The tragic story of how Duane and Janet Willis lost six of their children illustrates why it is so important to seek justice after a truck accident.
The Reverand and Mrs. Willis were traveling through Milwaukee on I-94 in November, 1994 on their way to their adult son’s home for a birthday party. In their Plymouth Grand Voyager minivan were the six youngest of their nine children, ranging from six months to thirteen years old. The Willis’s minivan struck a piece of the taillight/mudflap that fell off a tractor trailer driven by Ricardo Guzman. This piece of debris was a two and a half foot long section of steel bracket. The truck piece punctured the Willis’s gas tank and the sparks that resulted from it dragging on the ground ignited the minivan's gas in the tank. Only one child, thirteen year old Ben, made it out of the van. Reverand and Mrs. Willis were severely burned trying to rescue the other children, but the others perished in the flames. Although his hair was singed off and his lips burned, Ben asked about his siblings before he was flown to the burn unit. He died the next day after asking the nurse to hold his hand and pray with him. Unfortunately, she couldn’t because of the severity of his burns.
The Willises wanted to know how this could have happened. Their lawyer took over 120 depositions of fact witnesses and experts over the next two years. The Willis’s attorney retained experts in fields such as metallurgy, fracture mechanics, and accident investigation. The Willises alleged that the company that leased the trailer failed to properly maintain it and that the truck company improperly hired the driver. The Willises also brought negligence claims against the mudflap manufacturer and design defect claims against Chrysler for its tank design.
One of the most shocking findings of the investigation was that the driver, Ricardo Guzman, couldn’t understand radioed warnings that the mudflap was about to fall off, because he didn’t speak English. When the lawyer dug deeper, he discovered that the driver was able to get a commercial drivers license only because he paid a bribe in the form of a campaign contribution for then Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan. When state investigators tried to investigate the connection of Guzman to Ryan, Ryan ordered his office to stop the investigation. Ryan soon went on to become Governor of Illinois, but the investigation continued. Ryan’s obstruction blossomed into a larger federal investigation that lead to the 2006 corruption trial of former governor. The Willises wrote letters to the court when Ryan was sentenced. The bottom line is that Governor Ryan might not have ever been exposed for his corruption, had the Willis family chosen to do nothing about the tragedy.
The Willis family settled with six civil defendants before trial for $100,000,000. The Willises reportedly have used the settlement largely to support missionary work.
Thanks to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Transportation Lawyers Association for reporting.
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