Trucking companies leave long trail of safety violations and victims

Sitting in a wheelchair at a nursing home, Brian Buber can't recall the instant 17 years ago when tons of screaming metal came rocketing toward him on the Capital Beltway, scattering fellow construction workers and crushing their paving equipment.

In 1997, a civil jury found Hanover-based Gunther's Leasing Transport Inc. negligent in the accident, which killed one person and injured seven, awarding them nearly $16 million in damages and medical expenses.

Buber, 49, crippled and with severe brain damage, received some insurance money but "never saw a penny" of the $13 million earmarked by the jury for his care, says his stepfather, Bob Buber.

Weeks after the jury verdict, the company owned by Mark David Gunther declared bankruptcy, and it was eventually liquidated. For the Buber family, that appeared to end a years-long legal battle for compensation. But the anger came flooding back last week, when federal regulators closed another Gunther-owned trucking company for being an "imminent hazard" to the public.

Buber's family was stunned. "I thought he was shut down," says Roxanna Kreiner, Buber's sister and his legal guardian. "All these years of [pain] he put us through, and he's still in business. It's just disgusting."

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry, said in a statement that Gunther did not appeal its shut-down order by Friday's deadline. The agency added that it is proposing new regulations to "identify new companies attempting to dodge a history of safety violations."

Gunther, 56, has been unavailable for comment. His home voice mail is full, and no one has answered repeated calls to his office. A reporter was unable to gain access to his home in a gated Pasadena community. The company lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Court and federal records show that three times, amid legal or financial trouble, the Hanover trucking operations were reconstituted. Trucks continued to operate at the location after the liquidation of Gunther's Leasing Transport, and even after Gunther himself went to federal prison for 30 months — the nation's first trucking company executive to be convicted of falsifying drivers' log books.

Regulators and prosecutors tried to put a stop to the safety problems. "We think this is going to have an impact on the companies in violation by upping the ante," then-Maryland U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said after a jury found Gunther guilty in 1995.

In the years after Gunther's Leasing Transport declared bankruptcy, two other corporate entities — G.T. USA LLC and Gunthers Transport LLC — sprang up.

And for years, safety violations have continued to pile up, even as victims of the Capital Beltway crash were left without their money.

Last week, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ordered Gunthers Transport LLC to cease operations, alleging that the company failed to follow traffic safety rules, ensure that drivers were qualified and keep trucks well-maintained. The rare move came after years of the company and its managers running afoul of federal safety rules.

Alan M. Grochal, a Baltimore lawyer who represented unsecured creditors in the Gunther's Leasing Transport bankruptcy, was shocked to learn about the latest problems. "You'd think the regulators would try to prevent someone like Mark Gunther from getting back into the same business. … I never got my legal fees paid, and the creditors got nothing."

Maryland State Police Lt. Michael Hawkins, who runs the vehicle inspection unit, isn't surprised. "We have lots of companies that change names," he said. "I call them mom-and-pop operations. Mom gets in trouble and Pop takes over."

Damaged lives

Federal safety regulators acknowledge that they need more authority to oversee the industry. A Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration spokeswoman said that officials used last week "the most aggressive action authorized by Congress … to immediately shut down Gunthers Transport and prohibit its owner from operating other commercial trucking companies."

But none of that matters to Buber, who spends all but four hours a day in bed at the Harford County nursing home, surrounded by photos of himself as a handsome, robust outdoorsman. He now gets by on workers' compensation and Social Security.

Nor is it any comfort to Tosha Briscoe, the daughter of the man who died in the Sept. 20, 1994, crash that maimed Buber.

Briscoe, who turns 34 next week, was 16 when Keith Briscoe Jr. was killed. They lived in Baltimore at the time. She says her father worked for Gunther's Leasing Transport for about a year, delivering food to stores such as Kmart.

"It was a cruel trial," says Tosha Briscoe, who sat through the two-week proceeding in Baltimore County that led to the multimillion-dollar collective damage award. She said her father got nothing, "not even a sympathy card," from the trucking company.

She said her family was awarded less than $10,000, and they got a little from insurance. Her mother raised Tosha and Tosha's younger brother alone.

"The whole thing was unfair, unjust," she said.

Buber was nearing the end of his shift, repaving lanes on the Capital Beltway's inner loop in Prince George's County when a Gunther's Leasing Transport tractor-trailer carrying home appliances slammed into the back of a small rented truck being driven by a man moving from Rhode Island to Florida. The vehicles careened through the construction zone, each striking an asphalt-rolling machine.

The tractor-trailer jackknifed and burst into flames. Keith Briscoe Jr., a passenger, was killed and the driver, his brother, was injured.

Surgeons spent hours picking skull fragments from Buber's brain. Medical costs topped $1 million, says Kreiner. Gunther's Leasing Transport carried $1 million in insurance, federal records show.

Buber's mother, Helen Ruth Moody, took early retirement, shouldering the responsibility of looking after her son and advocating for his care until her death two years ago at the age of 74.

Now Kreiner, a pharmacy manager, has taken over those duties and tries to make it to the nursing home twice a week to feed her brother.

Buber cannot speak and communicates by pointing his permanently clenched fists at letters of the alphabet on a laminated card. He rarely has visitors.

"He wants a truck. He wants a job. He wants to work," Kreiner said during a visit Friday.

Buber smiles and nods his head as he spells out another wish: B-O-A-T.

Bankruptcy and a rebirth

Gunther's Leasing Transport, founded in 1979, was located in an industrial area west of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Soon after the verdict in the Capital Beltway crash, the company filed for reorganization under federal bankruptcy laws, listing assets of $9 million and liabilities of $17.5 million — the bulk of it the court judgment.

But the company had other looming problems. In 1991, some of the company's truckers had complained to the Federal Highway Administration that they had been taught how to falsify their driving logs, triggering an FBI investigation. When a judge ordered Mark David Gunther to turn over the records, he said they were lost during renovations.

A federal jury in Baltimore rejected his story, finding him guilty of falsifying logs and perjury. Gunther was sentenced to 30 months in prison and the company was ordered to pay a $170,000 fine. Three years later, after an appeal failed, he reported to prison.

Attorney James A. Vidmar Jr., who represented Gunther's Leasing Transport in the bankruptcy proceeding, said a reorganization was approved that included "substantial payments" to creditors, including the victims of the accident.

However, "at some point after that, things just died," said Grochal, counsel to the creditors committee. "They weren't coming anywhere close to making payments."

The court docket confirms the "debtors failure to comply" with the repayment plan. In June 2001, the Internal Revenue Service, to which the company owed $1.9 million, convinced the court to convert the bankruptcy case from a reorganization to a liquidation.

But attorneys involved in the case said last week that Gunther's Leasing Transport owed more money on most of its trailers than they could bring in a sale, rendering them worthless to creditors.

So what the company did was sell its trailers to a new company: G.T. USA LLC, Grochal said.

Trucking operations continued under the new corporation. Lawyers involved in the case say it's a common — and completely legal — practice.

G.T. USA LLC was created in 2000 and terminated last week, according to state records. Gunthers Transport LLC was incorporated in 2005.

That was the company cited by Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration last week. Regulators found that the company was "seriously deficient" in four of seven safety categories: safe driving, prevention of driver fatigue, driver fitness and vehicle maintenance.

An agency spokeswoman said an imminent-hazard order is "one of the strongest measures" it can take unilaterally to shut down an unsafe company. During the last federal budget year, the agency issued only 10 such orders nationwide, she said.

The federal order prohibits the company from resuming operations until it has met a series of stringent conditions, including coming into compliance with federal trucking regulations and identifying the reasons for its past violations. The agency said the company must prepare a plan to retrain its drivers and "take immediate, aggressive and progressive steps to control drivers' hours of service."

The agency — which has seen companies it has ordered off the road resume operations under other names, is also seeking to close that escape route in this case. The order said Gunther's Transport LLC cannot avoid the order by continuing operations under another name, including those of current affiliates, and forbids it to sell or lease its equipment without agency permission.

A spokeswoman said the agency has asked Congress "to close loopholes that allow companies that have been shut down to recreate themselves under a new name." Early next year, the agency plans to seek the ability "to shut down any commercial truck company operating with a pattern of evading or masking federal safety violations."

The lasting effects

After the 1994 Capital Beltway crash, Gunther's Leasing Transport's $1 million insurance policy didn't go very far. Lawyers took their fees and the rest was divided six ways, says Kreiner.

Buber was moved from hospital to rehabilitation facility. Aides feed him by tube daily, except for one meal, which is pureed and fed by spoon. The rest of his days are spent watching country music videos and staring at the photos of a life he no longer has.

Kreiner hopes that the federal regulators' action in shutting down Gunthers Transport LLC, and in taking steps to prevent owner Mark David Gunther from starting over, will break the cycle of safety problems.

Gunther "doesn't deserve a business. He don't deserve nothing," she said Friday.

Brian Buber sits in his wheelchair, listening to his sister. He's asked if he's angered by what has happened.

He opens his mouth wide in a silent howl, shakes his clenched fists in the air and then pounds them against his temples.

Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this article.