Legal ramifications of crash still unclear

More than a week after a U-Haul truck ran over three people at the Harvard-Yale tailgate outside the Yale Bowl, killing one, authorities have yet to determine the causes and legal implications of the crash.

The New Haven Police Department forensic investigation of the Nov. 19 crash is expected to take “weeks,” according to department spokesman David Hartman, but intense media coverage of the incident over the past week has sparked speculation about the legal fallout. While William Dow ’63, the New Haven-based lawyer representing Brendan Ross ’13 — the student who was driving the U-Haul — alleged Nov. 20 that a “vehicle malfunction” had caused the crash, Connecticut U-Haul executive Pete Sciortino said in a statement to the News last Monday that Dow’s claim has no factual basis, and Hartman called the conclusion “premature.”

Dow told the News Friday that he will not retract his claim of vehicle malfunction, which he said is corroborated by independent witnesses, but added that definitive answers will not be available until any reconstruction analyses have been completed. Ross, 21, is not in custody and no charges have been filed against him.

Michael Dearington, Connecticut state’s attorney for the New Haven district, said Friday that any criminal charges against Ross would depend on the findings of the NHPD’s investigation, and that his office has not received any reports from the department regarding the incident.

The U-Haul 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 in the Yale Bowl’s D-Lot at around 9:39 a.m. on Nov. 19, killing 30-year-old Nancy Barry of Salem, Mass. and injuring 30-year-old Sarah Short SOM ’13 and Harvard employee Elizabeth Dernbach. Barry was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital shortly afterward and was pronounced dead at 10:16 a.m. Her death was caused by “multiple blunt traumatic injuries” and deemed an accident by the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a spokeswoman for the office said Wednesday.

Hartman said Ross passed a field sobriety test immediately after the crash occurred and was taken to the NHPD’s Union Avenue headquarters for questioning. Ross was accompanied in the front seat of the truck by two other male juniors, and Hartman said the U-Haul was carrying several beer kegs in its cargo area.

The U-Haul, a Ford F-350 with a V10 Triton engine, has been impounded and Hartman said the vehicle is being preserved for inspection.

Jeremiah Johnson, an Olathe, Kan.-based personal injury and product liability lawyer who has experience with accidents involving U-Hauls and Ford vehicles, said 2006, 2007 and 2008 F-350 models with V10 Triton engines can have “closely spaced” gas and brake pedals that can be difficult to control. A driver could easily push both pedals by accident when intending to brake, Johnson said, which would cause the truck to accelerate rather than slow down because of its engine and brake construction. In this scenario, a driver’s automatic reaction of pushing harder on the pedals would cause the truck to speed up further, he added.

Based on photographs of the U-Haul that crashed outside the Yale Bowl, Johnson said it appeared to be a 2006, 2007 or 2008 Ford F-350 model with a V10 Triton engine. As of Sunday evening, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website listed at least six complaints pertaining to pedal spacing and unpredictable acceleration in those vehicle models.

Eric Hageman, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based personal injury attorney who handles cases involving truck accidents, said U-Haul could only be held liable for an accident like the one at the Harvard-Yale tailgate if it were proven that the company “did something wrong.” For instance, if Ross rented the vehicle but was not qualified to drive it, or if the vehicle had a known need for repair when it was put on the road, Hageman said a case could be brought against U-Haul.

Hageman said accidents involving rented trucks often occur because drivers are 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.

The victims of the accident could file a wrongful death or personal injury lawsuit against U-Haul had the vehicle not been in proper working order when Ross received it, said Lawrence Buckfire, a Southfield, Mich.-based personal injury lawyer who also handles cases involving truck accidents.

But if the NHPD investigation determines the U-Haul to have been in proper working order, Hageman and Buckfire said the finding would significantly reduce U-Haul’s liability. Though the victims could sue Ross in this case, both lawyers said the victims would be unlikely to file such a suit, given Ross’s age and presumed lack of assets and substantial insurance coverage.

Executive director of Sig Ep National Brian Warren, who came to New Haven on the day of the crash, said last Monday that details about the rental — such as who rented and paid for the truck — were not yet clear. While he said the national organization is “supportive of Brendan,” he added that it was not yet known whether the fraternity would provide Ross with legal support.

Barry’s family has not indicated whether it will pursue legal action against Ross. In the days after the crash occurred, Barry’s mother, Paula St. Pierre, said her top concern was simply “getting [her] child home.” “We’re all devastated — how do you deal with the loss of someone that was your whole life?” St. Pierre said last Monday. “How do you lose your best friend, you best sister, your aunt?”

Barry graduated sixth in her class at Salem High School in 1999 before attending the Massachusetts College of Art. Barry had recently accepted a job to help design lingerie for Bennett & Company in Newburyport, Mass.

Barry’s two nephews, ages 4 and 6, were her greatest joy, St. Pierre said. Since Barry’s death, St. Pierre said the 6-year-old has not been able to go to school and the 4-year-old has been “very confused.”

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. 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 for this article. When reached last weekend, Ross declined to comment, and Dow said Ross will not make any public comments out of respect for Barry’s family. Beyond issuing a general statement, Yale spokesman Tom Conroy did not return further requests for comment about what action, if any, the University will take regarding the incident.

Antonia Woodford contributed reporting.

Comments

  • anonymouz

    how could the lawyer know that its vehicle malfunction based on eyewitnesses? it seems they would need to do some type of forensic investigation on the vehicle.

  • gibbygervais

    Lawyers lie all the time . . . and if they do it right, no one can sue them for their accidental verbosity.