Trucking companies leave long trail of safety violations and victims

Shut-down by regulators doesn't help accident victim

November 19, 2011|By Peter Hermann and Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

Sitting in a wheelchair at a nursing home, Brian Buber can't recall the instant 17 years ago when tons of screaming metal came rocketing toward him on the Capital Beltway, scattering fellow construction workers and crushing their paving equipment.

In 1997, a civil jury found Hanover-based Gunther's Leasing Transport Inc. negligent in the accident, which killed one person and injured seven, awarding them nearly $16 million in damages and medical expenses.

Buber, 49, crippled and with severe brain damage, received some insurance money but "never saw a penny" of the $13 million earmarked by the jury for his care, says his stepfather, Bob Buber.

Weeks after the jury verdict, the company owned by Mark David Gunther declared bankruptcy, and it was eventually liquidated. For the Buber family, that appeared to end a years-long legal battle for compensation. But the anger came flooding back last week, when federal regulators closed another Gunther-owned trucking company for being an "imminent hazard" to the public.

Buber's family was stunned. "I thought he was shut down," says Roxanna Kreiner, Buber's sister and his legal guardian. "All these years of [pain] he put us through, and he's still in business. It's just disgusting."

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry, said in a statement that Gunther did not appeal its shut-down order by Friday's deadline. The agency added that it is proposing new regulations to "identify new companies attempting to dodge a history of safety violations."

Gunther, 56, has been unavailable for comment. His home voice mail is full, and no one has answered repeated calls to his office. A reporter was unable to gain access to his home in a gated Pasadena community. The company lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Court and federal records show that three times, amid legal or financial trouble, the Hanover trucking operations were reconstituted. Trucks continued to operate at the location after the liquidation of Gunther's Leasing Transport, and even after Gunther himself went to federal prison for 30 months — the nation's first trucking company executive to be convicted of falsifying drivers' log books.

Regulators and prosecutors tried to put a stop to the safety problems. "We think this is going to have an impact on the companies in violation by upping the ante," then-Maryland U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said after a jury found Gunther guilty in 1995.

In the years after Gunther's Leasing Transport declared bankruptcy, two other corporate entities — G.T. USA LLC and Gunthers Transport LLC — sprang up.

And for years, safety violations have continued to pile up, even as victims of the Capital Beltway crash were left without their money.

Last week, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ordered Gunthers Transport LLC to cease operations, alleging that the company failed to follow traffic safety rules, ensure that drivers were qualified and keep trucks well-maintained. The rare move came after years of the company and its managers running afoul of federal safety rules.

Alan M. Grochal, a Baltimore lawyer who represented unsecured creditors in the Gunther's Leasing Transport bankruptcy, was shocked to learn about the latest problems. "You'd think the regulators would try to prevent someone like Mark Gunther from getting back into the same business. … I never got my legal fees paid, and the creditors got nothing."

Maryland State Police Lt. Michael Hawkins, who runs the vehicle inspection unit, isn't surprised. "We have lots of companies that change names," he said. "I call them mom-and-pop operations. Mom gets in trouble and Pop takes over."

Damaged lives

Federal safety regulators acknowledge that they need more authority to oversee the industry. A Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration spokeswoman said that officials used last week "the most aggressive action authorized by Congress … to immediately shut down Gunthers Transport and prohibit its owner from operating other commercial trucking companies."

But none of that matters to Buber, who spends all but four hours a day in bed at the Harford County nursing home, surrounded by photos of himself as a handsome, robust outdoorsman. He now gets by on workers' compensation and Social Security.

Nor is it any comfort to Tosha Briscoe, the daughter of the man who died in the Sept. 20, 1994, crash that maimed Buber.

Briscoe, who turns 34 next week, was 16 when Keith Briscoe Jr. was killed. They lived in Baltimore at the time. She says her father worked for Gunther's Leasing Transport for about a year, delivering food to stores such as Kmart.

"It was a cruel trial," says Tosha Briscoe, who sat through the two-week proceeding in Baltimore County that led to the multimillion-dollar collective damage award. She said her father got nothing, "not even a sympathy card," from the trucking company.

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