• August 19, 2021

UPDATE: Harold Ostrander, Jason Smeltzer, Thomas Meier Killed in Accident on I-94 in Jefferson County, WI

UPDATE (August 23, 2021): Authorities have identified the three people killed in this crash as Harold Ostrander, Jason Smeltzer, and Thomas Meier.

Jefferson County, WI -- August 18, 2021, three people outside of their vehicles were struck and killed in a multi-vehicle crash on Interstate 94 in Jefferson County.

Authorities say the chain of events began around 3:55 a.m. on westbound I-94 near mile marker 262. Preliminary investigation suggests a truck pulling a cargo trailer was headed west when the driver lost control and crashed into the nearby guardrail. A second vehicle then crashed into the rear of the truck's trailer for unknown reasons. A third vehicle passed the scene but then came back to render aid. All three drivers exited their vehicles to assess the damage and talk. After they left their vehicles, a fourth vehicle believed to be a tractor-trailer plowed into the accident scene.

The three drivers who left their vehicles were killed in the final crash. A passenger in the first vehicle was unhurt.

No further information is currently available as the investigation continues, but no charges are expected.

Commentary on Fatal Multi-Vehicle Accident on I-94 in Jefferson County

One mistake often associated with commercial truck crashes like this one is the belief that a lack of criminal charges against the truck driver automatically means that he and his employer are not liable for anyone's injuries. While I can understand how that connection is made, it's actually not true. Criminal and civil law are functionally separate, as are the consequences for violating them. While criminal charges are sometimes useful as evidence for establishing a driver's wrongdoing, even if any had been assigned the trucking company would be free to dispute any allegations that they're responsible for the damages suffered by the victims. I've seen them blame inclement weather, road conditions and design, and in many cases even the victims themselves rather than accept liability.

Consider for example the situation described above. It seems reasonable to feel that the final truck's arrival triggered the fatal crash and thus its driver is responsible for the victims' tragic passing, but the company behind that driver might argue differently. It would not surprise me if they defended themselves by saying it was actually the victims' decision to leave the relative safety of their vehicles and their associate safety features (air bags, seat belts) that created the circumstances leading to their fatal injuries. If it seems callous to blame the victims in that manner, I've seen them do significantly worse in the name of protecting their assets and reputations.

Harold Ostrander, Jason Smeltzer, Thomas Meier Killed in Accident on I-94 in Jefferson County, WI

The only way to ensure that the right party is held accountable for what occurred is to conduct a careful and thorough investigation of the crash, identifying all the contributing elements and determining the specific timing of events. Who hit whom, and when? How long passed between when the first vehicle crashed, when the second vehicle hit it, when the third truck arrived, when all the drivers left their vehicles, and when the semi-truck crashed into the scene? Was the area well-lit? Were the vehicles' hazard lights and/or headlights active? Could a reasonably prudent professional driver have avoided being part of that wreck?

Those are just a few of the questions that will need concrete answers, backed up by plenty of evidence. With the right allies and know-how on one's side, trucking companies can't wiggle out of their duties to those hurt or killed by their employee's recklessness.

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