Widows file suit against truck maker, owner in 2003 case of immigrants' deaths

Gabe Semenza

Oct. 30, 2010 at 5:30 a.m.

Twenty-one bodies were scattered in a trailer, ditched in 2003, on Fleming Prairie Road in south Victoria County. Investigators document the deaths witnessed inside the trailer.

Twenty-one bodies were scattered in a trailer, ditched in 2003, on Fleming Prairie Road in south Victoria County. Investigators document the deaths witnessed inside the trailer.

A federal lawsuit filed in Victoria claims the maker and owner of a tractor-trailer are at fault for the deaths of illegal immigrants.

The lawsuit contends the immigrants, who were transported illegally inside a sealed tractor-trailer, could not get out because the trailer lacked escape hatches. The immigrants died of dehydration, suffocation and hyperthermia.

Emilia Salgado and Yanely Altagracia filed the lawsuit on behalf of their children. The widows are New York residents and originally from the Dominican Republic.

Nineteen illegal immigrants died in May 2003 inside the sealed tractor-trailer, which the driver ditched on Victoria's outskirts.

Human smugglers loaded immigrants into the trailer in Harlingen - bound for Houston. By the time the trailer reached Victoria, many immigrants were already dead.

Salgado and Altagracia are the widows of Mateo Salgado and Augusto Stanley Vargas, respectively.

The families seek damages for breach of implied and express warranties, wrongful death and negligence, among other claims.

Great Dane Trailers, which is headquartered in Georgia, is the trailer's maker; Salem Truck Leasing, based in New York, owned the trailer.

"The design of the trailer allowed operators, occupants and passengers to be trapped inside the trailer and yet have no rescue hatch, pull string or other escape mechanism - thus placing trapped occupants of the trailer in danger of suffocation or death," the lawsuit contends.

"Nor did Great Dane warn operators, or users of the trailer, of the dangers of traveling inside the trailer," the lawsuit continues.

Salem Truck Leasing failed to train the tractor-trailer's driver in operating the trailer, which was designed to store produce and not people, the lawsuit contends.

Tyrone Williams, the tractor-trailer driver, is a New York resident originally from Jamaica. He is serving life in prison for his role in the 19 deaths.

The case against Great Dane Trailers and Salem Truck Leasing, however, is a long shot, said Victoria personal injury lawyer Jim Cole.

Although courts have ruled household freezers and the trunks of new cars must be escapable from the inside, this trailer presents a different scenario, Cole said.

The trailer maker would have had to made the trailer unreasonably safe, he said.

"While it's not without precedent, I think it's a fairly weak argument as it relates to a trailer," Cole said. "First, safety design relates to children becoming inadvertently locked in a product. Second, trucking regulations require a trailer to be sealed so the load is not tampered with and the produce stays healthy."

Cole offered similar input regarding the claims against the trailer owner.

"Generally speaking, a third party is not responsible for the criminal conduct of someone unless they have knowledge of illegal conduct," he said. "(The plaintiffs) would have to show the driver was in the scope of his employment, and that his job was to lock people in the trailer."

Jimmy Delgado, the San Antonio attorney for both widows, agreed the case would be difficult to try. He filed the lawsuit Oct. 21.

"I think there is enough at least to go to a jury with," Delgado said. "Even though the trailer is not meant for human cargo, it's conceivable you could at some point have human cargo."

Delgado said the case isn't void because of the statute of limitations. The widows filed the suit on behalf of their children, which extends the shelf life of such cases, he said.

Representatives from Great Dane Trailers and Salem Truck Leasing declined comment for this story.

"The very next thing we'll do, in January, is have a pretrial hearing," Delgado said. "That's when we will get a trial date. This is obviously a very tragic deal, but we've been pursuing it for years, and we aren't going to stop now."

The pretrial hearing will be in Victoria federal court.



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