Suit Claims Negligence Caused Father's Death in Trailer-SUV Crash

By Charles Emerick

11/22/2006

The accident is one of the worst Todd Hilton has seen during his legal career.

A runaway flatbed trailer that had become separated from the truck that was pulling it sliced through Charles Lewis' Ford Explorer on U.S. Highway 50, causing his horrific death and leaving a path of destruction.

"This was about as bad as an entangled mess that I have seen," Hilton said "And that includes doing railroad litigation."

Now Lewis' two daughters, Robin Dayton and Dana Hughes, are suing the vehicle's driver and his employer, claiming their negligence caused their father's death on Jan. 4. Patrick Stueve and Hilton, both of Stueve Siegel Hanson Woody, are representing Dayton and Hughes in their lawsuit, which was filed earlier this month and seeks unspecified damages.

"We believe the evidence will show that Mr. Lewis' death would not have occurred if defendants had followed any of the industry safety standards governing the safe and proper use of commercial trailers," Stueve said.

According to the accident report by the Lee's Summit Police Department, the 59-year-old Lewis was in the left lane on eastbound Highway 50 near Chipman Road. In the right westbound lane, Steven Berryman, an employee of Door Systems in Lee's Summit, was pulling the trailer when it separated from the 2001 GMC Sierra pickup and entered the grass median.

The empty trailer continued through the median, which did not have a protective barrier, and entered the eastbound lanes, according to the accident report.

Hilton said the trailer carried most of its weight in the rear, which caused its tongue in the front to rise up. It struck Lewis' 1999 Ford Explorer near the side-view mirror on the driver's side.

The trailer ripped through the vehicle, decapitated Lewis, who was not wearing his seat belt, and left his body in the back seat, according to the accident report. After striking a semi traveling next to Lewis, the trailer was projected back across the westbound lanes and came to a rest.

Hilton said the trailer, which was homemade, was not properly attached to the truck driven by Berryman.

"There were numerous problems," he said. "It was not staying on the truck for very long because the receiver was too large for the ball it was attached to."

An investigation by the Lee's Summit Police Department reported that the trailer hitch was made for a 2 5/16 inch ball, but the Door Systems' truck had a 2-inch ball.

Additionally, the report includes that the locking mechanism on the hitch was partially missing, and there were no signs of a cable connecting the emergency electric brake.

Jim Foland, who represents Door Systems and Berryman, said he was in the process of reviewing evidence and getting experts to reconstruct the accident. The defendants, who also include Door Systems owners and the trailer's manufacturers and owners, have until early December to file an answer.

Foland, of Foland, Wickens, Eisfelder, Roper & Hofer, called the accident a tragedy and said he had been talking to the plaintiffs in hopes of reaching a possible settlement.

"It's amazing how bizarre these (accidents) can be," Foland said. "The trailer just simply came off and went across the median. It was a classic wrong place, wrong time for the descendant."

The plaintiffs have already hired Richard H. Klein as an expert witness. Klein, of Johnson, N.Y., is experienced in trailer design and a leading engineering consultant for U-Haul, according to Hilton.

"This is a guy, who obviously when folks that are dealing with trailers in the country, when they want to know what's going on, this is who they turn to," Hilton said.

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