An unusual chain of events contributed to a runaway car trailer killing a woman on Madeira Beach earlier this month, according to a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office investigation.
Susan Hilliard, 48, was struck from behind Oct. 7 as she walked along Gulf Boulevard to meet her husband at a restaurant. She died of massive head injuries.
The trailer came loose from a Ryder rental truck driven by Terry L. McGinnis, who was moving his family from Rockford, Ill., to St. Petersburg. McGinnis had unloaded his car from the trailer a few minutes before the accident.
Because no criminal charges were filed against McGinnis, it will be up to the civil courts to decide who is to blame, said Detective Glenn Luben of the county's Major Accident Investigative Team. Through a variety of tests on the trailer and interviews with witnesses, the team concluded this is what happened:
A pin that holds the trailer in place while it is attached to a truck was sheared off, causing the trailer's arm to drag on the ground. The arm hit a sewage manhole cover and the trailer bounced onto the sidewalk. The trailer caught Mrs. Hilliard from behind, carrying her until it hit a parked car. She was flung head-first to the pavement from the impact.
Two safety features failed, the report said. The trailer's safety chains were not properly attached, and an emergency brake system did not activate. The report noted that there was no brake fluid and that the brake shoes were loose and had no lining.
"There wasn't just one thing that caused this accident. There are a lot of liability issues here," Luben said. "It wasn't any one thing."
Mrs. Hilliard's husband, Gene, blames Ryder Consumer Truck Rental. He said car trailers should routinely be checked to make sure they are in good shape.
"I think there should even be a fail-safe system so that the truck won't start unless all the safety features are engaged. That seems like a simple thing to do," Hilliard said. "If you're going to rent trailers, make sure they're working properly."
Andy Anderson, director of operations for Ryder Consumer Truck Rental, insists that the trailers, which Ryder calls "car carriers," are safe. Anderson said the trailers are regularly checked and employees are trained to hitch them correctly. He also said customers are given a brochure with instructions on how to safely secure and operate the trailers.
According to the sheriff's report, McGinnis said the trailer was hitched by a Ryder employee in Illinois and had not been disconnected during the 1,500-mile drive.
McGinnis was on his way to a Ryder Truck Center when the accident happened. Until pedestrians chased him down, McGinnis said, he never knew the trailer had come unhitched. McGinnis asked his pastor to call Hilliard to send condolences. Wednesday, he expressed remorse about the accident.