RFTA trial becomes blame game
December 9, 2015
For the 10 plaintiffs, three defendants and countless lawyers involved in the trial surrounding a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus crash two years ago, it's now time for the blame game.
Six different lawyers spent about three and a half hours in opening arguments Tuesday telling jurors who they believe is to blame for the crash, which occurred when a RFTA bus driver swerved to avoid a slow-moving tractor in the right hand lane, lost control and hit a concrete barrier.
Six of the 11 passengers on the Aspen-to-Glenwood Springs bus were ejected in the crash, which occurred about 7 p.m. near Cerise Ranch on Highway 82 in October 2013. One woman ended up underneath the bus, which was teetering on the barrier, while another became entangled in a "wildlife fence," lawyers said Tuesday.
After the crash, District Attorney Sherry Caloia declined to press charges against Nunez.
Nine of the passengers — as well as the husband of one passenger — filed suit against the RFTA driver, the tractor driver and the tractor owner.
And if you ask the attorneys for the passengers who was to blame for the crash, they'll, of course, tell you all three.
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"It took three individuals to make this come together," said Ken Badon, the lawyer who represents the woman who was trapped under the bus. "The passengers are not the ones responsible. They simply bought a ticket to ride the bus."
Badon blamed the tractor driver, Travis Wingfield, for driving under 20 mph in the right hand lane without a reflective emblem identifying it as a slow vehicle. He also said the mower Wingfield was towing blocked the tractor's tail lights and hazard lights, making it very hard to see from behind.
As proof of that, Badon promised jurors they'd hear from two other drivers who passed the tractor just before the bus came upon it and nearly hit the tractor because they couldn't see it. Finally, he criticized Wingfield for driving on Highway 82 in the first place when an alternate route on roads with far slower speed limits was available.
Jaime Nunez, the 56-year-old bus driver, also was to blame because he has vision problems that should have disqualified him from driving a bus, Badon said. As proof of that, he said a 70-year-old man, who was sitting at the back of the bus and was in the courtroom Tuesday, was able to see the tractor approaching and braced himself for impact.
Nunez also never should have overcorrected once he swerved to avoid the tractor, which caused him to lose control of the bus, Badon said. Instead, he should have simply stopped the bus.
"You never overcorrect," Badon said. "You let it run out."
Lastly, the tractor owner, Ted Potter, did not properly equip the tractor and mower, could have had Wingfield use a trailer to transport the equipment and asked Wingfield to drive it back to his farm at night, so he is to blame too, he said.
"It took all three," Badon said. "Take out any one and it wouldn't have happened."
Gordon Vaughan, an attorney for Nunez and RFTA, agreed with many of the points made by Badon about the culpability of Wingfield and Potter in the accident. However, he cited the accounts by the other two drivers who nearly hit the tractor as proof that Nunez wasn't to blame.
"This vehicle was very difficult to see," Vaughan said.
Nunez's vision problems were corrected 13 months before the crash and he had 20/20 vision at the time of the accident, he said. Also, claims that Nunez wasn't paying attention are not true either, Vaughan said.
"Basically what (Wingfield and Potter) did was lit a stick of dynamite, and they want to say Mr. Nunez failed to put it out," he said.
Potter's attorney, Colin Campbell, said his client bore no responsibility for the crash. The only thing Potter did was loan his friend a tractor and mower, he said.
And Peter Dusbabek, Wingfield's lawyer, blamed Nunez for the crash, saying his alleged poor eyesight and loss of control of the bus were the main reasons for it.
The trial, which began Monday with jury selection, is the first of two related to the crash. The first one will determine the percentage of responsibility each party has for the crash, while the second will determine damages.
The trial is scheduled to run until Dec. 18.