VICTORIA, Texas (CN) – Families two of the 19 people who died of suffocation, trapped in an insulated trailer-truck crammed with more than 100 others, have sued the truck maker and truck company involved in the tragedy. They blame Great Dane Trailers, which made the container without ventilation, “to only open from the outside, when at a complete stop,” according to the federal complaint; and co-defendant Salem Truck Leasing, whose driver “abandoned the trailer at a Victoria truck stop, after discovering it had become a death trap,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
The families of Mateo Salgado and Augusto Stalin Vargas are citizens of the Dominican Republic and residents of New York.
The men died in May 2003 as the truck driver, nonparty Tyrone Williams, drove them from Harlingen toward Houston, according to the complaint and contemporary news reports. He “never turned on the air conditioning in the airtight truck,” and abandoned it about 100 miles south of Houston as “the immigrants kicked walls, clawed at insulation, broke out tail lights and screamed for help,” The Associated Press reported.
In January 2007 Williams was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the botched “human-smuggling scheme” that left 19 people dead, according to the Chronicle.
Prosecutors had sought a death sentence for Williams.
But in June this year, the 5th Circuit overturned the multiple life sentences Williams received, finding that a judge, not the jury, should have sentenced him, and that that Williams was not eligible for capital punishment under the federal Death Penalty Act because had had not committed an act of violence.
“Williams’ conduct during the smuggling trip, despicable as it was, fell short of the statutory minimum to subject Williams to the possibility of a death sentence,” according to the 5thCircuit. The 5th Circuit remanded to the presiding federal judge for resentencing.
According to the two families’ federal complaint: “On or about May 14, 2003, in the morning hours, driver was driving defendant Salem Truck Leasing Inc.’s fully insulated and refrigerated tractor/trailer which he had filled with over 100 individuals, including plaintiffs’ decedents, women and children. He intended to transport these individuals in the trailer, across the State of Texas. Plaintiffs’ decedents, who were traveling inside the trailer, suffered life threatening and severe injuries as a result of being trapped inside the trailer, in high temperatures with no means of escape, ultimately leading to his death.”
Though its trailer had no ventilation, Great Dane Trailers did not include any “warnings, instructions, decals, or other means of warning of the dangers of transporting individuals inside the trailer,” according to the complaint.
“Moreover, the trailer was designed to only open from the outside, when at a complete stop.”
The families seek damages for breach of implied and express warranties, product liability, negligence, negligent entrustment and wrongful death.
(Editor’s note: The filing provided by the court cuts off after 5 pages.)