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Nebraska truck accident costs 4 innocent lives, puts careless trucker in prison for 20 years

Written by Steve Gursten Posted November 14th, 2013

A truck driver who violates  hours of service rules has been sentenced to 20 years for vehicular manslaughter after he fell asleep behind the wheel

truck driver joseph slezak

I was teaching at the Trucking Seminar last week on hours of service issues and log violations, when a Nebraska lawyer told me about this.  The story in WOWT News, out of Omaha, Nebraska, is about a dangerous truck driver who was sentenced to 20 years in prison on four counts of vehicular homicide after he caused a horrific truck accident that killed four people. This story is  sad and it also makes me angry, because it’s yet another example of an entirely preventable truck wreck that never had to occur.

This one cost four innocent people their lives.

The crash happened in September of 2012. The truck driver, Josef Slezak, fell asleep behind the wheel of his 18-wheeler truck. While he was asleep, Mr. Slezak slammed into the back of a Ford Mustang. The force from the collision was so great that it caused a chain reaction. The Mustang was pushed into a Toyota Corolla. The Corolla was then pushed into a second semi-truck.

Large big-rigs and other commercial vehicles can (legally) weigh up to 80,000 pounds. Because of the sheer weight of the trucks, these types of crashes are almost always far more deadly than an ordinary car accident.

The occupants of the Mustang and the Corolla were all killed. Even sadder still, the two cars contained members of the same family who were traveling together. A man, his wife, and their two young children, and an unborn child, were all pronounced dead at the scene of the crash.

The subsequent police investigation revealed some very disturbing facts. However, as a truck accident lawyer who has handled hundreds of semi-truck wrecks, I can tell you that none of the facts are surprising. First, investigators found that Mr. Slezak did not slow down whatsoever prior to causing this semi-truck accident. He did not hit his brakes at all — not even for a millisecond.

Second, Mr. Slezak had driven virtually nonstop from Milwaukee to western Nebraska. This is an egregious violation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) and puts everyone on the road at serious risk with a driver that’s fatigued and sleep deprived. Despite the fact that new, more restrictive, hours of service regulations became effective this past July, even under the old the hours of service rules in effect at the time of this crash, this would still have been  a blatant violation of mandatory safety regulations.

Third, and most disturbing of all, Mr. Slezak fell asleep behind the wheel. This is not a case where a trucker was inattentive, or where fatigue slowed his reaction time. Mr. Slezak was sleeping while behind the wheel of a big-rig truck. This is why he did not apply the semi-truck’s brakes at all.

We write frequently about the dangers of fatigued driving on this truck accident lawyer safety blog. Unfortunately, our lawyers have seen and litigated cases of catastrophic personal injury caused by fatigued driving. It should also be emphasized, as I recently did as a legal guest on the Dave Nemo show on Road Dog Radio, that we understand that most truckers are good, and try to do the right thing and follow the rules.  But there are always those truck drivers who intentionally break the rules, and put everyone else at risk, like Mr. Slezak.

Although no penalty will ever bring back the four innocent people and unborn child killed in this horrible truck crash, perhaps there is a silver lining. If unsafe truck companies and truckers who drive over hours of service – because they value profit over safety – don’t care about hurting people, maybe they will care about spending 20 years or more in prison.

I sincerely hope that other truck drivers who are tempted to the break the rules will think of Mr. Slezak, and think twice before they put others in danger in the pursuit of profit.

Steven Gursten Photo

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.