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Trucker guilty in 80-vehicle accident



Published: Fri, January 21, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A witness corroborated the defendant's story about the trooper's car being on the road.

MERCER, Pa. -- The truck driver who sparked an 80-vehicle pileup on Interstate 80 tried to convince a court that his truck jackknifed because he had to swerve to avoid a state police car parked on the road.

District Justice Ruth French didn't buy it and found Samuel Torres, 25, of Van Nuys, Calif., guilty of driving too fast for conditions and thereby sparking the accident Dec. 19.

Several injuries but no deaths resulted from the accident, which closed the Interstate between here and West Middlesex for several hours.

French fined Torres $25 plus court costs, which will bring the penalty to $106. He still could face civil claims for the accident.

Appeal planned

After the hearing Friday, defense attorney Norman Barilla said he plans to appeal.

Barilla had argued that Torres was innocent and a witness corroborated his claim that a Pennsylvania State Police car was obstructing the left westbound lane.

French said, however, that the legal issue was "whether the defendant had his vehicle under control." She added that both State Trooper Theodore Hunt and defense witness Steven Jubelirer differed from Torres in describing the road conditions that day.

Torres, who claimed to be unable to speak English, testified in Spanish with his brother Michael interpreting.

He said he was driving a tractor-trailer from New York to Waterloo, Iowa, and described road conditions that day as "good enough." He was driving 45 mph when the truck in front of him, which was traveling slower, began braking. He said he tried to pass on the left, but was hindered by a police car parked in the middle of the left lane. He said the trooper was assisting two motorists who were in the median strip.

Torres said that to avoid hitting the police car, he swung back to the right lane and then jackknifed.

Torres insisted the trooper's car was blocking the left lane and said he took pictures of the vehicle but had left them in his West Middlesex hotel room.

French would not recess the hearing so the photos could be retrieved, saying, "We have no way of knowing when these photographs were taken."

Hunt testified he did not move his vehicle onto the road until after the interstate was closed. He said it was "ludicrous" to claim his car was obstructing the lane.

"No one in their right mind would park on the road if they didn't have to," the trooper said.

He said he had just finished helping one motorist in a disabled vehicle and was going to help the other when he saw a tractor-trailer approaching at about 30 mph. Behind that vehicle came Torres' truck, which appeared to be going 55 mph in whiteout conditions. He said Torres blew his horn and tried to pass the truck in front of him to avoid hitting it. He said Torres' truck then jackknifed on the other side of the road.

More testimony

Also testifying was Steven Jubelirer of Sharon, whose family owns Reyer's Shoe Store in Sharon. He said he drove the same stretch of I-80 just minutes before the wreck occurred. He said the weather was "a mess" with snow on the road and more falling. He said he was driving 40 to 50 mph in the left lane when he saw the whiteout approaching. He said he had to swerve to avoid a police car that was parked in the middle of the left lane.

"I almost hit it," he said, adding he had to swerve to the right lane to avoid it. He called it "an accident waiting to happen." He said he does not know Torres but volunteered to testify after hearing news reports and believing that what happened was not being reported.

Hunt said outside the hearing that if Torres cannot speak English, he is in violation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Law, which requires truck drivers to be fluent in English. When asked about this after the hearing, Barilla would not comment.




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