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Jury rejects claims in road crew worker’s death

Dorothy Millican sat on a courthouse bench and cried Thursday after losing a five-year legal battle to hold someone responsible for her son’s death.

Millican’s son, Daren Lafayette, 19, was working on a road crew on Sept. 12, 2006, when a truck began rolling downhill toward a car that had two people inside. Lafayette chased down the truck and climbed inside, but could not stop it before it careened over an embankment and exploded.

A Spokane County Superior Court jury absolved the general contractor, N.A. Degerstrom, a brake manufacturer and the worker who installed the brake on the truck.

“I felt it was the last thing I could do for my son,” Millican said of the lawsuit. “I would like to think that this would change their practices.”

Michael Coleman, safety director for N.A. Degerstrom, noted following the four-week trial that his company has been doing business in Spokane for more than 100 years.

“We’re a good, safe company,” he said.

N.A. Degerstrom’s attorney, Lori O’Tool, expressed sorrow for Millican and her family.

“From the beginning we expressed our deepest sympathy for their loss,” O’Tool said. “This was a tragedy.”

Lafayette was working with another employee, William Wright, who parked the truck and set the MICO Lever Lock, which is used as a supplemental brake system. The crew was installing the last road sign of the day when the truck started rolling.

Since the truck’s brake lines were destroyed in the subsequent fire, it left experts to debate and disagree over what went wrong that day.

Ed Johnson, the attorney for James Bonner, who installed the MICO brake, blamed a rupture in the brake line, but no brake fluid was found at the scene.

Roger Felice, who argued the case on behalf of Millican, said the entire situation would have been avoided if N.A. Degerstom had a policy to give its subcontractors wheel chocks, which are cheap devices that help ensure vehicles don’t roll away on steep inclines. He noted that the day after Lafayette died, N.A. Degerstrom had wheel chocks brought out to all its vehicles on the road crew working on Flowery Trail Road near Chewelah.

“When you get a verdict like this … all you can do is hope and pray it doesn’t happen again to some other young worker,” Felice said.

The jury voted 12-0 when asked to determine if the MICO Lever Lock was a safe device. It voted 11-1 that N.A. Degerstrom was not negligent and 10-2 to absolve Bonner, who installed the brake without also installing an alarm designed to alert the operators of low brake pressure. Unlike criminal verdicts, civil cases can be decided without a full majority.

Felice noted that during depositions, the two people in the car below the runaway truck both said that Lafayette saved their lives that day.

“They were not allowed to testify to that during the trial,” Felice said.

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