Albertsons ignored safety issues before fiery I-84 crash that killed airmen, families say

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A Washington state trucking company and Albertsons Cos. were negligent in ensuring that a load of apples bound for a grocery warehouse in Massachusetts would get there safely, says a traffic safety expert hired by the families of three Mountain Home Air Force Base airmen killed in a fiery 2018 crash in Boise.

“Albertsons did not come close to meeting the industry standard of care applicable to it and violated its own policies in both selecting Krujex Freight Transport Co. and the continued use of that carrier’s services to deliver product to Albertsons stores through the date of the fatal crash on June 16, 2018, and thereafter,” Thomas Corsi, a trucking, logistics and supply chain management expert at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, wrote in a court document.

The report was included in a filing Tuesday in which the families asked for punitive damages to be added to a previously filed lawsuit if the companies are found liable for the crash. The case is scheduled to go to trial in August 2022.

Senior Airman Lawrence “Pit” Manlapit III, 26, of Bridgeport, Connecticut;Senior Airman Carlos “C.J.” Johnson, 23, of Key West, Florida; and Senior Airman Karlie A. Westall, 21, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were killed after a semi truck and trailer driven on Interstate 84 by Illya Tsar, 42, struck a slow-moving Jeep Wrangler driven by Johnson. Tsar was also killed.

Five other vehicles were struck at about 11:30 p.m. Tsar’s truck burst into flames.

The crash occurred in a three-mile construction zone between Five Mile and Orchard streets where three of the four eastbound lanes were closed, creating a bottleneck. A safety plan for a pavement sealing project called for two lanes to remain open but was ignored.

“Both defendants acted in a manner constituting an extreme deviation from reasonable standards of conduct and showed a complete disregard or indifference towards well-established safety principles and practices designed to ensure the life and/or safety of the general motoring public,” said the motion filed by attorneys Mark Orler, Evan Mortimer and Jason Monteleone.

An Albertsons spokesperson declined to comment Thursday, citing the ongoing litigation.

Albertsons, the Boise-based grocery chain, previously denied any responsibility for what happened and in court documents said the federal Department of Transportation was responsible for enforcing trucking regulations.

“At the time Albertsons hired Krujex and at the time that this accident occurred, Albertsons had no reason to believe that Krujex was conducting their business in violation of any laws, and Albertsons assumed that Krujex utilized proper equipment for the shipping of Albertsons’ apples,” Albertsons trucking officer Spencer Melville wrote in a court document.

Eight lawsuits filed by families and those injured

The lawsuit is one of eight stemming from the June 16, 2018, crash that were filed in Ada County Circuit Court and that have been consolidated. The crash caused a fire that destroyed the Cloverdale Road overpass, which was later rebuilt.

The defendants include the Idaho State Police, the Idaho Transportation Department, Meridian flagging company Specialty Construction Supply and The Penhall Co. of Anaheim, California, which had closed off three of the four eastbound lanes while completing a pavement sealing project that created a bottleneck.

All have denied the claims.

Tsar drifted in and out of his lane 20 times in the 17 minutes before his truck plowed into the back of theslow-moving Jeep driven by Johnson in a crowded construction zone, the National Transportation Safety Board found. The 2019 Volvo semi truck and trailer, which were carrying a load of apples bound for an Albertsons-owned Shaw’s supermarket warehouse in Methuen, Massachusetts, were traveling at an estimated 62 mph.

Corsi, who has served as a professor at the Maryland university since 1976, wrote that Albertsons should have never hired Krujex, which had a poor safety record. And the trucking company should have passed on hiring Tsar.

When Albertsons signed a contract with Krujex in July 2027, a year before the fatal crash, it required Krujex to certify it had a “satisfactory” safety rating from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

At the time, the trucking company, owned by Cornel Visan, had not been assigned a safety rating by the D.O.T. After the crash, it was issued an “unsatisfactory” rating.

Had Krujex followed federal trucking regulations, Corsi wrote, “the carrier would have found that Mr. Tsar had an abysmal driving record and would certainly not have hired him or engaged his services or retained his services to move goods under the terms of its contract with Albertsons.”

Truck driver racked up more than 20 violations

Tsar, a Ukrainian immigrant who lived in Rochester, New York, had been licensed to drive commercial trucks since 2009. His license showed no restrictions, and he was authorized to drive single, double and triple trailers. He had worked for Krujex for fewer than 30 days.

A 2018 Idaho Statesman investigation revealed that Tsar had more than 20 driving violations in four states, mostly in Oregon and Idaho, and found evidence of violations in other states. New York suspended his license twice in 2017 for having five serious violations within three years.

He was cited twice, in 2009 in Idaho and 2012 in Oregon, for driving with a suspended license.

Tsar operated his own trucking company, TIT Transportation, from 2008 to 2015. The company was sidelined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for having an unsatisfactory safety fitness rating, according to court filings. The agency’s review that led to that action revealed Tsar had operated a commercial motor vehicle with a suspended Oregon license and had log-book issues and numerous record-keeping violations.

An electronic logging device on the leased truck that tracked movement showed Tsar could have slept for no more than 12 hours during the two days before the crash.

“I have concluded, based on my background and experience, that a cause of the subject crash was the KFTC driver’s failure to respond to the slow-moving traffic queue ahead, most likely due to performance decrements associated with fatigue,” Corsi wrote.

A second trucking expert hired by the families, Paul Herbert, a former Nevada Highway Patrol trooper, came to the same conclusion.

Corsi said Krujex and Albertsons, which operates its own fleet of 250 trucks, bore “direct responsibility” for the crash. The grocer, he said, had an “unquestioned responsibility” to assess Krujex’s ability to safely transport its products.

Albertsons failed to vet trucking company

An Albertsons trucking officer, Matt Geurts, admitted in a deposition that the company had not asked Krujex for documentation on its safety procedures, driver training documents, documents showing regulatory compliance, including hours of service for its drivers.

After the crash, a U.S. Department of Transportation audit found 22 violations of trucking regulations by Krujex regarding Tsar. Besides failing to review his driving record and his logs, Krujex didn’t obtain a medical clearance for the driver and didn’t test him for drug or alcohol use.

Krujex Freight’s rate of driver out-of-service violations — which means the driver is a serious, immediate danger to themselves or others on the road — was more than seven times higher than the national average of 5.3%, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records

The families are also seeking punitive damages from Penhall and Specialty Construction Supply. They are accused of ignoring the traffic control plan that should have kept two of the four eastbound lanes of the freeway open during construction.

Deviation from the plan required permission from an Idaho Transportation Department engineer. For two nights before the fatal crash and on June 16, 2018, the night of the crash, motorists had called police complaining about dangerous conditions created by having only one eastbound lane open. Those concerns had been relayed to the two companies, the plaintiffs claim.

Tsar’s widow, Tetyana Tsar, and the couple’s two minor children, also filed suit. They claim the Idaho Transportation Department, Penhall and Specialty Construction Supply were negligent in designing and controlling the construction site. They also said freeway warning signs were inadequate.

Two Nampa women, Toina Jorgensen and Erika Medina, are suing for injuries they suffered after their car was struck from behind by a semi truck and trailer that was hit by Tsar’s truck. They’re seeking less than $35,000 each for medical bills.

The jury trial is set for Aug. 29, 2022. It’s expected to last more than a month.

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Trucker had 20 violations — including 2 license suspensions — before fiery I-84 crash

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