Catherine Nienaber was headed home from church on her 49th birthday when a tractor-trailer slammed into her minivan. She died at the scene. Her son, Gerard, was badly injured.
The truck driver, Adam Shaw, faces 12 criminal charges. A wrongful death civil suit filed by the family says the company should also be held legally responsible.
“When you step back and look at the history of this driver there were numerous opportunities for people to stop and say, wait a minute this man should not be behind the wheel of vehicle let alone the wheel of a semi-tractor trailer,” says widower Steve Nienaber.
Prosecutors say Shaw was speeding and crossed the center line at the time of the crash. The police report shows Shaw blew a .116 on a breathalyzer at the Platte County Jail. That’s nearly three times the limit for a commercial truck driver. The legal limit for them is .04.
A deputy reported an odor of alcohol from Shaw’s breath and a bottle of alcohol was found beneath the semi-truck.
Shaw worked for Performance Food Group, or PFG, for less than three months when the wreck occurred, on Oct. 29, 2013.
KCTV5 spent hours digging through depositions in the civil case. Those revealed more than half of Shaw’s shifts involved Federal Motor Carrier Regulation violations. Most were for failing to either conduct or log pre-trip inspections. Shaw was also reprimanded for texting while driving.
Under oath, company leaders testified they receive about 15 complaint calls an entire year. Two were for Shaw. Both occurred the month of the crash.
On Oct. 12, a caller complained driver Shaw was swerving on the road and driving erratically. On Oct. 18, another driver called to warn the company Shaw was swerving and even said, “He’s going to hit someone.”
Also in October, an employee notified management that Shaw purchased alcohol on a route. Shaw was off duty at the time of the purchase.
“That should go to the top of anybody's safety radar and it didn't. Am I angry at the company? Am I angry at the driver? Yes, because they didn't do their job,” says Steve Nienaber.
Court records show the wrongful death suit has been settled. All parties decline to comment on the terms.
The case now shifts to criminal court with an upcoming October court date. Shaw is currently out of jail. Records show he can even drive except for entertainment purposes, something Steve Nienaber finds baffling.
“It's very disturbing to see him out on the road living the life of a normal person when I have to sit here and manage a family without a wife and mother to do that,” he said.
PFG declined an on-camera interview with KCTV5, but they provided this statement.
“Words cannot begin to express Performance Food Group’s (PFG) deep regret of the tragic loss of Catherine Nienaber and the injuries suffered by her son. We first conveyed that personally to family members shortly after the accident, and we have done our best to work quickly – and fairly – to resolve the civil case so that they can continue the healing process.
PFG extensively reviewed every aspect of this case. Before the accident, we received phone calls regarding the driver’s behavior. We responded to those calls by meeting with the driver, reinforcing safe driving behavior, and then issued a written warning to him. While the evidence is clear that the driver violated many aspects of our safe driving policies and procedures, we also recognize that we have a responsibility to learn from this terrible event.
Since the accident, we have taken a number of steps to further strengthen our safety policies and procedures. First, we added a driver trainer and safety manager at our Springfield, Mo. location who regularly observes and evaluates driver safety. Nearly every vehicle in the PFG fleet now includes a video-based driver safety system, which provides our managers with better insights into the driving habits of our employees. We are already using that data to upgrade our driver coaching program, which has resulted in a steady improvement in our safety performance. We also have enhanced our training programs in partnership with the Missouri DOT and Penske-certified trainers. And, as part of our commitment to the family, we have brought in third-party inspectors to evaluate our safety and compliance programs in Springfield. We continue to learn and implement recommendations from the third-party inspectors. The evaluations affirm that in many cases we exceed industry standards and DOT requirements in Springfield. Through our efforts, we are instilling a heightened sense of responsibility across every level of our company to ensure that safety remains ingrained in our culture, and that we are taking the necessary steps to keep our roadways as safe as possible.”
Truck drivers must abide by state laws and federal regulations. Those include mandatory pre and post trip inspections, required breaks and a limited number of hours a driver can be on the road. Weigh stations check paperwork and logs to ensure compliance.
There are no regulations to compel companies to report what they know when a driver breaks the rules.
According to the Federal Motor Vehicle Association, every year about 411,000 large trucks crash in the United States. It's estimated 88,000 people will be injured and more than 3,700 people are killed.
The criminal trial is greatly impacted by court challenges to Missouri regulations for breathalyzers.
Defense lawyers found a clerical error or typo in state regulations. State regulations normally read breathalyzers must be calibrated using a solution of 0.1, 0.08, “or” 0.04. For 15 months, the statute used the word “and”.
Defense attorneys successfully argued breathalyzers must be calibrated with all three solutions to be admissible in court.
The legal challenge even went before the Missouri Supreme court. In a 4-3 split, the court sided with a defendant challenging breathalyzer results over a machine that was not calibrated using all three solutions.
Supreme Court Justices left the door open for the legislature to address the language.
The Missouri House passed Bill 663 that contained an amendment to address that error. However, the Senate adjourned before a vote could be taken. It is unclear how this challenge will affect this case.
Shaw’s attorney spoke to KCTV5’s investigative unit saying he will challenge the Shaw’s breathalyzer results. He also said this case is more complicated than what has been portrayed in the media. He also revealed to KCTV5 that Shaw blew a .00 on a portable breathalyzer at the scene of the crash.
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