Trial in RFTA bus crash set to begin
More than two years after a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus flipped on its side after swerving to avoid a slow-moving tractor, passengers finally get their day in court today.
Six of the 11 passengers on board the Aspen-to-Glenwood Springs bus at the time of the crash — which occurred at about 7 p.m. on Oct. 26, 2013, on Highway 82 in Garfield County — were ejected. Two of those people suffered incapacitating injuries while another, who wasn’t ejected, also received incapacitating injuries.
The case has been winding its way through the legal system since it was first filed in June 2014. Mediation efforts in late January between the 10 plaintiffs and three defendants failed. Nine of the defendants were passengers on the bus, while the 10th is the husband of one of them. The three defendants are the RFTA driver, the driver of the tractor and the owner of the tractor.
Monday marks the start of the first of two trials in the case and is scheduled to run until Dec. 18 in Aspen.
The first trial will not involve any discussion of individual damage amounts. Instead, the jury will determine each of the defendants’ percentage of responsibility for the accident, Jeff Wertz, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said in February. The damages will be decided in the second trial.
Just before the accident occurred, the bus driver, Jaime Nunez, was traveling between 60 and 65 mph — 65 mph was the speed limit — in the right-hand lane approaching the intersection of Highway 82 and Catherine Store Road, according to a motion filed last week by the plaintiffs. At mile marker 16.4, the bus encountered a tractor towing a “mowing implement” going about 20 mph in the right-hand lane, the motion states.
The implement blocked the tractor’s right-side tail and hazard lights, and the tractor was not displaying a legally mandated “slow-moving vehicle emblem,” the motion states.
“Nunez began an avoidance maneuver approximately 150 feet from the tractor, steering the bus into and crossing the left-hand westbound lane,” according to the motion. “After traveling approximately 180 feet with the left-side bus tires in the median, the bus completely re-entered the roadway, crossing both lanes, and ultimately impacted a concrete Jersey barrier alongside the highway.
“The bus spun clockwise facing east-bound, rolled on its side and caused numerous passengers to be ejected.”
The key issues in the case include whether the tractor driver, Travis Wingfield, posed a hazard and should have been driving on the shoulder and what role the lack of the emblem and position of the mowing implement played in the crash, according to the motion.
Also, the plaintiffs maintain that Nunez concealed vision problems, a past severe brain injury and a history of seizures, which they believe also may have contributed to the accident, the motion states. Because Nunez was acting in his capacity as a RFTA driver, that means RFTA is liable, according to the motion.
In November 2013, District Attorney Sherry Caloia declined to pursue criminal charges against Nunez, saying she did not believe her office could prove violation of the law beyond a reasonable doubt.
The plaintiffs in the case are Catherine Anthon, Maggie Fricke, Christina Andrade Guzman, Karla Miller, Robert Pollard, Pedro Rivera, Rohan Samuels, Cecily Viall and Isidro Zelaya. Anthon’s husband, Ryan Anthon, is the 10th plaintiff.
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