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Fatal crash lawsuit cites 21 driving incidents against City of G

Fatal crash lawsuit cites 21 driving incidents against City of Grand Rapids driver

By John Agar | The Grand Rapids Press
January 30, 2010, 12:20AM

GRAND RAPIDS -- When bicyclist Gregory Siemion was struck and killed by a city dump truck last summer, the driver told police he never saw Siemion.

Turns out, a lawsuit alleges, Benny Branch hasn’t seen a lot of things from behind the wheel of city trucks and snowplows.
"Branch has a long history of being involved in accidents while driving city vehicles, some including where he is the at-fault driver," attorney Matthew Vicari wrote in a lawsuit filed this week in Kent County Circuit Court.

Vicari filed the lawsuit on behalf the victim’s aunt and estate representative, Norma Van Gessel, against the city and truck driver. While police did not assign blame in the fatal accident, Vicari alleges Branch’s "gross negligence" led to the May 20 crash on Bridge Street NW near Fremont Avenue.

Branch, who was using a dump truck to transport debris collected by street sweepers, had stopped at the union hall that afternoon for a pop.

As he left, he drove through a "narrow alley or driveway with limited visibility," between the union hall and another building, that leads to Bridge Street, Vicari wrote.

He was turning west out of the drive, and struck the bicyclist, who was trapped under the truck and street-level plow blade, and was dragged nearly 90 feet. Branch told police he did not know his truck had collided with the bicyclist until he heard an unusual noise, and saw Siemion’s body and the bicycle in the rear-view mirror.

Siemion suffered horribly as he was dragged down the street, leaving him with a broken pelvis and ribs, his clothing ripped off and an ear torn away. Yet he was conscious enough to talk to a woman who offered comfort, Vicari said.

Siemion died of multiple injuries.

No criminal charges were filed. Grand Rapids Police Sgt. Steve LaBrecque, who investigates serious crashes, said police were "unable to determine responsibility."

Branch, who was on paid leave after the investigation, has since returned to work, city staff said.

Vicari said in the lawsuit that Branch should have been aware many pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists frequent the area where the crash occurred, and that the Fremont Avenue exit offered a better view of traffic.

Branch, 61, who has worked for the city 16 years, has a history of mishaps, the attorney said.

"It’s a tragedy that never should’ve happen as far as I’m concerned," he said in an interview.

In the lawsuit, he cited 21 incidents involving Branch dating back to 1995.

Feb. 7, 1995: Branch drove a city vehicle through a Burger King restaurant drive-thru and went too far under the overhang, striking the edge of the restaurant’s roof.

Jan. 17, 1997: Branch hit a parked car with the city truck he was driving.

May 27, 1998: While driving a city truck, Branch hit another car while trying to drive around it without sufficient room.

July 20, 1998: Branch ran into a garage door when driving a city truck into the garage.

Dec. 22, 1998: Branch hit a parked car with the underbody of the city snowplow he was driving.

April 9, 2001: While driving a city vehicle, branch hit another truck, breaking a window.

June 26, 2002: Branch was driving a city paver and struck another city vehicle. The city issued him a "Letter of Instruction," reminding him of his responsibility to perform his work diligently, including "the safe operation of city equipment.

July 30, 2002: Branch was driving a city truck when he rear-ended a car that had stopped in front of him. The city issued him a "Letter of Warning II" for the incident, noting "that this is your second time occurrence within one months time and this letter is to warn you that when you are operating city equipment, you must adhere to the department’s rules and regulations to avoid putting your safety and the safety of others and their property in jeopardy."

Aug. 28, 2002: Branch was driving a city vehicle when he backed over a lawn, causing lawn and mailbox damage. He was told to consider his clearances while backing up in city vehicles.

Feb. 12, 2003: Branch was snowplowing a city street when he struck a parked car.

Jan. 20, 2005: While on plow duty, Branch drove a city truck too close to a car in front of him. The car stopped, then rolled backward, hitting the city truck.

May 31, 2005: Branch backed up a city truck, striking a garbage truck and breaking its passenger window.

Aug. 17, 2005: Branch backed up a city truck and struck a pole, damaging the pole.

Oct. 10, 2005: Branch backed up a city dump truck onto the hood of a car behind him.

May 6, 2009: Two weeks before the collision that caused Greg Siemion’s death, and while driving the same city dump truck, Branch rear-ended a minivan, breaking the minivan’s rear window.

Branch currently has a clean driving record, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. His last ticket came Dec. 17, 2004, in Grand Rapids, for disobeying a traffic signal.

Siemion, 55, who lived all of his life on the West Side, was described as a man who enjoyed life’s simpler pleasures. He rode his bike everywhere because he lost his driver’s license a couple of years earlier when he blacked out and crashed his car.

He was in the process of getting his license restored. New medication had been prescribed for his heart condition.

Siemion graduated from Kenowa Hills High School, and had worked as a machine operator. After his father died in 1999, he moved in with his mother to help her before she died in 2006. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he did what he could.

He loved to substitute in local bowling and golf leagues, friends said.

City attorneys did not return calls for comment Friday. Branch could not be reached.