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Dead family's relatives sue trucker, carrier for Nebraska crash

Authorities say Illinois truck driver Josef Slezak (shown above) failed to stop for traffic at a standstill on Interstate 80 because of another truck crash.

By GRANT SCHULTE
The Associated Press

11/2/2012

LINCOLN — A wrongful lawsuit stemming from a multiple-fatality, chain-reaction accident Sept. 9 in Cheyenne County names the truck driver — who is charged with the deaths of four family members plus an unborn child — as well as his employer, several other trucking businesses and one trucker, all of which were also involved in the domino-style mishap.

According to a suit filed Oct. 29 in U.S. District Court in Lincoln, Bradley Bauman and Nancy R. Bauman, biological parents of Diana R. Schmidt, and Donna J. Costley, biological mother of Christopher D. Schmidt are named as plaintiffs, as are the estates of Diana and Christopher Schmidt and their two children, Samuel Donovan Schmidt and Conner Bradley Schmidt.

The estates of all four — who were killed in the accident along Interstate 80 near Potter — were opened Oct. 23 in the Superior Court of California in Placer County and the Baumans and Costley are named as co-special administrators of the estates.

The suit, filed by Denver attorney James Chalat and Omaha lawyer John Inserra, is seeking relief for damages due to motor vehicle/auto negligence.

Those named in the suit are Josef Slezak, 36, River Grove, Ill. — who has been charged in Cheyenne County District Court with nine felony counts of manslaughter and vehicular homicide — along with his employer, AKI Trucking of Romeoville, Ill.; Vladamir Zhukov, 66, Oak Park, Ill., and his employer, Swift Truck Lines of Wheeling, Ill.; along with MTR Express, the DOT carrier listed for Zhukov, along with North Metro Truck Leasing, LLC, and Long Haul Trucking, Inc., both of Albertville, Minn.

Also named are 10 John Does, who according to the complaint, are unknown individuals or entities responsible for the maintenance of the braking system on the tractor-trailer operated by Zhukov.

All John Does are believed to be Illinois residents.

Awards sought by the plaintiffs include damages from a jury, plus pre-judgment interests from the date of loss along with the cost of litigation and appropriate attorneys’ fees.

The accident was initiated at about 4:22 a.m. Sept. 9 when the Cheyenne County Sheriff’s Office was called to the scene of an accident involving a disabled truck at westbound I-80 mile marker 41, near Potter, and a second truck that had collided with the parked truck, operated by Zhukov.

Zuhkov’s truck, owned by Swift Truck Lines, had allegedly lost air pressure from its governor and had stalled in the right-hand lane of the roadway, when it was struck from behind by a truck operated by Keith Johnson of Big Lake, Minn., who was a driver for Long Haul Trucking.

Johnson was pronounced dead at the scene.

Chalat said in a telephone interview that Johnson’s trucking companies — North Metro Truck Leasing and Long Haul Trucking — were named.

Zuhkov, Swift and MTR Express are also being blamed for their role in the chain of events which followed.

Cheyenne County deputy Zach Goodrich was already on the scene of the initial accident, and Deputy Sheriff Fred Wiedeburg was en route when a second accident occurred about a mile east of the initial wreck — which involved a tractor-trailer, two passenger cars and a trailer that was disconnected from the tractor by that truck’s driver.

All of the aforementioned were engulfed in flames, according to the affidavit against Slezak.

A semi-truck truck, owned by AKI Trucking and driven by Slezak, collided into a 2010 Ford Mustang. which was driven by Christopher Schmidt. The force of that collision caused a 2007 Toyota Corolla driven by Diana Schmidt to be propelled underneath a semi-truck in front of it. The lawsuit claims Slezak’s vehicle was traveling at about 75 mph at the time of the collision.

According to an original complaint filed by Cheyenne County Attorney Paul Schaub, both passenger vehicles were registered in the name of Diana and Christopher Schmidt, both of Gaithersburg, Md., but originally from California. At the time of the accident, the couple was in the process of relocating to Sacramento.

The second accident killed both adults, along with their children (Samuel and Conner) and Diana Schmidt’s unborn child of 30 weeks, Ethan Schmidt.

Evidence at the preliminary hearing suggested Slezak drove straight from Wisconsin to the Panhandle before the accident, which exceeds DOT standards for in-service duty, which was also listed in the suit.

Slezak has since filed a plea in abatement through his attorney, Kelly Breen, and he was scheduled for another hearing Nov. 7.

He remains in Cheyenne County Jail in lieu of $1 million bond.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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