Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Red Wings' limo driver: I woke up, hit tree

The moment a limousine carrying Red Wings hurdled a curb in 1997, the driver jolted awake just before the car slammed into a tree.

"I fell asleep behind the wheel," Richard Gnida, 38, of Taylor told a jury in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Monday, his first public statement about the crash in Birmingham that ended the careers of defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov.

Gnida is a key witness for lawyers of an Ohio car dealership who hope to persuade jurors that the driver and now-defunct Gambino's Limousine Co. in Belleville -- not inaccessible seat belts -- were responsible for the serious brain injuries to both men. Another player, Slava Fetisov, suffered minor injuries.

A Red Wings fan, Gnida said he was excited to pick up the players and even got their autographs after dropping them off for a golf outing to celebrate the Red Wings' 6-day-old Stanley Cup championship. Gnida said he felt a little tired on the trip back to Birmingham but didn't say why he kept driving.

Given the fact that he was driving without a license and had a history of drunken driving, Gnida should not have been behind the wheel in the first place, said lawyers for Findlay Ford Lincoln Mercury, the dealership that sold the limo to Gambino.

The limo company also had no policy to ensure that seat belts should be visible to riders, former owner John Gambino acknowledged in testimony Monday.

The wives of Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov sued the dealership, saying it should have known the limo had defective or inaccessible seat belts. The belts were tucked under the seats, attorneys for the wives said.

Gambino said seat belts weren't his responsibility because state law doesn't require backseat drivers to buckle up.

"I wasn't even thinking about seat belts," Gambino said of the day the Red Wings players climbed into the limo. "I just wanted to make sure the car was clean, and that was it."

The office manager for the limo company at the time of the crash, Dawn Council, 43, said that although riders often stuffed seat belts under the seats, drivers were never required to ensure the belts were visible to the next customers.

Attorneys for the car dealership grilled Gambino for not checking Gnida's record, which included two drunken-driving convictions and driving with a suspended license.

Although police said there were traces of marijuana in Gnida's bloodstream at the time of the crash, they said there was no evidence that he was high when the accident happened. And they said there was no trace of alcohol in his system.

For his role in the accident, Gnida served seven months in Oakland County Jail for driving without a license.

In July 1999, he was arrested for his third drunken-driving conviction after leaving a topless bar in Inkster. He was sentenced to a year in jail.

Konstantinov suffered head injuries that left his brain severely traumatized. He uses a walker or wheelchair to move around.

Mnatsakanov was partially paralyzed.

The trial continues today.
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