Dead Family's Relatives Sue Trucker for Neb. Crash
The parents of a couple who died with their children in a fiery chain-reaction accident in western Nebraska have filed a wrongful death lawsuit faulting three truck drivers and the transportation companies that employed them.
One of the drivers died in the September accident and another is facing manslaughter charges. The lawsuit alleges that truck driver, Josef Slezak, had been on the road for too long.
The lawsuit was filed late Monday in U.S. District Court of Nebraska by the parents of Christopher and Diana Schmidt, a Gaithersburg, Md., couple who were killed along with their two young children and unborn son.
The Schmidts were in separate cars, waiting in standstill traffic after a collision on Interstate 80 about 40 miles east of the Wyoming border, when authorities say Slezak struck Christopher Schmidt's car. The force of the crash pushed Schmidt's car into his wife's, which was rammed underneath another semi, and both of their cars exploded. The couple's two children were in the car with their mother, who was 7 ½ months pregnant.
Slezak, 36, of River Grove, Ill., is charged with four counts of manslaughter, four counts of vehicular homicide, and one count of vehicle homicide of an unborn child. A phone message was left Tuesday with Slezak's criminal attorney, Kelly Breen.
A woman who answered the phone for Slezak's employer, AKI Trucking Inc., which is also named in the suit, declined to comment.
The lawsuit also targets truck driver Vladimir Zhukov and his employers, Swift-Truck Lines Ltd., and MTR Express Inc. The accident began Zhukov's semi suffered a mechanical failure and stopped on the interstate near the town of Potter. The lawsuit alleges Zhukov, of Oak Park, Ill., failed to move the truck out of the roadway when his air brakes stopped working, and that he or his employer neglected to keep up with the truck's maintenance. Zhukov pulled the tractor off the interstate, but the trailer remained in the road, according to the lawsuit.
MTR Express Inc. declined to comment Tuesday.
The lawsuit also names Long Haul Trucking Inc., the employer for trucker Keith Johnson, who died; and North Metro Truck Leasing LLC, which the lawsuit says provided him with the truck. Messages were left the other companies.
Johnson's truck slammed into Zhukov's, triggering a fire that blocked traffic. The lawsuit alleges Johnson, 27, of Big Lake, Minn., failed to avoid the crash even though Zhukov's truck was flashing its emergency-warning lights.
James Chalat, a Denver attorney who is representing the relatives and the family's estate, said the defendants had not yet been served with the lawsuit.
The Schmidts were moving back to their native Sacramento, Calif., to be closer to family, Chalat said. Christopher, a U.S. Air Force veteran who worked for the Department of Energy in Washington, had landed a new job with the U.S. Social Security Administration in California. The lawsuit was filed by Diana's parents, Bradley and Nancy Baumann of Rocklin, Calif., and Christopher's mother, Donna Costley, of Antelope, Calif.
"Everyone is still in a state of shock," Chalat said Tuesday. "This was a very close family. All of the grandchildren were very close to their grandparents. They were very close to cousins, and Christopher and Diana both came from big families."
Investigators say Slezak slammed into the back of Christopher Schmidt's car at 75 mph, without hitting his brakes. The family died instantly.
Slezak, a citizen of the Czech Republic, is awaiting trial in Cheyenne County District Court.
The lawsuit alleges Slezak violated federal highway safety rules by staying on the road far longer than the maximum time allowed for truckers. Federal rules require truckers to be off-duty for at least 10 hours before they can drive, sets a 14-hour maximum of windshield time, and then mandates that they take another 10 hours off-duty. Slezak had exceeded the maximum by at least three hours, according to the lawsuit.
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