AP NEWS

Billerica Auto Auction, Owner Charged with Manslaughter

March 28, 2019

WOBURN -- Nearly two years after a crash at a Billerica auto auction house killed five people, both the company and its owner will face five counts of manslaughter.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan announced the charges against Lynnway Auto Auction of Billerica and its owner, James Lamb, during a press conference Thursday afternoon.

The unlicensed driver of the car that crashed on May 3, 2017, Roger Hartwell, then-76, will not face criminal charges, according to Ryan.

She said this is the first time her office has charged a corporation with manslaughter.

“These indictments allege that the company and Mr. Lamb are criminally responsible for willfully, wantonly and recklessly failing to take appropriate actions that could have prevented the death of five people,” she said.

The long investigation found Lamb, 67, of Andover, was in charge of day-to-day operations at the business, which investigators found did not ensure all drivers were properly licensed and trained, Ryan said.

Reports by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, and incident reports created by the company showed previous instances where employees were struck by cars or injured in “unsafe conditions,” according to Ryan. Prior to the crash, the company was notified they should not employ unlicensed drivers, she continued.

“Despite these recommendations, Lynnway and Mr. Lamb did not ensure that operators had driver’s licenses, and the employer did not train or ensure the employees knew how to operate the vehicles,” she said.

In the weeks following the crash, records showed the driver, Hartwell, had his license suspended in 2012, and never had it reinstated. Lynnway Auto hired Lamb and was unaware of the change in his status, Lamb wrote in statement at the time. Since 1985, Hartwell had been cited in seven crashes, according to records from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Ryan said although Hartwell had an expired license, under state law residents may drive on private property, including the auction house, without a license.

“The Lynnway facility is not a public way, therefore the commonwealth has determined it would not be able to meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver of the vehicle acted recklessly, and therefore he has not been charged with manslaughter,” she said.

Ryan also reference a 2014 incident where an employee was seriously injured and the auction house was ordered to implement safety measures, such as barriers to cordon off the auction lanes in order to protect pedestrians.

“Even though James Lamb signed the certification of corrective action worksheet and abatement letter on behalf of Lynnway in response to the 2014 incident, safety measures were not fully implemented,” she said.

An arraignment date for Lamb has not yet been scheduled. According to Ryan he could face up to 20 years in prison for each count.

The company could face up to $1,000 fine for each count of manslaughter. Since the crash, the maximum penalty for corporations has been raised to $250,000 per count.

“But we will obviously be bound by the statute in effect at the time of the crash,” she said.

Ryan said she believes Lynnway Auto Auctions is being sold, though the business may still be operating. Any allegations of a malfunction of the vehicle are outside of this investigation and would be litigated separately, she said.

The day of the crash, the vehicle, a 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee, entered a pedestrian area, hitting several people, before crashing through a cinder block wall. The car crossed the entire length of the building in under 4 seconds, traveling at 32 mph, according to Ryan.

Two people were pronounced dead at the scene and three others later died from injuries. In total, nine people were transported to the hospital.

The victims include Brenda Lopez, 48, and Pantaleon Santos, 49, both of Rhode Island, Leezandra Aponte, 36, of Lowell, and Elliott Rowlands Jr., 50, of Buzzards Bay, and Ruben Espaillat, 55, of Methuen.

Billerica Deputy Police Chief Roy Frost expressed condolences to the families affected by the crash at the press conference Thursday.

“This has been a very difficult two years for them and I hope that this helps in some small fashion,” Frost said.

The Billerica Police Department and State Police investigated the incident.

Lamb, his attorney and a public relations representative were not immediately available for comment Thursday night.