Woman paralyzed after getting stuck underneath tractor trailer sues

By Kelly Holleran | Jun 29, 2009

A woman who says she became paralyzed after getting stuck underneath a tractor trailer has filed suit against 12 people and companies involved in the multi-car collision.

Jessica Baker says she was a 19-year-old driving a 2001 Saturn in the right-hand lane of Interstate 270 on Feb. 4, 2008, when the collision occurred.

According to the complaint filed June 15 in Madison County Circuit Court, defendant Nicholae Valeanu was driving a tractor-trailer consisting of a Kenworth tractor and defendant Stoughton's trailer directly in front of Baker at mile post 13.5.

Valeanu failed to brake in time before he hit defendant Bradley K. Bronnbauer's Chevrolet Impala. In turn, Bronnbauer hit defendant Carl L. Kleinschmidt's Ford Escort, which rear-ended defendant Air Products and Chemicals's trailer. All three vehicles were stopped in the right-hand lane of the interstate, the complaint says.

Baker ended up colliding with the Stoughton trailer Valeanu was driving before he came to a complete stop as she could not see in front of him, the suit states.

However, Baker claims the Stoughton trailer was not equipped with a properly affixed rear impact guard, which is attached to the back of every tractor trailer in order to prevent cars from traveling beneath them in the case of a rear-end collision.

Fasteners connected the rear impact guard the trailer, but the fasteners had corroded and been damaged due to normal use of the truck, according to the complaint. In addition, bolts also helping to hold the rear impact guard were only three-quarters of an inch thick instead of the safer one inch width bolts, the suit states.

As a result, the rear impact guard broke off during the collision, causing Baker's car to slide under the trailer farther than it should have, according to the complaint.

"Due to the failure of the fasteners and the height of the Stoughton Trailer frame, the windshield, roof and upper A-Pillars of Jessica's 2001 Saturn struck the rear of the Stoughton Trailer," the complaint says. "The trailer impact to the upper A-Pillars of Jessica's 2001 Saturn with the rear of the Stoughton Trailer frame deformed the upper A-Pillars rearward and downward pulling the roof panel downward allowing the trailer to ride over and compress the roof panel into occupant survival space such that Jessica's head came into contact with the roof headliner and panel, breaking her cervical spine and lacerating her head."

Because of the injury to her cervical spine, Baker was paralyzed and remains a quadriplegic, she claims.

But she says her paralysis could have been avoided if the rear impact guard was properly attached to the back of the trailer.
"Had the rear impact guard on the Stoughton Trailer been attached with adequate fasteners that could withstand at least as much force as the rear impact guard itself, excessive underride would not have occurred," the complaint says.

At the time of the accident, Baker was wearing her seatbelt and shoulder harness and the Saturn's airbags did deploy, but the safety measures were not effective, according to the complaint.

"Due to the height of the Stoughton Trailer and the failure of the rear impact guard on the Stoughton Trailer, the safety features designed into Jessica's modern automobile were rendered largely ineffectual because the crush zones were never adequately engaged and the collapse of the roof intruded on the occupant compartment survival space needed for the shoulder harness and air bag to be effective," the suit states.

In addition to Valeanu, Bronnbauer, Stoughton Trailer, Kleinschmidt and Air Product and Chemicals, other defendants in the suit include Motor City Express, Challenger Motor Freight, James Group International, James Group International II, Inc., James Group Midwest, STI Holdings and Kevin M. Ryan.

Motor City Express, James Group International, James Group International II, James Group Midwest and Challenger Motor Freight agreed to provide tractor trailer transportation. At the time of the collision, Valeanu was driving a tractor trailer for the companies, according to the complaint.

STI Holdings manufactured the vehicle Valeanu was driving at the time of the collision, the complaint says.

Ryan was driving a 2007 Freightliner tractor and a compressed gas trailer for Air Products and Chemicals, which was the trailer initially stopped on the Interstate, the suit states.

In the 20-count suit, Baker is seeking a judgment in excess of $500,000.

Robert A. Clifford, Richard F. Burke Jr. and Shannon M. McNully of Clifford Law Offices in Chicago and Wilbur L. Tomlinson of Armstrong Teadsdale in St. Louis will be representing her.

Madison County Circuit Court case number: 09-L-633.

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