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Wrongful Death Suit Filed Against Driver in Big-Rig Crash That Killed Family of 3

City and county of Santa Barbara and the state are also listed as defendants over claims about the maintenance and repair of Highway 154

A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against a driver charged with three counts of vehicular manslaughter after his gravel truck crashed last summer into the home of a Santa Barbara family.

Joaquin Garcia Morales was driving the tractor-trailer when it crashed into a home near the Hope Ranch Inn, killing a family of three. Leon Leonel, 23; his wife, Lorena Guadalupe-Tellez Pacheco; and their son, Jaciel Tellez, 8, a Franklin Elementary School third-grader, died Aug. 24, 2010. Morales had told police he lost control of his brakes while traveling down Highway 154 from San Marcos Pass and plowed into the residence at 4119 State St.

Morales pleaded not guilty last month. The civil suit against him was filed Monday by Laurentina Venegas-Pacheco, listed as a successor to Leonel’s estate. The estate of his wife was also listed on the lawsuit.  The attorney listed on the suit is Gregory Moreno, of Montebello, Calif.

The suit alleges that Morales is responsible for the wrongful deaths of the three people and property damage. It claims he is responsible for “malice and oppression” of the plaintiffs, and lists 21 vehicle code violations that Morales had been charged with over a decade before last August’s incident. Failure to comply with inspection of vehicle, condition of brakes, unsafe vehicle and spilled load were among the listed violations.

Morales isn’t the only one listed on the lawsuit. Roberto Morales is also listed, as well as J. Morales Trucking. The city and county of Santa Barbara and the state are also listed as defendants. The suit says that all three agencies were aware of instances of runaway commercial trucks along the highway, “including collisions at or near San Marcos Road.”

“The collision in question was caused by the dangerous condition of the roadway manifest in the design construction, maintenance and repair of Highway 154,” the complaint reads. An emergency truck escape had been constructed along Highway 154, but “subsequently closed, discontinued or otherwise removed said emergency escape ramp such that it was not available. The removal or closing of said truck escape ramp was negligent and created a dangerous condition of public property.”

The crash prompted Caltrans and county officials to recommend that trucks take Highway 101 instead of Highway 154 — and placed signs to that effect — and to pursue legislation that would restrict trucks carrying freight on the highway.

Morales appeared in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Wednesday. His preliminary hearing setting was continued to June 7. He is not being held in custody.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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