Paul Wellman

Already charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, Joaquin Morales is now facing a civil complaint alleging wrongful death for his role in the early morning accident last August that left three people dead.

Filed on May 2, the lawsuit states that when Morales and his runaway truck slammed into a tiny home at the bottom of Highway 154 — killing Leon Leonel, Lorena Tellez Pacheco, and 8-year-old Jaciel Tellez inside — they were carrying two trailers of gravel and a laundry list of vehicle code violations that prosecutors say should have kept them off the road.

Joaquin Morales
Tyler Hayden

Morales, 61, had been cited for faulty brakes before, the lawsuit reads, as well as for speeding, spilled loads, bad tire tread, and so on — 17 infractions since 2001. A similar, previous accident where Morales lost control of his rig and ran into a “fixed object” is also alluded to.

The complaint was filed on behalf of Laurentina Venegas-Pacheco, who is listed as the successor to Leonel and Lorena Pacheco’s estates. Venegas-Pacheco is seeking compensatory and putative damages, but the exact amount hasn’t been specified yet. Gregory Moreno, her Montebello-based attorney, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Also named in the lawsuit is Morales’s company, J. Morales Trucking, as well as the City of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County, and the State of California. (A quick call to City Attorney Steve Wiley, however, confirmed that the city will soon be dropped as a defendant since the accident, and the route leading up to it, don’t fall within its limits.)

Moreno argues in his filing that the accident was caused by the “dangerous condition of [Highway 154] manifest in the design, construction, maintenance, and repair,” an issue the county and state are responsible for. He states that the steep downgrades, high volume of traffic — including big trucks with heavy loads — and frequent reports of speeding are a recipe for the disastrous accidents that can and do happen.

Moreno also says that the county and state should have built a runaway truck ramp long ago. He mentions a ramp that was built and later closed, but Caltrans spokesperson Jim Shivers said during an interview that a ramp has never even been seriously considered for a number of reasons. The area’s topography makes it nearly impossible to carve one into a hillside, he said, and its environmental footprint would be substantial.

County Counsel Dennis Marshall hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet so couldn’t comment.

Morales has pleaded not guilty to his three vehicular manslaughter charges and will appear in court on June 7 for a preliminary setting hearing. He was released on bail last month.


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