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Large Vans Focus Of Lawsuit

Jul 29, 2004 | Mid Columbia Tri City Herald Tim and Frances Bardessono couldn't help but notice the large number of 15-passenger vans on the road as the Prosser couple drove to Seattle.

Their daughter, Corinne Bardessono, 15, was killed in December when the 15-passenger Ford van she was riding in hit black ice on Highway 395 near Ritzville and rolled. Belen Campos, 17, also died in the accident. The two girls were classmates at Prosser High School.

So when the Bardessonos see the large vans, often with church names emblazoned on the side and filled with kids likely headed to or coming home from summer camp, they cringe.

"It's unbelievable," Tim Bardessono said. "Half of them (the passengers) weren't buckled up. It makes us sick."

The Bardessonos have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Spokane Superior Court against Ford, Budget Rent A Car, Columbia Basin College, the Prosser School District and the van driver, Tom Nguyen, an academic adviser for the Upward Bound program.

The more people in the van, the higher the risk, said Rae Tyson, NHTSA spokesman.

A recent NHTSA analysis showed the risk also increased significantly at speeds over 50 mph and on winding roads.

Federal law prohibits the sale or lease of the vans to transport kids for school events. However, there are no federal regulations preventing churches, youth organizations or colleges from using them.

Studies by the NHTSA show that between 1990 and 2002, there were 1,576 15-passenger vans were involved in fatal crashes, resulting in 1,111 deaths. Of those, 349 were single-vehicle rollover crashes.

In more than 80 percent of single-vehicle accidents that resulted in a fatality, the vans rolled over.

That's exactly what happened when the van Corinne Bardessono and Belen Campos were riding in hit black ice.

CBC had rented two Ford vans to take high school students in the Upward Bound program to tour Eastern Washington University in Cheney. Upward Bound is a federally funded program that helps low-income students prepare for college or vocational school.

The lawsuit claims Ford knew its E350 van was defective in design and unreasonably dangerous because of its instability and tendency to roll over.

In addition, it holds CBC and the Prosser School District responsible for allowing the students to ride in a 15-passenger van.

Frank Murray, CBC's public information officer, said the college banned the use of the vans after the accident.

Prosser School District Superintendent Ray Tolcacher called the accident a tragic occurrence that is forcing the district to be more cautious then ever.

"We have always had a very safe record of transportation," Tolcacher said. "We travel a lot of miles on icy, snowy roads and our drivers are very cautious."

And he said the district is being even more careful when it comes to letting its students participate in activities where the district isn't driving.

For the Bardessonos, it's too little, too late.

The dangers of the vans have been known for years, yet colleges and even the federal government continue to buy and use the vans.

"People forget about safety because of the money," said Tim Bardessono. "And that's why Corinne isn't here."

The NHTSA says it's important drivers and passengers know the risks involved and take safety precautions. Van drivers should be experienced and trained, and passengers always should wear safety belts, Tyson said. In addition, passengers and cargo should be in front of the rear axle, and there shouldn't be any loads placed on the roof of the van.

A van's tires should be inspected once a month for excessive wear and proper inflation.

But the Bardessonos said the NHTSA has not taken enough action to get the vans off the road.

The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages and for the creation of a defendant-funded program to protect Washington residents "from the known dangers of the E350 Ford van."

The Bardessonos say it's worth it if they can save just one family from the pain they have been through. They said they are doing it for Corinne, a cheerful, funny, straight-A student who always worked to achieve her goals.

The Bardessonos are unwilling to let Corinne's spirit fade. Corinne's urn sits on the mantle of the fireplace in her room, surrounded by vases of dried flowers dropped off by friends and family after her death.

Each morning her mother turns on the stereo in Corinne's room, which is set to her favorite radio station, and lights a spindle of her daughter's incense to slowly burn.

All of Corinne's papers, poems, notes, report cards and letters are packed neatly into albums. Her appointment book, in which she listed her daily tasks and neatly marked them off as they were accomplished, sits opened to Monday, Dec. 15.

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