HANOVER COUNTY, Va. — A tractor-trailer driver was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving in Hanover County Circuit Court on Wednesday for a 2018 crash that left Hanover County Fire & EMS Lt. Brad Clark dead and several other firefighters injured.
The driver, Lester Labarge, faces up to 11 years in prison when he is sentenced.
Circuit Court Judge Patricia Kelly issued the guilty verdicts after a two-day trial that saw 19 witnesses called to the stand, including the injured firefighters and Labarge.
The crash in question happened on October 11, 2018 on Interstate 295 South near exit 38. Clark and the others had just arrived to that location responding to another crash. Labarge lost control of his tractor-trailer when it hydroplaned and crashed into the back of Clark’s fire truck and the firefighters who were standing outside it.
The crash happened the same night as Tropical Storm Michael made its way through Central Virginia and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephen Royalty had argued throughout the trial that Labarge was criminally negligent by choosing to drive into the storm, as he was coming down from Springfield, Va., and his actions while on the road, including the speeds at which he was traveling in those conditions and that in the moments before the crash, Labarge had moved his tractor-trailer into the lane adjacent to where the back of Clark’s firetruck was parked in.
In his opening statement, Royalty commented that Labarge was “throwing caution to the wind” both literally and figuratively with his actions that night.
Labarge’s attorney, Ted Bruns, argued that while what happened was a “catastrophic, tragic event” was not criminally negligent and he did not act unreasonably that night. He added Labarge was attempting to move his tractor-trailer into a lane further away from the fire truck when he lost control and began hydroplaning.
After the closing arguments, Judge Kelly deliberated for about 20 minutes before coming back and delivering her guilty verdicts.
She stated that she believed the prosecution had proven that the weather was bad and deteriorating that night and that the defenses own witnesses showed that Labarge was traveling at a speed of 64 mph roughly 3.6 miles before the crash occurred. She added Labarge said he was aware that there were emergency response vehicles in the area with their lights active.
After her ruling, neither attorney wished to speak on-camera with CBS 6 and the family of Clark declined to comment.
As Labarge was leaving the courthouse, CBS 6’s Cameron Thompson asked him is he had any comment about the judge’s decision. Labarge answered “not at this time” and said “no comment” when asked how he was feeling. When asked if he had anything to say to the Clark family, Labarge said, “No.”
Labarge will be sentenced on January 13, 2021 at 1:30 p.m. He remains out on bond.