April 25–It’s been more than two months since Michael Ponce, 39, was killed in a car crash on U.S. 285, in southern Eddy County.
He was one of two men killed in the accident, which continued a string of fatalities along the troubled roadway known for heavy industrial traffic to and from the oilfields of southeast New Mexico and west Texas.
Ponce’s passenger, 60-year-old Fernando Martinez was also killed in the wreck.
But Ponce’s family sought justice.
Representatives of the family filed a civil lawsuit in February in New Mexico’s First Judicial Court in Santa Fe, alleging fault by both the New Mexico Department of Transportation for failing to maintain the road, and the trucking company that employed the driver of the vehicle which fatality struck Ponce.
The suit accused Midland-based Oil Field Outfitters of negligence. The company employed Leonardo Ferras of Miami, read the suit, as a driver. Ferras was behind the wheel of the tractor trailer that allegedly struck Ponce.
Ferras’ passenger, Pedro Sotello of Midland, Texas, was also listed as a defendant as the owner of the tractor trailer Ferras was driving during the incident.
Another motorist, Yobel Rodriguez of Cape Coral, Florida, was allegedly involved in a previous accident with Ferras that caused the final, fatal collision with Ponce.
Records show Rodriguez was driving south on U.S. 285, between Malaga and Loving, and Ferras was headed north.
The crash occurred when Ferras swerved into the southbound lane, read the suit, colliding with Rodriguez, driving off the road and colliding again with the truck driven by Ponce.
Both Ponce and Martinez were pronounced dead at the scene.
The lawsuit accused Oilfield Outfitters, and Eagle River Energy Services, Rodriguez’s employer, of being responsible for Ponce’s death.
The NMDOT was also listed as a defendant as the suit alleged the Department was responsible for maintaining the road, and by failing to do so, caused Ponce’s death.
The accusations against NMDOT centered on a later discredited statement Ferras allegedly made to police after the incident, blaming the accident on a pothole.
Ferras later, under penalty of perjury, recanted the statement, court records show, in a declaration filed on April 16 by lawyers of Oilfield Outfitters.
The rest the defendants are accused of negligence, as the companies are liable, the suit read, for the behavior of its drivers.
The suit accused Ferras, Sotello and Rodriguez of driving distracted and without regard for safety, “maliciously” causing Ponce’s death.
Members of the Ponce family are seeking financial damages due to loss of wages for his wife and children, along with pain and suffering caused by the incident.
The amount of damages, per the suit, should be determined by a judge.
A request for a 12-person jury trial was also made, but a court date was not set.
On April 16, attorneys for the defendants filed a motion to remove the case from the First Judicial District of New Mexico, to U.S. District Court in the District of New Mexico, citing the diversity among defendants’ place of residence.
The dangerous stretch of highway has been a topic of concern for both the NMDOT and local and state law enforcement.
The NMDOT recently unveiled a multi-stage project to modernize and upgrade U.S. 285, from the Texas state line to Loving, about 22 miles of roads.
The project would widen roads, and add lanes, while adding signage and increasing shoulder space, hoping to make the roadway safer.
NMDOT Cabinet Secretary Tom Church said the about $61 million project, has about $30 million in state funds allocated, with the project expected to take up to three years for completion.
In the meantime, NMDOT declared a section of 285 a “safety corridor,” which increased police presence from both the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office and New Mexico State Police, and also doubling fines and adding additional signage.
Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage said the Sheriff’s Office is not giving warnings in that area, opting to serve citations wherever a violation occurs.
Recently the Eddy County Board of County Commissioners approved funding for five new deputy positions to help patrol U.S. 285.
Cage called the accidents a “public health crisis.”
“This is our county, this is our problem,” he said. “We will do what we can to make Eddy County as safe as it can be. There’s got to be a change in attitude.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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