California truck firm cleared in fatal crash

| Thursday, September 26, 2002

A Westlake Village, CA, trucking firm has been cleared of manslaughter charges in connection with a February 2000 crash that killed one of its drivers, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Superior Court Judge Edward Brodie dismissed the charge Sept. 23 after further investigation by prosecutors revealed that driver error was most likely the cause of the accident, not poor maintenance by defendant R.P. Cummings Inc.

Patrick Hildebrand, of Ventura, CA, died when he lost control of a company tanker truck on a steep grade near Santa Paula and crashed into a creek ravine. A California Highway Patrol investigation concluded the foot brakes failed because of poor maintenance.

Based on the CHP report, the district attorney charged the company with involuntary manslaughter. But as they neared trial, prosecutors received new evidence that prompted them to re-evaluate the case, the newspaper reported.

A consultant hired by the defense concluded that information retrieved in the truck's electronic control module, which recorded information in the last 90 seconds before the crash, suggested the brakes condition did not cause the accident. The data reportedly showed the truck went into neutral seconds before the crash, rendering the brake system inoperable.

The defense consultant noted in an Aug. 24 report that Hildebrand had the truck in the wrong gear and rode the foot brakes down the grade, causing them to overheat. According to the Times, new evidence also revealed that Hildebrand had been experiencing problems with his left arm before the accident and could use only one hand when driving his truck. A medical report dated less than a week before the accident shows that Hildebrand was instructed not to drive a company vehicle.

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