Thirty-nine inches is all that was needed in order for the wreck between a train and a parade float never to have happened.
It was revealed Wednesday during opening statements in the trial between veterans in the Nov. 15, 2012, wreck and defendant, Union Pacific, that the train hit the parade float -- carrying veterans and spouses -- at a point 39 inches away from the tail end of the float.
As Dickey Grigg, attorney for the plaintiffs, put it in his opening statement, if the train’s brakes had been applied faster -- a half-second earlier -- the Show of Support parade float would have fully passed through the Garfield Street crossing.
And from the defendant’s perspective, John Proctor, attorney for UP, said if parade float driver Dale Hayden had not slowed down in the railroad crossing, the float would have cleared.
This contrast in perspectives is what the 12-person jury heard on Wednesday, the first day of testimony. The trial in 441st District Court could last up to six weeks.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys, rather than provide a play-by-play of the crash, instead used opening statements to tell the back stories of the deceased veterans: U.S. Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer Gary Stouffer, U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers and retied U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin.
Attorney Brent Walker, representing Stouffer’s family, talked about his U.S. Marine Corps service, which began in 1995. Stouffer sustained injuries in 2009 after an IE impacted the Humvee he was in, Walker said.
For Lubbers’ story, attorney Jack Hill, representing the veteran’s widow, said Lubbers joined the U.S. Army when he was 20. In 2005, a sniper shot him in the shoulder, Hill said.
And attorney Peter Malouf, representing Boivin’s widow, said the U.S. Army veteran received a Silver Star and Purple Heart after he was injured by shrapnel and a grenade during an attack in Iraq. Boivin was assisting Marines out of the engagement zone and into a safe area during the attack, Malouf said.
These stories were told in the presence of the men’s widows -- Catherine Stouffer, Tiffanie Lubbers and Angela Boivin. The women held onto each other at times, and were visibly distraught every time their husband’s names were mentioned.
Meanwhile, UP’s attorney talked at length about the train wreck.
“A ‘perfect storm’ is what we had on Nov. 15,” Proctor said. “It was a combination of events that were totally unforeseeable.”
The “perfect storm” Proctor referred to was the factors that UP thinks led to the crash, including the Midland Police Department waving the parade floats through red lights, MPD having a lookout for the parade in 2011 but not in 2012, the Midland County Sheriff’s Office escort not having a lookout for a train and the truck drivers not adhering to “stop, look, listen” at the Garfield Street railroad crossing.
In a PowerPoint slide, Proctor listed all of the parties that were involved in the crash, telling jurors that they have to look at everyone involved in order to find out what happened on Nov. 15, 2012. The slide listed Midland Police Department, Midland County Sheriff's Office, Show of Support, Smith Industries and parade float drivers James Atchison and Dale Hayden.
One of the jury’s jobs, Proctor told the panel, is to determine what percentage of the responsibility each party had.
The trial will resume at 9 a.m. today with plaintiffs’ witnesses.
The train wreck trial is the culmination of a lawsuit that began two years ago, weeks after the Nov. 15, 2012 train crash. On Nov. 28, 2012, veterans and spouses sued Union Pacific for negligence in its operation of the Garfield Street Crossing, alleging that the warning time at the crossing was not long enough, the train speed was not appropriate and the crossing itself had mechanical defects. UP has maintained that it operated within federal regulations and its own regulations.
Most of the claims against UP were thrown out by presiding Judge James Rush in pretrial hearings weeks. Rush made partial summary judgments in favor of UP in regards to the warning time at the crossing, the train speed and the warning signal system.
It was announced on Jan. 16 that 26 of the 43 plaintiffs, including the family of deceased veteran, Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, reached a settlement with Union Pacific.
To read more from the Midland Reporter Telegram, go to mrt.com.