Defendants drop ‘seat belt defense’ in fatal Va. fire truck crash case

In pre-trial hearing, defense backs off on trying to prove firefighter would have lived if bucked up

The Roanoke Times

ROCKY MOUNT, Va. — One lawsuit remains that is tied to the motor vehicle crash a little more than three years ago that claimed the lives of two volunteer firefighters in Rocky Mount and plunged the region into mourning.

A related three-day jury trial is set to begin Sept. 23 in Franklin County Circuit Court.

Lawyer Brian Brydges represents defendant Teri Anne Valentine, who was driving an SUV on the afternoon of July 26, 2010, when she collided with the fire truck at a traffic light. The firefighters were heading east on Virginia 40 in response to the report of a residential house fire in Union Hall with a person possibly trapped inside.

After colliding with Valentine’s 2007 Ford Escape at the intersection with School Board Road, the fire truck reportedly rolled three times and firefighters William “Danny” Altice, 67, and Posey Dillon, 59, were ejected and killed.

During a court hearing Tuesday, Brydges asked Judge William Alexander to divide the trial into two phases.

“Judge, this is not your run-of-the-mill death case,” Brydges said. “The case has gotten an unusual amount of press. It’s a very high-profile case.”

As proposed by Brydges, the first phase of the trial would determine whether the jury found one or both or neither of the defendants to be liable for the death of Altice, a passenger in the fire truck driven by Dillon. Ann Dillon, as administrator of her husband’s estate, is the other defendant.

The plaintiff is Christie Altice-Weaver, a daughter of Altice and executor of his estate. Her lawsuit alleges that both Valentine and Posey Dillon were “grossly negligent” on the day of the collision because Dillon allegedly entered the intersection on a red light “without regard for the safety of individuals on the roadway, including his passenger.” And it alleges that although Valentine had a green light she failed to yield the right-of-way to an emergency vehicle.

On Tuesday, Brydges said that if the jury determined there was liability, the trial’s second phase would determine related damages that might be paid to Altice’s beneficiaries.

“I think this is a defensible case on liability for both defendants,” Brydges told Alexander.

He suggested that if the case was not split into two parts that testimony by Altice’s granddaughter about the emotional impact of her grandfather’s death could influence a jury’s deliberations about liability.

James Daniel, a lawyer representing Ann Dillon and the estate of Posey Dillon, supported Brydges’ motion.

But Tony Russell, the lawyer for plaintiff Altice-Weaver, argued against splitting the trial.

“I’m not aware of any run-of-the-mill death cases,” Russell said, noting that such cases typically include impassioned and emotional testimony.

He said a two-phase trial would be fundamentally unfair to Altice’s beneficiaries.

Alexander ultimately declined to split the case.

The judge considered other pre-trial motions Tuesday.

The defendants’ attorneys had previously argued that because Altice was not wearing a seat belt when the crash occurred that circumstance should be considered “contributory negligence” on his part, which would have not allowed the plaintiff to collect damages.

Brydges said Tuesday that the defendants would drop opposition to a motion filed by Russell which asserted that “failure to wear a seat belt is not considered negligence in Virginia.”

Russell’s motion also noted that “the roof of the fire truck was peeled off” after the collision and that “it is difficult to imagine how anyone inside the fire truck could have survived.”

After the hearing, Brydges said he believed the legal basis for the seat belt defense was sound. But he said that presenting that defense at trial would have required a medical expert to testify that Altice would have survived the crash if he had been wearing a seat belt.

The medical examiner was prepared to testify otherwise, Brydges said.

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