HANOVER COUNTY, Va. — The first of a two-day bench trial began Tuesday for the tractor-trailer driver charged in the death of Hanover County Fire-EMS Department Lt. Brad Clark.
On the night of October 11, 2018, the tractor-trailer driven by Lester Labarge crashed into an accident scene on Interstate 295 South to which Clark’s unit, Engine 6, had responded. The crash killed Clark and injured other firefighters, including one who lost his leg.
The crash happened the same night the Tropical Storm Michael was making its way through Central Virginia.
Labarge is charged with reckless driving and involuntary manslaughter.
In his opening statement, Hanover County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephen Royalty said that if he only had five words to describe this case they would be “throwing caution to the wind.”
He added Labarge was doing that literally and figuratively doing that by choosing to drive in a tropical storm and his action that night.
Royalty alleged Labarge took a series of criminally negligent actions including being on a phone call that lasted over two hours with another truck driver that started in Springfield, Va., where they had started their journey from, and only ended when the crash happened, driving a tractor-trailer with brake issues in one of the tires, and was driving between 60-65 miles per hour in heavy rain and standing water.
Royalty also said to Hanover County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Kelly that the fact the Commonwealth Attorney‘s Office brought a reckless driving charge should not be construed that they felt they were not confident in gaining a guilty verdict on the involuntary manslaughter.
He said the reckless driving charge was to bring justice for the firefighters who survived that night.
In his opening statement, Labarge’s defense attorney, Ted Bruns, said that “sometimes an accident is just an accident” and does not need criminal culpability and that Labarge did nothing unreasonable that night.
Bruns added that Labarge was not in a hurry that night and was traveling at speeds consistent with the industry.
He also addressed some of the allegations made by Royalty in his opening statement.
To the phone call, Bruns said it was Labarge’s custom to talk on the phone with the other driver he was making the trip from Springfield, Va. to Chester, Va. with and it was done on a hands-free device.
Bruns said he would provide data from the truck’s telemetry system to show speed was not an issue and called the brake issue on the truck a “red herring.”
He said Labarge had raised a concern about the brake line on the tire in question twice with his company and they told him it was okay to drive on.
Of the nine of the witnesses called on day one, the majority were either firefighters who were responding to the initial crash call or other first responders such as the Deputy Director of the county’s 911 center and a crash scene investigator with the sheriff’s office.
Much of the questioning from the prosecutor to the firefighters had them describing the weather conditions of the night in question and how they adapted their approach to the accident scene.
Firefighters in Clark’s engine and in the ambulance and rescue truck that arrived on scene shortly after described heavy rain with high winds and low visibility. Some described how they drove at lower than the posted speeds at times, such as the ambulance unit driving 45 mph on 295. Others in the rescue unit said they were traveling at the vehicle’s top speed of 73 mph while on 295.
Firefighters in the other responding vehicles also described being passed by the tractor-trailer driven by Lebarge.
Lt. Colin Bunn, who was in the ambulance unit, Medic 6, stated as they approached the crash scene his vehicle was traveling at 45 mph in the leftmost lane of 295 South. Then two tractor-trailers passed by him at such a rate of speed that he expressed concern to his fellow firefighter in the ambulance.
Bunn said he then saw the tractor-trailer driven by Lebarge jack-knife and hydroplane into Clark’s fire truck. He said the time from the jack-knife to the collision was about three seconds. The front end of the truck was parked on the shoulder of the highway, while the rear was blocking the furthest left lane of travel.
Bunn then described the aftermath of the crash, getting emotional at times, and saw Clark pinned under the fire engine. He said they had to move the fire truck in order to free him.
Capt. David Johnston, who was in Rescue 10 a little further behind on 295, described being passed by two tractor-trailers when their vehicle was traveling at its top speed of 73 mph and said he made a comment to others in the vehicle that the tractor-trailers must have had a deadline because of how fast they were traveling.
Johnston said they lost sight of the two tractor-trailers before eventually arriving on the crash scene.
Testimony was also provided by the firefighters on Engine 6 who responded with Clark to the initial crash call.
Firefighter Christopher Elish said they responded to the call with their lights and sirens activated, but Clark told the engine’s driver at one point to “take it easy” because of the weather and road conditions.
Once on the scene of the accident, Elish and the other firefighters testified they heard no warning from the tractor-trailer, such as a horn, that it was about to collide with them.
Elish said his only warning came from Clark who was looking back at the oncoming tractor-trailer and said “You got to be kidding me."
Elish said Clark warned the others to get back in the truck, which Elish said he was able to do before impact. He said when the fire truck was hit it felt like an earthquake.
One of the witnesses was CBS 6 Chief Meteorologist Zach Daniel who gave testimony based on his work for the station during the day in question and in his capacity as a forensic meteorologist. For the former, Daniel discussed the various weather warnings and watches that had been issued in Hanover County during Tropical Storm Michael. In the latter, he testified that someone traveling from the north, such as Labarge, would have been driving into worsening weather conditions and that while the rain would have been tapering off around the time of the accident, the wind was strengthening.
Day Two and Potential Juror Issue
The second and final day of the trial is expected to see a further 11 witnesses called to the stand. Seven for the prosecution and four for the defense, including Labarge.
There was an issue with one of those potential witnesses during day one of the trial.
About midway through the day’s proceedings, it was brought to the attention that one of the firefighters who had yet to testify had stood in the entryway to the courtroom during the proceedings.
At first, the attorneys went into a conference with the judge and then brought the potential witness to the stand and questioned by the attorneys and judge about what he heard.
The potential witness said he heard some, but not all of the testimony, because of where he stood. When asked, he told the court he would be able to provide testimony regardless of what he heard in court.
Judge Kelly asked the attorneys if they wanted to file any motions in relation to the potential witness.
Bruns, the defense attorney, said he would have no problem with the firefighter testifying, but no such statement was made by the prosecutor, Royalty.
Kelly said she would entertain motions on this subject the next day as well.
The trial will resume at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.