Manufacturers, Mechanics Blamed For Montebello Tanker Explosion

July 16, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A 2011 tanker explosion that destroyed a freeway bridge in Montebello occurred because Peterbilt Motors Co. manufactured a defective part deep within the chassis of the big rig, an attorney for a transportation company told a jury today, but a defense blamed the accident on the truck’s mechanics.

In his opening statement in trial of Cool Transports’ lawsuit against the Texas-based truck maker, lawyer Michael Partos said the universal joint on the forward section of the interaxle drive shaft of the truck failed, causing bearing caps to puncture the tanker.

The 8,800 gallons of fuel that had just been picked up a few miles away became ignited by sparks, Partos said.

“This case is about a manufacturer who didn’t want to stand behind his product,” Partos told the Los Angeles Superior Court jury.

But lawyer Richard Moreno, on behalf of Peterbilt, placed the blame for the accident squarely on Cool Transports’ truck maintenance crew. He said California Highway Patrol inspectors examined the forward universal joint and found no evidence it was recently greased.

“There’s no evidence of fresh lubrication on that drive shaft,” Moreno said. “That’s the million-dollar question, was it greased or was it not?” Partos said there is no dispute about which part on the truck broke.

“All parties agree the universal joint failed,” Partos said. “The question is why it failed.”

He said Cool Transports’ mechanics regularly maintained the company’s truck fleet.

To bolster their explanations to jurors, both lawyers used computer-generated images, a replica complete interaxle drive shaft and the original section of the interaxle drive shaft that fell off the truck.

CHP officers recovered the part and conducted the investigation into the Dec. 14, 2011, accident that left the Paramount Boulevard overcrossing of the Pomona (60) Freeway too severely damaged to be repaired.

In December 2011, Peterbilt conducted a recall of trucks built between January 2006 and April 2007 because of issues with drive shafts and universal joints, Moreno said. However, the truck involved in the accident was not subject to the recall because the 2006 model big rig was built in 2005, he said.

Moreno said the recalled trucks were having problems when they were much newer that the one involved in the accident, which was six years old at the time and had close to 700,000 miles on it.

The current lawsuit is an outgrowth of a lawsuit filed in February 2013 by the state Department of Transportation against Cool Transports, which has terminals in Cudahy and Colton, and the driver of the petroleum tanker, Bilal Ahmed Ghutta. The state sought $10.5 million, but the case was settled before the current trial, with Cool Transports agreeing to pay the state $5.9 million.

Ghutta was driving in the eastbound right lane of the freeway when the accident occurred, according to the state’s lawsuit. After Ghutta felt the driveshaft detach, he stopped the truck under the Paramount Boulevard bridge, where the tanker exploded, according to the state’s complaint.

The bridge, originally built in 1967, was shut down following the fire, which forced a lengthy closure of the 60 Freeway between the Long Beach  (710) and San Gabriel River (605) freeways while Caltrans crews assessed the integrity of the structure.

The bridge was demolished once it was determined the fire had caused too much damage. Its replacement, which opened ahead of schedule in May 2012, is 128 feet wide, 32 feet broader than the old one, and includes an additional northbound lane, an eight-foot shoulder, a 14-foot center median and six-foot sidewalks.

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