BISD, Region 5 dismissed from Mexico crash suits

By David Yates | Jan 8, 2010

A local judge has dismissed the Beaumont Independent School District and Region 5 Education Service Center from wrongful death suits filed against them over a deadly crash in Mexico.

As the Southeast Texas Record reported in May, the families of two educators killed in 2008 when their van flipped into a ravine in Mexico each filed suits against the school district, the driver, the maker of the van and others.

On Friday, Jan. 8, Judge Gary Sanderson granted a plea to the jurisdiction submitted by BISD and Region 5, dismissing the defendants from both suits. The Jefferson County court, the defendants argued, does not have jurisdiction to hear the cases because the crash happened in Mexico.

Case background

Denise Wenzel, Dorothy Gray, Gary Gray and Linda Cook were participating in a teacher immersion program in Mexico in May 2008. The trip had been arranged and paid for by BISD and Region 5, court papers state.

On May 22, 2008, the group was traveling on winding, mountainous roads in an HIACE Toyota van driven by Hipolito Lopez Ramos.

"While rounding a curve, two of the van's wheels lifted causing the driver to lose control throwing the van off the side of the road into the ravine, killing Denise Wenzel," court papers say.

Dorothy Gray was also killed in the collision, and Gary Gray and Cook were severely injured.

A year later, Jaqueline Ward, Gary Gray and Linda Cook filed separate lawsuits May 19, 2009, in Jefferson County District Court individually and on behalf of all wrongful death beneficiaries of Denise Wenzel and Dorothy Gray.

The suits named BISD, Region 5, Ramos and Toyota as defendants. Also named as a defendant was Camila Novoa Gonzalez, the owner of the hotel where the teachers were staying and where arrangements for the van were made.

During Friday's hearing, the defendants argued that Ramos, the Toyota van driver, was an employee of the hotel and had no connection to the district or Region 5.

"No Region 5 employee ever drove a vehicle," said Region 5 attorney Ronald Keister. "We made arrangements with the hotel to provide transportation. That in no way makes us responsible for using a hotel driver."

In response, the plaintiffs argued the van driver was an indirect agent of the defendants.

In the original complaints, the plaintiffs also alleged BISD and Region 5 failed to provide a licensed driver for the program, failed to provide a safe vehicle and failed to provide a vehicle equipped with proper safety restraining equipment.

The plaintiffs claimed Ramos was negligent by failing to keep a proper lookout, driving at an excessive rate of speed, failing to yield the right-of-way, failing to keep proper control and by failing to brake in time.

Toyota remains a defendant in the suits.

The company is liable for the accident, the plaintiffs claim, because it designed a vehicle with a narrow wheel base and a high center of gravity and which had inaccessible and missing seat belts.

The suits claim the auto maker should have warned about the dangers of driving a vehicle with a high center of gravity in mountainous terrain.

The families are seeking damages for loss of moral support, care, advice, attention, comfort, counsel, love and affection.

J. Trenton Bond and Chris Portner of Reaud, Morgan and Quinn in Beaumont represent the plaintiffs.

The district is represented in part by attorney Isidro Castanon.

Jefferson County District Court case number: B184-120 and 121.

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