First two bus crash lawsuits filed

McALLEN — Two families who were injured Saturday after a bus transporting patrons to a casino in Eagle Pass crashed near Laredo filed a lawsuit yesterday against the charter bus company they say was responsible for killing eight people and injuring 44 others.

Guadalupe Carrillo and Elizabeth Carrillo were seriously injured in the incident, and blame OGA Charters LLC, of San Juan, for failing to adequately maintain or repair the bus, failing to fix known brake and emergency exit problems on the bus, failing to adequately train the driver of the bus, and failing to use a high degree of care which, as a common carrier, is it’s duty to its passengers, reads the lawsuit filed in the Hidalgo County District Court.

The two women are asking for more than $1 million in damages. They are also asking for a temporary restraining order preventing the company from destroying or altering any evidence from the crash, such as, the onboard black box recorder, all paper records, emails and documents containing employee personnel files in fear they may be altered or destroyed, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed by McAllen attorney Jeffrey Stern on behalf of the two women. Stern was not immediately available for comment yesterday evening. A second TRO to preserve the bus as evidence in this case was filed on behalf of Andres Rubio III, of Mercedes, the husband of Maricela Lopez who was killed in the crash.

The driver behind the wheel of the bus is also employed as a driver for the Valley View school district, his family said yesterday.

Pharr resident Porfirio Aguirre Vasquez was released from the hospital Monday afternoon after the one-vehicle rollover Saturday morning near Laredo. The 29-year-old bus driver’s mother sat outside her Las Milpas home yesterday evening.

The woman, who did not want to be identified, was visibly distraught. She wasn’t sure if her son had been released from the hospital and offered few details about his condition. The rollover marks the second time fate strikes her family.

About two weeks ago Aguirre Vasquez’s mother suffered a stroke. She was released from the hospital just a few days ago, according to a neighbor and family member who did not want to be identified.

When asked about it, the woman solemnly shook her head yes.

The neighbor also told a Monitor reporter Aguirre Vasquez is employed with the Valley View ISD — a claim his mother also corroborated. Valley View school officials declined to confirm his employment Monday evening.

Investigators hope to interview the driver and other survivors of the crash this week, said National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway.

He said NTSB, among other things, is trying to determine how the bus company and its vehicles operate. NTSB investigators plan to analyze an electronic device aboard the bus that crashed to determine if it contains data that can provide details on what happened.

Investigators don’t know what they’ll find, but hope for data on speed and steering-wheel positioning, Holloway said.

Among the information they have so far is that the vehicle had seat belts only in the first row. Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Johnny Hernandez said the remaining rows of seats had no lap belts. He said the bus was a 1998 model.

The OGA Charters bus crashed Saturday north of Laredo in rainy conditions. It was en route to a casino in Eagle Pass. No other vehicles were involved.

The section of the highway where the crash happened will be closed Tuesday for the investigation.

In a posting on its Laredo District Twitter account, the Texas Department of Transportation said it will close U.S. 83 at 9 a.m. Tuesday for the crash investigation by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Northbound traffic will be diverted to Texas 44 and southbound traffic will detour to Farm-to-Market Road 133.

Holloway said the agency, among other things, is trying to determine how the bus company and its vehicles operate.

Federal online records show OGA Charters, based in San Juan, has two buses.

Rolando Garza, the owner of the charter bus company, was at this San Juan home Monday afternoon meeting with his Houston-based attorney. Both men declined to comment on the matter.

The company was fined about $2,000 by regulators in 2011 for violations involving periodic inspections and pre-employment drug testing of drivers, but had a “satisfactory” rating in May 2014 with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. In 2015, the company had twice been ordered by Louisiana state inspectors to take one of its buses out of service to fix brake and emergency exit problems, MCSA records show.

It was not immediately clear if that was the same charter bus that crashed in Texas or what steps the company took to fix the problems.

As for seat belts, federal regulations require them in new buses, starting in November. Efforts to require seat belts in older buses failed because retrofitting was deemed too difficult and expensive, said Shaun Kildare, director of research for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based group that tracks bus crashes and highway safety laws.

OGA Charters had reported no crashes in the last two years prior to Saturday, MCSA records show, but six driver and vehicle inspections since 2014 found 15 total violations, ranging from driver records and hours they were on the road, to vehicle maintenance problems.

The Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, which runs the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino Hotel in Eagle Pass where the bus was headed Saturday, expressed its condolences to those who died and said it hoped the injured recovered quickly.

Robert Rodriguez, an attorney for the tribe, said the bus was not chartered by the casino. He said he was still researching what kind of business arrangements, if any, the casino may have with bus companies, but declined further comment.

Earlier this month, a Dallas County jury awarded nearly $11 million to relatives of two passengers who died following a 2013 casino tour bus crash. The judgment against the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma came after court testimony indicated the Choctaw Nation had a contract with a private bus company to transport people to the casino.

Dallas attorney Frank Branson, who represented one of the victims in that case, said a tour bus can sometimes generate tens of thousands of dollars in casino revenue. If casinos exercise any control over the situation, he said, they would have some responsibility for safety on the bus.

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