Questions over trucking company's safety record after fatal crashes

It was just after 5 a.m. on October 28 when 26-year-old Luis Montanez, who was engaged to be married in June, left for his job at a furniture store near Tampa.  

He didn’t make it to work. He didn’t make it to his wedding, either.

A truck driver for the Georgia-based company Davis Transfer, which has a facility in Lakeland, ran a stop sign and attempted a left-hand turn as Montanez entered the intersection. The top of Montanez’s car was sheared off. He died at Lakeland Regional Medical Center five days later.

A traffic homicide investigation determined the Davis Transfer driver, Ronald Smith, was responsible. Smith had his license revoked twice before – in 2006 and 2008 – for racking up too many traffic violations. In June, because of the accident, he was forced to give up his license once again.

"In one minute, it changes your life,” said Montanez’s mother Barbara Ramirez, who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company. "What happened to me, I don't want no parent to pass what I'm passing through. It’s not good."

Ramirez isn’t alone in her grief.

Data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the regulatory agency charged with monitoring trucking companies, indicates the company has been involved in 31 accidents in the past 24 months. The data doesn’t indicate who was at fault. It also turns out to be incomplete.

Most of the 31 collisions caused injuries. Others resulted in fatalities.   

“The nature of trucking is that accidents do occur,” said Rob Mosely, an attorney for Davis Transfer.

He pointed to FMCSA statistics that show Davis Transfer does better than most trucking companies when it comes to the percentage of roadside inspections that result in a driver or truck being taken off the road. Mosely also said the company has the highest safety rating -- a “satisfactory” classification -- from regulators.

That rating is from 2009. Federal regulators haven’t fully reviewed the company since then, so it hasn’t changed. A spokesman for the FMCSA, whose mission is to prevent commercial vehicle accidents, said the agency had no records of safety violations indicating a review was needed.

But company safety data provided by the FMCSA has some glaring omissions. The feds’ records show Davis Transfer was involved in two fatal wrecks in the past 24 months. FOX 13 found the company has been involved in five fatal accidents, not two, during that same time period.

In January 2014, a Davis Transfer driver rear-ended a vehicle on I-75 near Tampa, causing a five-car pileup. Henry Focht, 60, was killed. People in the other vehicles were injured, including two toddlers. That accident isn’t listed in the company data at all.

In March, a Davis Transfer driver hit Karl Mitchell Thompson while he was riding his bicycle in Georgia. Thompson, 28, died at the scene. That accident is listed as an injury, not a fatality.  

The October crash that killed Montanez is listed as an injury as well.

FMCSA spokesman Duance DeBruyne would not answer questions about the omissions, except to say: “Crash reports are uploaded by the states.”

Florida Highway Patrol’s commercial vehicle division is responsible for working with FMCSA on reporting information commercial vehicle violations. FHP Capt. Kenny Morris, who oversees compliance reviews, initially responded to FOX 13’s questions about Davis Transfer’s accident record. However, he didn’t respond to multiple phone and email requests asking why the fatalities weren’t showing up on official records.  
DeBruyne didn’t offer much more. “You need to check with the state on that,” he said. He then refused to answer any other questions before hanging up on the reporter, saying he didn’t have the “time or patience” to answer specific questions.

The agency will have to provide answers soon enough. In May, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it would be conducting an audit to investigate whether the FMCSA is doing its job.

Barbara Ramirez, along with family members of several other Florida families, would say it isn't.