Longform

Highway roulette

Page 3 of 9

Never an easy job, the cement trucker's lot at Redi-Mix had been particularly grueling in recent weeks. The weather was warm, and the construction business was booming. Those two facts translated into long, hot hours for the truckers. Twelve- to 15-hour days weren't uncommon--sometimes even longer than that, even though it meant breaking the law. But as one trucker would later put it in court documents for a lawsuit the Haas family filed: "If there was mud to be thrown, we had to throw, no matter what."

Plant Manager Keith Tilton was concerned about the ragged condition of his drivers. That very day, he complained to the dispatcher that the truckers were driving too many hours, but she told him it was not his concern.

By the time Edwards headed back to the plant at the end of the day, he had logged 15 hours and 15 minutes working all over North Texas. One run took him to Denton, another to Plano. In the afternoon, he was dispatched to the Lewisville plant where he made four or five runs between the plant and a construction site nearby. By the time Edwards poured his last load and washed down the truck, he was beat. Severely overweight with a history of heart problems, the 42-year-old Edwards complained to his buddy Bobby Bristow how tired he was. Bristow, who was equally exhausted, suggested they stop to get something to drink.

Bristow did stop, but Edwards decided to drive straight back to the plant. It was 5:15 p.m. as Edwards neared the driveway to Redi-Mix on Texas 121. But he drove right past it, one of the reasons why police would eventually conclude he was asleep when he slammed into Richard Haas. Skid marks and gouges on the road indicated that he did not put on the brakes until after the moment of impact.

It took police four hours to learn Richard Haas' identity by tracing his license plate records. Judy Haas was relieved to learn that her husband probably died from the trauma of the crash, which ripped three tears in his heart, and not the inferno. She only hopes he died instantly, but no one can say for sure. What Judy Haas does know is that her family was the victim not just of one tired trucker, but of an industry that abuses its workforce and endangers the public with impunity.

The Haas family didn't immediately file suit against Redi-Mix, which offered to pay for Haas' funeral. Judy Haas asked a family friend who is a lawyer to investigate the company's practices, but after a year of ignoring the lawyer's repeated requests for company records, Judy realized the company was just playing games with her.

That's when she decided to find a top-notch personal injury lawyer and hired Frank Branson. "I wanted justice, I wanted them to pay," Haas says.

In 30 years of practicing law, Branson says, the cases he's handled that involved crashes with big trucks have been some of the most horrific, in terms of both the damage inflicted and the arrogance and negligence on the part of the trucking companies.

"It's always the same. Either the driver was over hours or on marijuana or driving a truck that should have been in the junkyard," Branson says. "The mindset in the trucking industry is truly horrifying. The pattern is always the same--putting profits above safety."

Branson's office recently settled a multi-million-dollar case involving a Fort Worth trucking company whose driver, after a night of delivering fuel to gas stations in Northeast Texas, decapitated the driver of a pickup truck as he crashed into a tollbooth at DFW airport. The driver told the police he did not know where he was or why he was on Airport Freeway when he was supposed to be on Texas 121. Police cited fatigue as a contributing factor to the crash. The driver had been fired from a previous job for causing an accident after falling asleep on the road and from another company in Fort Worth after failing a drug test.

In another case Branson handled, a driver was speeding on Interstate 30 and skidded into a man on his way to church. When Branson quizzed the truck driver on the rules in the Department of Transportation manual, "he didn't know come here from sic 'em," Branson says. "When we checked his log book, where he is supposed to write safety notes, on the day of the accident it said 'Dallas is the 10-point favorite against San Francisco.' We discovered that the driver had been fired by an employer for getting too many tickets and walked down the street and was hired by the same employer at a different terminal.

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Ann Zimmerman