FRANCISCO / Family of socialite killed in wreck sues trucking firm,
driver / Death blamed on alleged condition of pickup, trailer
September 14, 2005|By Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer
Erika Hills (right) was killed Aug. 17 when a trailer detached from a truck and hit her vehicle near her Napa home.
Credit: Thomas J. Gibbons/Special to the
family of Erika Hills, the San Francisco socialite who was killed in a
bizarre traffic accident in Napa County, has filed a wrongful death suit
against the trucking firm and driver whose heavy trailer nearly ripped
her Mercedes-Benz in half last month.
The suit, filed Monday in
Napa County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages from equipment and
construction businesses owned by Glen and Shirley Ragsdale and from
Arnulfo Avina, the driver of the Ragsdales' truck and trailer.
Hills, 61, was married to Austin Edward Hills, whose family founded the Hills Brothers coffee company.
the morning of Aug. 17, she was driving south on the Silverado Trail,
about 5 miles from her Napa home, when a "fifth wheel" trailer became
disconnected from a northbound Dodge Ram pickup truck that was hauling
it. The trailer, containing about 5 tons of equipment for drilling wine
cellar caves, slammed into Hills' 1997 E420 Mercedes, killing Hills and
"almost splitting the car in half," according to California Highway
Patrol Officer Gerald Rico.
who is 29, was not injured, and the CHP said at the time of the crash
that drugs or alcohol did not appear to have been involved.
attorney Frank Pitre, who filed the suit on behalf of Hills' husband
and the couple's children, Austin Eric Hills and Justin Hills, focused
his complaint on the alleged "dangerous condition" of the truck and
The brakes on the trailer were "in inoperable, and/or in
an unsafe condition," the lawsuit asserts. "Corrosion permeated the
trailer and component parts critical to maintaining a secure connection
to the truck; a required safety pin and/or chain necessary to prevent
separation of the truck/trailer combination was missing, non-operational
or simply not installed.
"The tragedy which resulted in the death
of Erika Hills was not only a foreseeable consequence of the premises,
it was predictable," Pitre's lawsuit says. "On the date in question, a
five-ton time bomb in the form of a lethal truck/trailer assembly was
unleashed on the Silverado Trail, and thereupon was launched and
detonated to kill an unsuspecting Erika Hills."
Ragsdale said, "My only comment is that it's a tragic accident, very
unfortunate." He referred The Chronicle to his insurance broker, who did
not immediately return phone calls.
On Tuesday, the CHP said its investigation into the accident had not yet been completed.