Accident upends family’s life
Legal battle brewing after street sweeper rams home
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This Benton County street sweeper crashed into a home near Monte Ne on June 6, pinning a woman and her infant son underneath it.