HANOVER, Va. (WWBT) - The Maryland man accused of recklessly driving in rough weather conditions causing his tractor-trailer to crash into the back of a Hanover County fire engine, killing a firefighter, has been found guilty.
After a two-day trial, Lester Labarge, 51, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving on Wednesday.
Lt. Brad Clark, 43, of Mechanicsville, and a 13-year veteran with the agency, was killed in the crash on Oct. 11, 2018, during Tropical Storm Michael.
Clark and his colleagues were responding to a two-vehicle accident on I-295 near exit 38 when the secondary crash happened around 9:09 p.m.
Virginia State Police charged Lester Labarge, 51, with reckless driving and cited him for defective brakes. Labarge was further indicted by the Hanover County Circuit Court on charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving.
Hanover County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Kelly took 20 minutes to render her decision after reviewing the evidence and case law.
She stated the Commonwealth had provided enough evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” to support the factors outlined in those charges Labarge faced.
Among the evidence she said supported that decision included severe weather conditions the night of Oct.11, 2018 during Tropical Storm Michael, Labarge testifying that he saw emergency vehicles in the area on I-295, and his speaking with Virginia State troopers following the crash advising them he was traveling 60 miles per hour.
However, the defense refuted the testimony by these troopers, rather, relying on data from a tracking system in the tractor-trailer called “Teletrack”.
During Wednesday’s testimony, the defense called an expert witness in the field of forensic engineering.
Tim Cheek analyzed the data from the Teletrack system which used GPS data and satellites to create pings for the 18-wheeler’s location. The device, which is plugged into the vehicle’s diagnostic system, will track speed, hard braking and hard cornering.
Based on the data through these logs, Cheek testified Labarge was traveling 64 miles per hour when he merged onto I-295. Using a calculation to find the average speed from point on I-295 to the crash site roughly 3.6 miles away, Cheek said Labarage’s average speed in that distance was 49 miles per hour.
Labarge’s defense attorney Ted Bruns also provided evidence of a photograph of the tractor’s dashboard following the crash.
Cheek testified the speedometer was frozen at 46 miles per hour, signaling the speed it was going when it crashed into Hanover Fire Engine 6. Another meter on the dashboard also indicated Labarge was hitting his brakes at the time of impact, according to Cheek.
Labarge himself also testified Wednesday about that crash nearly two years ago. He considers himself an experienced driver and has been in the tractor-trailer industry for nearly 20 years.
Per the Department of Transportation, Labarge is required to fill out a driver’s inspection report (DIR) before each trip. On two occasions in the days leading up to this crash, he reported a need for the brakes to be checked on his trailer.
On Oct. 9 the DIR showed no issues with the tractor or trailer. Labarge testified the mechanic has checked it out and said there were no issues.
However, a VSP trooper with the motor carrier safety unit testified earlier Wednesday there was an issue with the 5th axle brake line; there was only a 1/8 of an inch for buffer. The acceptable DOT measurement is a quarter of an inch. This issue is what Labarge had noted as an issue in the days prior.
The trooper also testified the auto brake system indicator light did not work on the trailer. Upon further inspection of the trailer, he said there was an electrical wire that had been cut at some point which prevented the indicator from working. Labarge testified he did not see that wire during his pre-inspection report.
Additionally, several troopers who spoke with Labarge at the hospital testified that he said he was traveling 60 miles per hour at the time of the crash.
One trooper spoke about a phone conversation he overheard Labarge have with his son. During that conversation, the trooper said he heard Labarge say he was driving 60 miles per hour, hydroplaned, and tried to correct the path of travel before crashing.
The defense argued the trooper’s testimony was inaccurate based on the lack of context of the conversation; he was only hearing one end of the conversation.
The Commonwealth also called an expert witness in engineering. Thomas Yager spent several years with NASA Langley looking at the impact on tires in different elements. He testified 60-80% of his time was spent on the study of hydroplaning; more than 50 years of his entire career was spent analyzing that phenomenon.
Among the different forms of hydroplaning, Yager said Labarge experienced dynamic hydroplaning the night of Oct. 11, 2018.
Dynamic hydroplaning happens when tires are lifted off the roadway by water. This is typically caused when a “wedge” of water builds up in front of your tire and lifts it up. It leads to a lack of traction and braking.
Based on Yager’s inspection of the trailer in Dec. 2019, he testified the track on the tires were in good shape, however, he said there were several factors that led to a high risk for hydroplaning that night:
- Traveling at a high speed
- Wind conditions
- Light weight on the trailer tires (empty trailer)
- Changing of lanes
Yager also testified if Labarge was traveling at a slower speed he could have still hydroplaned.
During Labarge’s testimony, he said he saw emergency lights from Engine 6 up ahead as he was in the left-center lane and tried to move to the right-center lane to avoid the active scene there, but hydroplaned. He testified he has been in the left-center lane for about a half-mile.
Labarge added he was not aware of the “Move Over” law in Virginia and did not have any concerns about driving in the severe weather that night.
A total of 10 witnesses were called on Wednesday; seven for the Commonwealth, three for the defense.
During Labarge’s first day of trial, the court heard from several members of the Hanover County Fire & EMS agency; some of those members were in Engine 6 with Clark responding to the initial accident.
Labarge had no comment following the verdict. He’s scheduled for a pre-sentencing hearing on Jan. 13, 2021 at 1:30 p.m. With this conviction, he faces up to 11 years in prison.
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