Did log-truck driver Cory D. Ford drive too fast and ignore hazardous conditions when he pushed his truck through a foggy, slick stretch of Interstate 84 on a cold January morning in 2014?
Or did he skillfully guide his loaded truck into a concrete barrier after another semitrailer and a passenger car pulled into his lane without warning — preventing an even worse crash during a 44-vehicle pileup?
Those could be the questions an Ada County jury is asked to answer if a lawsuit filed by a Meridian man injured in the mishap goes to trial. Jose Silva Cuellar sued Ford and his employer, Brian Wilson Trucking, of Emmett, for an amount to be determined at trial.
Silva Cuellar, now 54, was headed that morning from his home in Meridian to his job in Caldwell, where he worked as a manager at Servigiros, a company that caters to Spanish-speaking customers cashing checks, sending money transfers or obtaining money orders.
He was seriously injured in the crash just west of Ten Mile Road when his Subaru Forester became lodged against Ford’s log truck, rolling several times and resembling a crumpled ball of metal when it came to a stop.
This was one of 12 nearly simultaneous crashes in the same area, involving 44 vehicles.
Pinned inside the SUV, Silva Cuellar lost consciousness for about 30 minutes. It took rescue workers an hour to free him. He spent three days and underwent multiple surgeries at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, recovering from multiple rib fractures, a broken right leg and injuries to his face.
In a court filing late last year, he reported continuing pain, tingling and numbness in his right leg, especially at the ankle. He also said he suffered some back pain at waist level and some neck pain, which he said worsens with prolonged sitting or standing.
What do the experts say?
Ford, now 31, had been driving for Brian Wilson Trucking for six months when the wreck happened. A crash expert hired by Silva Cuellar’s side said he failed to follow a basic rules of truck driving: He didn’t scan the road ahead of him and anticipate trouble.
“Defendant Ford should have been operating with extreme caution, which in this case, means moving at a crawl or not at all — certainly not at highway speeds, or even the same speed as (other, noncommercial truck) road users,” wrote Lew Grill.
Grill, from Billings, Mont., is a trucking industry expert who logged more than 2 million miles as a truck driver.
He noted that following the wreck Ford pleaded guilty to a basic rule violation — driving at a speed greater than what is reasonable and prudent for the conditions. He was fined $93.
“A well-trained, reasonable, prudent, safe truck driver would know that making those errors, which defendant Ford made, were dangerous, unsafe and likely to create a crash,” Grill wrote in his report.
Wilson Trucking and Ford have their own court experts who highlight Ford’s attempt to avoid a collision.
William Skelton, a Coeur d’Alene engineer, said Silva’s car and the other semitrailer blocked Ford’s path in the far left lane.
At least seven other drivers were cited in the days after the crashes, for speeding, following too closely and other issues.
“He performed the only action left to him to reduce the effects of the oncoming collisions by steering towards his left and tried to impact the concrete barrier so it would slow his truck better than the brakes of his truck on the wet, ice-covered roadway,” wrote Skelton, a former engineering professor at the University of South Florida.
V. Paul Herbert, a Quincy, Calif., truck safety expert, agreed.
“His evasive actions in attempting to avoid collision with the vehicles which suddenly cut in front of him can be described as being commendable,” Herbert said.
Idaho State Police found several pre-existing brake problems on the log truck following the crash. The left brake on the front axle and the right brake on the rear tractor axle were inoperable, and two right-side brakes on the fourth and fifth axles were out of adjustment.
Again, experts on both sides disagreed on the results. Nathan Rose, a Colorado vehicle reconstruction expert hired by Silva Cuellar, said the inoperable brakes “likely contributed” to Ford’s inability to stop in time.
Herbert said the condition of the brakes on the log truck was “irrelevant.” He said the brakes that were inoperable and out of adjustment would not have made an appreciable difference in stopping distance.
The case was scheduled to go to trial July 8, but was postponed as lawyers work on a possible settlement. The two sides are scheduled to meet with District Judge Steven Hippler on Wednesday to see where the case stands.
Two other claims have already been resolved, both regarding insurance. Farmers Insurance paid out $22,309 for damage to Silva’s car and other expenses. It settled its claim against Ford and the trucking company for $11,155.
The J.R. Simplot Co. also sued Ford and Brian Wilson Trucking after the log truck pushed Silva Cuellar’s Forester into a Simplot semitrailer. Simplot settled its claim earlier this year for an undisclosed amount.