DILLON — A Livingston woman could have prevented the death of a man when her bus broke down in 2009 on Interstate 15 by taking simple precautions, a prosecutor told a jury here Thursday.
Beaverhead County Attorney Jed Fitch said in opening remarks of trial that Kamla Bekemans’ gross negligence leaving her stalled bus in the middle of the driving lane on a dark night led to the death of Brandon Davis.
“This case today is no mishap or unfortunate event,” Fitch said in Dillon district court. “This case is a tragedy.
“She didn’t even try to start (the bus) to limp it out of the lane of traffic.”
Bekemans is charged with felony criminal endangerment and six misdemeanor traffic violations in connection with the July 28, 2009, death of Davis, 18. Davis was traveling northbound on I-15 around 2:40 a.m. near Kidd, south of Dillon, when he struck Bekemans’ broken down bus. Bekemans had just bought the bus in Ogden, Utah, and was driving to her home in Livingston.
Davis was killed instantly.
In her opening statement, Bekemans’ public defense lawyer Deirdre Caughlan disputed that her client made no effort to get the bus off the highway. She said on an incredibly dark night it was difficult to determine where the shoulder of the highway was, and Bekemans desperately tried to warn other vehicles that the bus was broken down on the roadway by flashing her lights.
“She was not able to start the vehicle and move it over any further,” Caughlan said. “Ms. Bekemans was doing all that she could to warn other people — she did everything within her power to try and avoid the fatality that occurred.”
Two truck drivers who arrived on the scene testified that Davis was driving well over the speed limit that night when he passed them. The force of the impact threw the bus into the median of the interstate while the passenger car Davis was driving stopped on the right shoulder of the northbound lane.
Bill Healy, a Butte truck driver who arrived just after the collision, testified he found the car destroyed and scattered across the roadway. He topped a small hill just after the collision to see the bus hurled into the median.
He said he spoke with Bekemans immediately and she recalled trying to signal to cars with her lights.
Under cross examination, Caughlan asked if the bus’ lights were on when he saw it and Healy said they were. He recalled a distressed Bekemans who was just learning about the bus.
“She told me she would turn the lights off to save the battery and then turn them on when she saw a car coming,” Healy said.
Paula Williams, the Montana Highway Patrol trooper who investigated the accident, testified about the scene when she arrived. She disputed that the bus came to a sudden stop when it broke down, saying there were no skid marks that indicated an abrupt stop.
She also said in her interview she questioned why Bekemans’ didn’t take the standard safety precautions when the bus stalled in the driving lane.
“I asked her why she didn’t put her hazard lights on and she said she didn’t know where they were,” Williams said.
Williams said in her investigation she found that even if Davis was speeding, the accident could have been avoided on such a straight stretch of highway.
“Even at a high rate of speed if he could have seen those taillights from a mile away he could have moved around it,” she said. “In my opinion those taillights were not on — he did not see the bus until it was too late.”
However, Caughlan offered a photo of the bus taken after the accident that showed it with the rear lights on. She asked if Williams knew if the lights had been turned on after the accident and the trooper said she wasn’t certain.
Caughlan also pointed out that Williams was not able to determine the speed that night.
“Mr. Davis’ vehicle could have been traveling as fast as 120 mph,” she said.
The trial is expected to finish Friday with Judge Loren Tucker presiding.