- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - A divided federal appeals panel upheld on Thursday the dismissal of three companies from a wrongful death lawsuit filed over a Maryland couple and their children who were killed in a fiery crash on Interstate 80 in western Nebraska.

The lawsuit was filed by relatives and the estate of Christopher and Diana Schmidt. The Gaithersburg, Maryland, couple died along with their two young children and unborn son in the pre-dawn Sept. 9, 2012 crash, as they were moving back to their native Sacramento, California.

The Schmidts were in separate cars in standstill traffic after a crash that involved two semitrailers in Cheyenne County. Christopher Schmidt’s car was then rear-ended by another semitrailer, driven by Josef Slezak, who was traveling about 75 mph. The impact pushed Christopher Schmidt’s car into the car carrying his wife and children. His wife was 7 1/2 months pregnant at the time.

Two judges on a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower federal judge’s dismissal of the lawsuit against the two trucking companies and a trailer company involved in the initial crash.

“(T)he district court concluded that Slezak’s negligence was an unforeseeable efficient intervening cause as a matter of law,” Judge James B. Loken wrote. “We agree. In the time between the first and second crashes, numerous vehicles, including at least a dozen semi-tractor-trailers, stopped safely, forming a line of traffic nearly a mile long.”

Many in the line, including the Schmidts and the trucker in front of them, had turned on their hazard lights, and emergency vehicles present and en route to the scene had activated their lights and sirens, Loken said. Judge Jane L. Kelly joined Loken in the opinion.

“The result was a patently obvious hazard that, as plaintiffs admit, would have been visible to approaching traffic for at least a mile on this clear night,” the majority said.

Judge Kermit Bye dissented, saying a jury should decide whether those companies bore any responsibility in the Schmidts’ deaths.

Slezak, of River Grove, Illinois, is serving a 20-year prison sentence for the Schmidts’ deaths. Authorities say he had been driving virtually nonstop from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, violating federal highway safety rules limiting truckers’ time on the road, and fell asleep at the wheel prior to the crash.

Slezak and the small company that employed him, AKI Trucking Inc., settled the lawsuit filed by the Schmidts’ family members for an undisclosed amount.

“I can tell you it was for very little,” James Chalat, a Denver attorney representing the relatives and the Schmidts’ estate, said Thursday. “The insurance that truckers are required to carry now is very limited.”

Chalat said he and his clients have not yet decided whether they will ask the appeals panel to reconsider or ask the full 8th Circuit to consider the appeal.

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