Ac­ci­dent up­ends fam­ily’s life

Le­gal bat­tle brew­ing af­ter street sweeper rams home

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - DAVE PEROZEK

Teresa Ruiz doesn’t re­mem­ber the morn­ing a run­away street sweeper crashed into her Monte Ne home.

Ruiz was asleep in the liv­ing room June 6 with her 2-week-old son, Juan, when the ma­chine slipped out of gear and ca­reened down­hill, punch­ing through a win­dow and the cream-col­ored sid­ing.

Mother and child lay pinned un­der the sweeper for about 45 min­utes, res­cuers strug­gling to free them amid the struc­turally com­pro­mised home.

Juan suf­fered only mi­nor in­juries. Ruiz, how­ever, re­mains hos­pi­tal­ized in Spring­field, Mo. She suf­fered a frac­tured skull and bro­ken bones in her face and shoul­der, mul­ti­ple frac­tures in her hip bone and a crushed pelvis,

ac­cord­ing to Kevin Wal­lace, a Fayet­teville at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing Ruiz and her fam­ily.

She’s still cog­ni­tively im­paired from the blow she took to her head. She lost some vi­sion in her right eye, which doc­tors at­tribute to her head in­jury, Wal­lace said. Bits of metal de­bris be­came em­bed­ded in her body. Rel­a­tives are tak­ing care of Juan and his sis­ter while Ruiz is in the hos­pi­tal. Rigoberto Ay­ala, her hus­band, is with her in Spring­field. It’s un­clear when Ruiz will be re­leased. “We go every Sat­ur­day to see her, and every time that we tell her, ‘OK, it’s time for us to leave,’ she starts cry­ing be­cause she says that she wants to go to the house and be with her kids,” said En­ri­queta Mo­ran, a sis­ter.

Wal­lace es­ti­mated Ruiz al­ready has ac­cu­mu­lated more than $500,000 in med­i­cal bills.

“She’s go­ing to suf­fer every day for the rest of her life, and it’s go­ing to have a huge, not only phys­i­cal, but fi­nan­cial im­pact on her and her fam­ily,” Wal­lace said.

Jor­dan Phillips, the Benton County em­ployee op­er­at­ing the sweeper, told po­lice it jumped out of gear when his boss was us­ing it the day be­fore the ac­ci­dent but said he didn’t know if that had been re­ported to any­one in main­te­nance, ac­cord­ing to the po­lice re­port.

“We looked into that and can’t find that that was re­ported,” Benton County Judge Barry Moehring said.

Re­sults of a blood test af­ter the ac­ci­dent showed mar­i­juana in Phillips’ sys­tem, Moehring said. Pros­e­cu­tors re­viewed the case, and no crim­i­nal charges will be filed, he said.

Phillips, 29, of Pea Ridge re­signed July 21, Moehring said. He had been em­ployed with the county since Jan­uary 2016, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments in his per­son­nel file.

A BIG HOLE

Jeff Ward was vis­it­ing North­west Arkansas from Alabama for a son’s wed­ding. His fam­ily and an­other rented a house across the street from the Ruizes at the in­ter­sec­tion of Canal Street and Bonnabel Road near Monte Ne.

Ward was mak­ing cof­fee about 6:45 a.m. June 6 when he heard the crash, fol­lowed by the sounds of a man wail­ing, he said. He dashed out­side and di­aled 911.

A record­ing of the call cap­tures a breath­less Ward strug­gling to come up with an ad­dress be­fore be­ing asked what the emer­gency was.

“I’m not sure what hap­pened,” he told the 911 oper­a­tor. “There’s a big hole in the house. There’s a man on the ground.”

The man was Phillips, who took the phone and iden­ti­fied him­self as an em­ployee of the Benton County Road Depart­ment.

“The brakes went out in the street sweeper … and the street sweeper went through the house,” he said.

Phillips, when asked by the oper­a­tor if he was in­jured, mut­tered a few in­co­her­ent phrases, then be­gan groan­ing in ap­par­ent pain.

Ward, re­count­ing the in­ci­dent last week, said Phillips’ main con­cern was whether any­one was in the house.

Phillips suf­fered in­juries to a hand, el­bow and knee as well as his back, feet and ribs, ac­cord­ing to a work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion form he sub­mit­ted. Moehring said he was treated at a hos­pi­tal and re­leased.

Phillips said he was driv­ing the sweeper down­hill on Bonnabel Road when it jumped out of gear and in­creased its speed, ac­cord­ing to an Arkansas State Po­lice re­port. He tried to put it in re­v­erse, which slowed the sweeper briefly but didn’t stop it. He said he also tried the emer­gency brake, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Phillips bailed out of the sweeper near the in­ter­sec­tion of Bonnabel and Canal. The sweeper trav­eled from the in­ter­sec­tion’s south side and went about 30 feet be­fore crash­ing through a back win­dow of the Ruizes’ one-story house si­t­u­ated be­low street level.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors de­ter­mined the sweeper was go­ing some­where be­tween 37 mph and 59 mph, ac­cord­ing to the po­lice re­port. The man­u­fac­turer lists the top speed of the sweeper in its high­est gear as 34 mph.

Ruiz’s 7-year-old daugh­ter also was in the home. The girl, who was un­in­jured, tried to reach her brother but couldn’t, Mo­ran said. Ay­ala was at work, his sec­ond day back on the job af­ter tak­ing off the pre­vi­ous two weeks for Juan’s birth, Mo­ran said.

HIGH RISK

Vol­un­teers with the High­way 94 East Fire Depart­ment were the first emer­gency re­spon­ders to ar­rive about 7:04 a.m. The Rogers Fire Depart­ment ar­rived 15 min­utes later. Fire­fight­ers freed the vic­tims by 7:38 a.m., ac­cord­ing to a Benton County Of­fice of Emer­gency Com­mu­ni­ca­tions dis­patch log.

Tom Jenk­ins, the Rogers fire chief, said the ac­ci­dent was un­like any­thing he’d ever seen.

“It’s a type of call we cat­e­go­rize as low fre­quency but high risk,” Jenk­ins said. “It’s what we train for.”

Ex­tri­cat­ing the vic­tims was tricky be­cause fire­fight­ers had to con­tend with a multi-ton piece of ma­chin­ery em­bed­ded in a struc­ture made un­sta­ble by the crash. A man­u­fac­turer’s brochure puts the sweeper’s weight at al­most 3 tons if it car­ried wa­ter. Dam­age to the 1,344-square­foot home was es­ti­mated at $99,000, ac­cord­ing to the po­lice re­port. The county as­ses­sor val­ued the house at $100,000.

“We had to use ex­pe­ri­ence as­so­ci­ated with what we know about struc­tural col­lapse and ve­hi­cle ex­tri­ca­tion and blend it to­gether. It was a very risky sce­nario be­cause of the in­sta­bil­ity and the two vic­tims,” Jenk­ins said.

The sweeper, a 1997 Broce Broom RC-300, is stored at the De­catur Sal­vage yard and is a to­tal loss, Moehring said.

Its me­chan­i­cal con­di­tion be­fore the ac­ci­dent is a mat­ter of con­cern to Wal­lace. He re­quested ac­cess to the sweeper in or­der to in­spect it.

Moehring said he went to the scene of the ac­ci­dent.

“I was cer­tainly sad­dened for the Ruiz fam­ily and in­cred­i­bly con­cerned about what I saw,” he said.

The next day he held a meet­ing with the Road Depart­ment and had a pas­tor from his church come out and say a few words.

“It was just a kind of closed-door oc­ca­sion to let those guys know, hey, it’s a vi­tal job for the com­mu­nity. It’s im­por­tant, but also try­ing, dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous some­times,” Moehring said.

COUNTY RE­SPONSE

Ruiz and Juan were taken by he­li­copter to Mercy Hos­pi­tal in Spring­field. Ruiz was in surgery for about 12 hours that day, ac­cord­ing to Mo­ran. Doc­tors placed her in an in­duced coma for about the first week, she said.

Juan’s worst in­jury was a rel­a­tively mi­nor head wound, Mo­ran said. How­ever, fam­ily mem­bers found bits of glass in his hair for a few weeks af­ter the ac­ci­dent, a grim re­minder of his brush with tragedy.

“He’s nor­mal,” Mo­ran said. “He eats a lot. He cries. He sleeps like nor­mal ba­bies do.”

Ruiz, a na­tive of Mex­ico, moved to Arkansas in 1991. Be­sides Juan and her 7-yearold daugh­ter, she has two other chil­dren who are young adults and liv­ing in North­west Arkansas, said Mo­ran and an­other sis­ter, Se­lena Joya, both of Rogers.

Ruiz worked for Pel-Freez Foods in Rogers, clean­ing rab­bits on the pro­duc­tion line, Wal­lace said. She was on ma­ter­nity leave.

Ruiz is in a bad state not only phys­i­cally, but men­tally, her sis­ters said.

“She’s get­ting de­pressed be­cause she can’t be with her baby,” Mo­ran said. “She can’t be with her daugh­ter, her 7-year-old, and plus she gets de­pressed be­cause she thinks about how her daugh­ter saw ev­ery­thing of the ac­ci­dent.”

Ruiz has suf­fered some short-term mem­ory loss. At times dur­ing her hos­pi­tal stay, she thought she was there be­cause she was hav­ing her baby, Joya said.

The long-term ef­fects of the ac­ci­dent phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and fi­nan­cially are un­cer­tain. Ruiz has health in­sur­ance, but Wal­lace said he hadn’t seen the pol­icy yet.

“It’s early in the process. We’re gath­er­ing facts,” he said.

He said the county has sig­naled it will as­sert im­mu­nity if sued, thus dodg­ing a po­ten­tially mas­sive bill. The max­i­mum the county would have to pay in that case would be a com­bined $50,000 for the vic­tims’ med­i­cal treat­ment and $25,000 for dam­age to the home, Wal­lace said.

“Which is re­ally, in a case like this, next to noth­ing. It’s neg­li­gi­ble,” Wal­lace said.

Brandy McAllister, at­tor­ney for risk man­age­ment ser­vices for the As­so­ci­a­tion of Arkansas Coun­ties, said state law pro­vides coun­ties im­mu­nity from law­suits in cases where neg­li­gence is al­leged, ex­cept to the ex­tent the coun­ties have in­sur­ance.

“The Leg­is­la­ture has set this law. Benton County abides by the law,” McAllister said.

In any case, no­body has pre­sented the county with a claim yet, “So we re­ally don’t have any­thing to re­spond to,” she said.

Wal­lace sug­gested the county could waive im­mu­nity and pro­vide com­pen­sa­tion be­yond what its in­sur­ance pro­vides. Ge­orge Spence, an at­tor­ney for Benton County, said he couldn’t say whether the county would con­sider it.

“Frankly, I don’t know where we’re go­ing to end up with this, and we’ll just have to wait un­til we have a full mea­sure of what the op­tions are,” he said.

Mo­ran said she hopes county of­fi­cials con­sider how they’d feel if it hap­pened to one of their fam­ily mem­bers.

“We won’t have enough money to cover ev­ery­thing she’ll need,” Mo­ran said.

COUR­TESY BENTON COUNTY

Work­ers re­move a street sweeper that crashed into a home near Monte Ne on June 6, pin­ning a woman and her in­fant son un­der­neath it. The woman, Teresa Ruiz, re­mains in a Spring­field, Mo., hos­pi­tal with mul­ti­ple in­juries. Her son wasn’t se­ri­ously in­jured.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVE PEROZEK

A Benton County street sweeper punched through a win­dow and wall at the Ruiz home at 13811 Canal St., caus­ing an es­ti­mated $99,000 in dam­age. The house re­mained boarded up on July 24.

COUR­TESY BENTON COUNTY

This Benton County street sweeper crashed into a home near Monte Ne on June 6, pin­ning a woman and her in­fant son un­der­neath it.

Ruiz

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