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Lawsuit: Company's policies led to fiery crash that killed 4

The semitrailer truck carrying a nearly full load of 9,000 gallons of gasoline was driving so fast and so recklessly the night of Feb. 11, 2005, that it alarmed a 6-year-old in a nearby car.

"Why is he driving so crazy?" the little boy asked his mother, Maria Thompson of Boca Raton, as the tanker abruptly cut in front of her car on a Florida's Turnpike ramp that has an extremely sharp turn and a 35 mph posted speed limit.

The tanker was probably traveling at least 60 mph, according to court documents

Thompson told investigators she and her son watched helplessly as the gasoline-laden tanker, driven by Flavio Santisteban and owned by Floval Oil Corp. of Miami, skidded out of control, flipped onto a 2001 Mercury Sable station wagon carrying four people and exploded into flames.

Three people burned to death in the car. The fourth, 53-year-old Alan Klein of Cherry Hill, N.J., leaped out of the car engulfed in flames and stumbled into a nearby pond, where he drowned, according to the Broward County medical examiner.

"At first, I didn't know there was car there. You really couldn't see the other car there," said another witness, Patrick Manz of North Lauderdale. "There was that much flame."

The lawsuit

Nearly two years after the horrific accident, family members of Klein and his wife Deborah claim in a wrongful death lawsuit that speed and reckless driving cited by the Florida Highway Patrol weren't the only factors. They contend that Floval forced Santisteban to drive an illegally high number of hours and make far too many stops during his nightly runs.

"You shouldn't have the incentive of delivering more in less hours," said attorney Ervin Gonzalez, who is representing the Kleins' adult children, Michael and Lisa Klein, in the lawsuit. "Employers can't make people drive too many hours. They can't push them to speed."

Santisteban, 35 , of Hialeah, faces four criminal charges of vehicular homicide, with trial scheduled to begin Jan. 8 in Fort Lauderdale. The Highway Patrol concluded that Santisteban - who had been cited for driving violations at least 10 other times - operated the truck "with reckless disregard for human life." He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $10,000 bail.

The Kleins' civil lawsuit - two others have been filed by the families of crash victims Gloria Halpern and Anita Epstein - seek an unspecified amount of damages from Floval and Santisteban.

A transportation expert hired by Gonzalez, Forrest Baker, concluded in a report on the accident that Santisteban had worked 128 hours without a day off in the 12 days leading up to the crash - more than 10 hours a day, on average. If the accident had not happened, he would have worked about 80 hours over a seven-day period, Baker estimated.

Federal safety rules allow truckers who haul hazardous cargo to drive a maximum of 60 hours over a seven-day period. Driver fatigue is frequently cited as a key cause of crashes involving large trucks. The U.S. Transportation Department, in a study released in March, found that fatigue was an "associated factor" in crashes involving 5,000 large trucks from April 2001 to December 2003.

Santisteban only met the legal driving limit for nine of the 42 weeks he had worked for Floval, working more than 80 hours during nine other weeks and more than 90 hours one week. He also had to often squeeze eight or nine stops during his nightly runs, stretching over 200 miles or more.

In his report, Baker said that shows "a documented contempt, on the part of Floval Oil Corp., not only for the federal motor carrier safety regulations but also for the safety of the general public. Floval routinely operated 9,000-gallon Molotov cocktails on the streets of the Miami-Dade County area with tired drivers."

After the crash, the state Transportation Department slapped Floval with 483 safety rules violations, most of them for failure to require its drivers to keep records of their on-duty hours.

Santisteban tested negative for the presence of alcohol or drugs.

The victims

The crash killed four people who were in South Florida to visit a sick family member.

Gloria Halpern of Potomac, Md., who was driving, was the mother of Dallas Stars and former Washington Capitals hockey player Jeff Halpern. With her was her brother, Alan Klein; Alan's wife, Deborah; and Halpern's aunt, 83-year-old Anita Epstein.

Halpern and Epstein had just picked up the Kleins at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and were on their way to suburban Coconut Creek, where the elderly father of Alan Klein and Halpern was dying. The brother and sister were making regular visits to see their father, Mortie Klein, in Florida at the time.

Lisa Klein, 24, and Michael Klein, 21, have had a tough time coming to terms with the deaths of their parents in such a brutal and sudden manner, said their attorney, Gonzalez. Lisa Klein said she has been unable to spend the night at her parents' New Jersey house, where Michael lives, without breaking down in tears.

"I'm not as angry, but I'm definitely very sad still, very much," Lisa Klein said.