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Vo v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 21, 2017

BRIAN VO, as personal representative of LOUIS VO (deceased), Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          OPINION

          ROBERT J. JONKER CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On Christmas Eve, 2013, a postal vehicle struck and killed Louis Vo as he walked across Porter Street on his way to Christmas Eve mass at Our Lady of La-Vang in Wyoming, Michigan. Plaintiff Brian Vo, as personal representative of Louis Vo, brings this action for wrongful death against Defendant United States of America. A bench trial took place, and post-trial briefing is complete.

         1. Summary of Trial Testimony

         A. Peter Vo Witnesses the Accident

         At 6:12 p.m. on December 24, 2013, Peter, who was twenty-three years old at the time, picked up his grandfather, Louis Vo, to go to Christmas Eve Mass. at Our Lady of La-Vang. It was dark outside, and the weather was cold. Peter was wearing a light fall jacket and no hat or gloves. It took Peter and Louis about ten minutes to drive to the church. The church is on Porter Street, which had two eastbound lanes and two westbound lanes. When Peter and Louis arrived, the church parking lot was full, and so they parked in the lot of a business across the street from the church. It was not unusual for members of the church to use this lot when the church lot was full. In fact, the church posted a member with a reflective vest to assist parishioners at the point of crossing.

         Peter and Louis exited the car and approached Porter Street. Traffic was light. They waited for a westbound car to pass. They looked both ways. They saw the headlights of two cars coming from the east, far enough away that Peter judged it a safe distance for crossing. Peter and Louis began walking across the street. Louis was 77 years old, but he walked at least a mile every day, was in good health, and had good eyesight. He needed no assistance crossing the street.

         As Peter and Louis passed over the center line of the street and into the third lane, Peter began to walk faster. He accelerated his pace because he was cold and wanted momentum crossing over a mound of snow by the curb. As he reached the side of the road, Peter heard Vy Tran (the church member at the crossing) call out for him to watch out for his grandfather. Peter turned toward the street and heard the impact. He did not see the postal truck coming until the moment he turned and heard the impact. He saw the brake lights of the postal truck but no headlights or other lights. He had crossed all four lanes without seeing the postal truck.

         B. Vy Tran Witnesses the Accident

         Vy Tran, a member of Our Lady of La-Vang, was an eyewitness.[1] He testified at trial as follows. Mr. Tran was not only a member of the church, but also served the church as a parking and crossing attendant. The church has a parking lot, but when the lot is full, church attendees typically park in the building lot across the street, as Peter and Louis did. The night of the accident, Mr. Tran was wearing a reflective vest. The church lot became full by around 6:00 p.m. Mr. Tran recalls Peter Vo parking in the lot across the street from the church. He saw Peter and Louis stop and look for cars before crossing the street. As Peter and Louis were about to cross the street, Mr. Tran looked for any oncoming traffic and saw none. There were no headlights in the vicinity. But when Peter and Louis were about halfway across the street, Mr. Tran saw the postal truck approaching them, and he could see they were unsafe. The postal vehicle was already too close to them.[2] Mr. Tran called out to them. He does not know if anyone heard him. Mr.Tran then saw the vehicle hit Louis. He shouted to Peter that his grandfather had been hit, and then radioed a person inside the church to call for help. Mr. Tran knows he did not see the headlights of the postal truck, but would not say unequivocally whether the lights were on or off when the accident occurred because he was not focused on the issue. He did not see brake lights or hear any braking sound coming from the postal truck before it hit Louis.

         C. Son Bui Witnesses the Accident

         Son Bui, an eyewitness, testified about his observations the night of the accident.[3] Mr. Bui, a member of Our Lady of La-Vang, was en route with his family to the Christmas Eve mass. He turned from Burlingame Avenue onto Porter Street, traveling westbound. The intersection of Burlingame and Porter is approximately half a mile from the church. When Mr. Bui started driving on Porter, he did not see any taillights ahead of him. When he drew close to the church area, he saw that he was driving behind the postal vehicle. He did not see any taillights as he was driving behind the postal vehicle. Both the postal vehicle and Mr. Bui's vehicle were in the far right lane, the lane closest to the church and the curb. As the vehicles neared the church, Mr. Bui started moving into the lane to the left, so he could turn left and park in the lot across the street from the church. As his car was about halfway into the left lane, he saw the postal vehicle hit Louis Vo. Mr. Bui did not see brake lights come on or the vehicle slow down before the impact occurred. He did not see the postal vehicle's taillights at any point.

         Mr. Bui spoke with police officers who came to the scene. He told the police that the taillights of the postal vehicle were not illuminated. He also provided a written statement to the police at their request. He did not mention in the written statement that the taillights off because no one asked him about it as he was preparing the statement.

         D. Mr. Wieck's Involvement

         Mr. Wieck drove the postal vehicle that struck Louis Vo. Mr. Wieck joined the United States Postal Service in 1973. Mr. Wieck is a mail carrier and has served as a union steward and safety captain. He has a valid driver's license. For most of his career, Mr. Wieck has driven a “long life vehicle” to deliver the mail. He drives the same postal vehicle every time he delivers the mail. Mr. Wieck begins each workday by inspecting his postal vehicle as required. The inspection includes ensuring that the lights on the vehicle work properly. To turn on the headlights, Mr. Wieck pulls a knob out, and to turn them off, he pushes the knob back in. If the engine is not running, the lights go off automatically. The lights do not come on automatically with the engine, however. Rather, a conscious decision and action to turn on the lights is required. After inspecting the vehicle, Mr. Wieck turns off the engine, goes into the postal station to pick up the mail for delivery, loads the vehicle, and starts his route. He testified that he customarily turns on the headlights and keeps the lights on all day, regardless of the weather conditions.

         On December 24, 2013, Mr. Wieck began his workday at 7:00 a.m. He inspected the vehicle and found the lights were working properly. Mr. Wieck performed his usual mail route and returned to the postal station around 6:00 p.m. He brought his postal truck to the back dock to unload it for that day. He turned the vehicle off. He turned the lights off or they turned off automatically. He exited his vehicle and unloaded it. As Mr. Wieck was standing on the dock, the night manager, Steve Parsons, approached Mr.Wieck, and told him that he needed to collect mail from a postal box on Lee Street.

         Mr. Wieck got into his postal truck and departed for Lee Street. From the postal station, he drove down Prairie Parkway to its intersection with Burlingame. He turned right onto Burlingame and traveled to the intersection with Porter, where he turned left onto Porter, proceeding west. Traffic was sparse. Mr. Wieck checked his speedometer. He was driving about 25 miles per hour on Porter. As his vehicle approached the church, he noticed some orange cones or barrels. At almost the same time, he also noticed a man about four feet away wearing a reflective vest. Mr. Wieck had not seen anyone crossing Porter as he was driving down the street toward the church. But as he was noticing the cones and the man in the reflective vest, he suddenly saw a person immediately front of him on the road, in his lane. Mr. Wieck estimates the person was about six feet away from him.[4] It appeared to Mr. Wieck that the person was not walking, but was standing and looking directly at his face. Mr. Wieck acknowledges the possibility that the person had been walking and stopped and looked at him because he was startled. Mr. Wieck slammed on the brakes and at the same time heard a thud. He saw something go over the left side of his vehicle. Mr. Wieck is not sure whether the person who was looking at him is the person his vehicle struck. Mr. Wieck stopped his vehicle in the lane of travel, turned off the engine, and exited the vehicle.

         Mr. Wieck testified that his lights were on from the time he left the postal station until he turned off the engine. He testified that the lights must have been on because no other drivers turned their lights off and on to signal to him that the lights were off, and because he was able to check his instrument panel as he was driving, even though it was dark out. The instrument panel is illuminated when the lights are on.

         Upon exiting the vehicle, Mr. Wieck saw a person lying on the ground. Mr. Wieck testified that if he had exited the truck with his lights on, a buzzer would have sounded, and he did not hear a buzzer when he exited the truck. Mr. Wieck shouted for someone to call 9-1-1. He got back in his vehicle and called his supervisor, Steve Parsons. He turned on his vehicle's emergency flashers.

         Police arrived at the scene and questioned Mr. Wieck. Mr. Wieck admits he made a false statement to the police officer. In particular, Mr. Wieck testified that he falsely told the police that someone had run out in front of him. Mr. Wieck testified that he made this statement because it was the only explanation he could come up with for why the person he saw immediately before impact was there. The admittedly false statement was exculpatory, and Mr. Wieck did not receive a ticket for the accident. He did not correct the false statement to the police.

         Mr. Wieck remained at the accident scene for about an hour, possibly longer. When he left, he returned directly to the postal station. He recalls that Mr. Parsons drove him back to the station, where he remained for about 45 minutes. He does not recall whether he drove himself home.

         E. Steve Parsons's Testimony

         Steve Parsons, who was Mr. Wieck's supervisor when the accident occurred, has worked for the USPS for about fifteen years. In December 2013, he was the closing supervisor at the Wyoming postal station where Mr. Wieck worked. As closing supervisor, Mr. Parsons's duties included, among other things, ensuring that the mail carriers picked up mail from all the collection boxes in his zone; that all the mail was delivered for the day; and that all of the carriers returned to the station at the end of the day. He was able to determine whether collection boxes had been picked up based on whether a bar code inside each collection box had been scanned.

         Mr. Parsons was working as closing supervisor on December 24, 2013. Mail volume was heavy. Mr. Parsons and the mail carriers worked longer hours that day. Mr. Parsons tells a different story than Mr. Wieck about what happened at the station. According to Mr. Parsons, he first saw Mr. Wieck return to the station around 5:30 p.m. and that he immediately sent Mr. Wieck to pick up collection boxes in the plaza across the street from the station. Mr. Parsons testified that while Mr. Wieck was gone, he ran the report to determine whether any other collection boxes had not yet been picked up. The report revealed that there were two other boxes that had not yet been collected. Mr. Parsons went back outside and waited for Mr. Wieck to return. He did so because he wanted to catch Mr. Wieck as quickly as possible, before Mr. Wieck came inside. He watched Mr. Wieck drive back to the station from the plaza across the street. It was dusk. Mr. Parsons testified that Mr. Wieck's lights were on and that he knows this because if the lights had been off, he would have noticed, as Mr. Wieck was driving directly toward him. Mr. Parsons also testified that a person in a postal vehicle with the lights on at night should be able to see ahead the distance of a city block. When Mr. Wieck reached the parking lot, Mr. Parsons directed him to pick up the mail from the Lee Street mail collection boxes.

         The accident occurred while Mr. Wieck was en route to Lee Street. Mr. Wieck called Mr. Parsons and told him of the accident. Mr. Parsons called his supervisor and the postmaster of Grand Rapids and drove to the scene. When he arrived, the police and fire departments were at the site. Mr. Wieck was standing beside the postal vehicle. Mr. Parsons did not speak to any police officers at the accident site. Mr. Parsons remembers little else about this part of the evening. He testified that he would have taken any mail from the collection boxes out of the truck. He does not recall whether Mr. Wieck had unloaded the collections from his regular route. Mr. Parsons returned to the postal ...


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