By City News Service
A truck driver testified today that he stopped just off the paved shoulder of a freeway to take aspirin for a headache and urinate when his 72,000-pound big rig was struck from behind by an SUV in 2009, killing three of five members of a family inside the smaller vehicle.
Rudolph Ortiz told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury that he parked his truck on the dirt to the right of the paved shoulder of the Foothill (210) Freeway in Sunland. He said he was sitting on the edge of his sleeper when the collision occurred about three minutes later and propelled him into the truck's dashboard.
"I had the air knocked out of me and I couldn't breathe," Ortiz said.
Ortiz said it was "pitch dark" outside. He testified he did not remember if he had his emergency flashers on, but that all of his regular trailer lights were functioning.
"I was lit up like a Christmas tree," Ortiz said.
He said he did not lay his reflectors outside his truck because he did not have an emergency.
Killed in the accident were Michael Asam, 41, his 40-year-old wife, Shannon, and their 14-year-old son, Brennen.
All three died about 5 a.m. on Nov. 22, 2009, when their 2007 GMC Yukon struck the larger vehicle while traveling west on the 210, east of Sunland Boulevard. Ortiz said he was transporting lettuce from Yuma, Ariz., to Salinas.
The Asams' daughter, Kylie, then 9, and other son, Blaine, then 11, escaped from the wreckage before the SUV burst into flames.
The children's paternal grandfather, David Asam, filed a wrongful death suit on their behalf in October 2011 against Ortiz, and his employer, Watsonville-based Bhandal Bros. Trucking Inc. Blaine died in June, leaving his sister, now 13, as his successor-in-interest and the only living plaintiff.
Ortiz told jurors that he was so rattled by the collision that he dialed 411 instead of 911 when he tried to summon help.
"I was confused," he said. "I was violently thrown into the dashboard of that truck. I had a whiplash that wouldn't quit."
The operator who answered the 411 call connected him with emergency personnel, Ortiz said.
Ortiz said he never had a chance to urinate and only planned to stay on the roadside for five to six minutes.
"I didn't intend to be there that long," he said.
The driver said he stopped several hours earlier along a freeway shoulder near Indio to sleep for about two hours. He testified he planned to get some additional rest after he reached a truck stop in Castaic.
Ortiz said he is a former upholsterer who obtained his commercial driver's license in 2007 at age 72. He said he lived in Frazier Park at the time of the collision.
Plaintiff's attorney Brian Brandt said large trucks are heavily regulated and that laws prohibit them from being parked along freeway shoulders except for an emergency. Ortiz did not have any such urgency and could have pulled off the road at numerous exits instead, Brandt said.
The Asams were headed to Oregon to visit the children's grandparents for Thanksgiving.
Shannon Asam was a long-time legal assistant and her husband worked as a Riverside Public Utilities power line technician.