

  • inthemix

    Is no one bothered by the repeated use, by the media and people on these posts, of the terms “packed”, “loaded” “filled” to describe the number of kegs within the transport bay of the U-Haul ? I was at the scene when the door opened there were a less than a handful. The images painted by people on these posts and the media conjure up a number closer to an absurd 30!

  • tsbshb

    Though I see this as a horrible accident that has impacted many people beyond our college community, I see many media outlets trying to make this an over hyped story. This needs to be seen in the correct context of the accident, an vehicle-pedestrian accident in a parking-lot.

    It is ludicrous to think that this has anything to do with alcohol or irresponsible partying. Banning U-hauls or tailgating in my opinion would actually put more spectators in danger along with those outside the community. If you ban tailgating it will only increase people driving while intoxicated to the game, particularly those who are not Yale students as there already free “door to door” service for students from campus to stadium. It is foolish to think that by banning tailgating at Yale games that this will also have and effect or change the American cultural association between drinking and sporting events. It would only push tailgating behavior away from the Yale Bowl into neighborhoods and New Haven bars leading to an increase in drunk driving. This would not only increase the danger in the Yale Bowl parking lot but also put those who are merely sharing the road with spectators into danger. Though we all wish this tragic event could have been prevented, one must always look rationally at the effects of any quick decision. Similar to a grease fire, when you see flames one thinks to throw water on it to douse the fire but in actuality water causes the fire to explode. This is similar in this situation to banning tailgating or U-hauls.

  • tsbshb

    However, though I see banning tailgating or U-hauls as a negative response I do have personal insight into things that would surely increase everyone’s safety in this matter.

    Like others have stated, Yale should have a clear separation between cars arriving to set up and the arrival of spectators. Yale Athletics should open the lots early to vehicles to arrive and set-up before the arrival of general spectators. Furthermore, there should be a definitive cutoff point for any vehicles arriving late. Once when the crowds arrive there should not be the allowance for any vehicle to enter or move without the guidance of police or staff.

    As a member of the marching band, I have been to every home football game the last two years. We arrive around 8am at the Bowl well before even Athletics arrives. We practice on the lacrosse field eventually being surrounded by the tailgates.

    I have seen multiple time this year in particular where Yale buses have dropped off pedestrians to the tailgate area and allowing them to congregate in the tailgating area while at the same time Athletics is actively preventing cars and U-hauls from entering the lot to set-up for the crowds that have already arrived. Forcing the vehicles to enter an already congested pedestrian area where the crowd is quite literally waiting for them to arrive.

    These regulations need to be changed no matter what! One game students arrived before any security or Athletics personnel where even in the lot, leaving students confused and unorganized. All because Athletics actively worked to shorten the time between earliest arrival and the start of the game.

    These new regulations restricting the opening time of the lots was put in place to in a vain attempt to cut down on over partying and drinking but as these examples shows have actually led to a more dangerous environment.

    Furthermore the roads around the Yale Bowl are not designed to handle such large amounts of traffic. This year proved that the 2 hours allotted for arrival and the start of the game was drastically insufficient. My own family left Downtown New Haven at 10am and sat in traffic and did not reach the parking-lot until 11:50 because of this decision to constrain the arrival time.

    All of the factors cause the individual driver stress and anxiety along with those of the pedestrian to lead to a needlessly elevated environment of urgency, frustration, and hurry in the parking-lot regardless of tailgating, U-hauls, etc. Leading to a more dangerous environment that could all be lessened by not the restricting of regulations but the realization of physical limitations along with proper understanding and accounting for logistical needs.

  • Sara

    “My own family left Downtown New Haven at 10am and sat in traffic and did not reach the parking-lot until 11:50 because of this decision to constrain the arrival time.”

    Just FYI, there are plenty of alternative routes to the Yale Bowl area that have virtually no traffic, if you are willing to park a few blocks away and walk.

    It is premature to say who if anyone is at fault, but it is most likely that Yale will be sued, as they have the most money, and could be held liable for a failure to control the large crowds and vehicles on their property. If Yale is sued they will most likely reach a settlement.