A Loudoun Circuit Court jury today issued guilty verdicts on all five charges against the man accused of crashing a poorly-maintained, converted bus into a family car and killing Erin T. Kaplan.
The jury recommended that he serve 10 years in prison, 18 months in jail and pay $3,500 in fines.
“It’s the end of a big chapter for us, it’s something that we’ve been waiting for for a very long time, and I think that this is going to give us some tools that we need to start making repairs,” said Erin Kaplan’s husband, Faran, after the jury handed down the guilty verdict. He said the next chapter will be “trying to get back to where we were before the accident.”
“My son wants to go back to college, my youngest daughter wants to be a gymnast, and my middle daughter wants to be a teenager again,” Kaplan said. He also said he wanted to thank everyone who stepped up to help his family in the months since.
Tony Steven Dane, 57, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, reckless driving, driving without an operator’s license (repeat offense), driving without insurance, and failure to get the vehicle inspected. He faces a sentence of more than 10 years in prison on the combined charges. Prosecutors have asked for the maximum sentence.
The crash happened on Sept. 8, 2017 at the intersection of Evergreen Mills Road and Watson Road south of Leesburg. He is the owner of Dane’s Great American Hamburger food truck, which was made from a converted school bus.
The afternoon of Sept. 8, he was traveling east on Watson Road and ran the stop sign at the Evergreen Mills Road intersection. The bus hit a 2014 Audi station wagon traveling northbound on Evergreen Mills Road. Erin Kaplan, 39, the driver of the Audi, died at the scene. Her mother and her three teenage children were airlifted to Inova Fairfax Hospital.
The jury heard two days of testimony before Wednesday’s snowstorm. Jurors returned to court this morning to hear closing arguments and begin their deliberations.
Dane’s attorneys only contested involuntary manslaughter charge. They argued that the crash was unavoidable, caused by a brake failure, and that Dane was helpless to avoid the crash.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric M. Shamis has argued the bus was a mechanical “disaster,” pointing to rust, dry-rotted tires, a broken brake light, and that its last inspection was in Utah in 2011. He also described Dane’s botched attempt to replace the bus’s brakes, in which he did not properly flush the brake lines, causing his brakes to fail when he approached that intersection. Shamis argued that pointed to a pattern of criminal negligence that led to the fatal crash.
In finding Dane guilty of involuntary manslaughter, jurors were required to find that the crash was not caused by a simple, sudden brake failure, but stemmed from actions or behavior that demonstrated a reckless disregard for human life.
Dane was driving from Front Royal to Briar Woods High School to serve food during the homecoming festivities.
“This trial is all about what Tony Dane didn’t do, because he was selfish and he wanted to sell hamburgers,” Shamis said.
Dane was unable to stop when he came upon a stopped school bus on Watson Road. Instead of stopping, the truck picked up speed and he passed the bus on the left in the oncoming traffic lane, narrowly missing two students before hitting the Kaplan family’s Audi station wagon.
Dane did not take the stand, but in an interview with an investigator after the crash said the brakes felt “spongy” when he was driving near Middleburg. Prosecutors have said he should have pulled off the road then.
“Because he didn’t heed those warnings, he killed Erin Kaplan and devastated her family,” Shamis said.
Dane’s defense attorneys have pointed toward testimony from law enforcement that Dane may not have been able to tell the brakes were getting worse between Middleburg and Evergreen Mill Road.
The jurors recommended a 10-year prison sentence on the involuntary manslaughter conviction; 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine for reckless driving; 6 months in jail for being convicted of driving without a license for a second time; and $500 fines for operating a vehicle without insurance and for failure to have a vehicle inspected. A final sentencing hearing will be held later this year.
The crash led not only to an outpouring of support for the Kaplan family, but an outcry about the safety conditions on Evergreen Mills Road. Since that crash, county supervisors have ordered a study of road safety in the area, and the Virginia Department of Transportation has already begun spot improvements on the road.
But Faran Kaplan said what the crash highlighted for him was the “dilapidated state” of many food trucks.
“Most of them are vehicles that have been purchased from times past—UPS or mail trucks—and I think it’s important that people understand that when they add a lot of weight to these vehicles, that their braking systems need to be reengineered accordingly, and that they need to carry the appropriate licenses and insurances,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan has already approached local lawmakers asking them to require food trucks operators have a driver’s license, a valid vehicle inspection, and insurance before being allowed to operate in their jurisdictions.
“I believe that if our society can start to ask for these things … then it will be a self-correcting problem, and these people with the dilapidated trucks won’t have a place to sell,” Kaplan said.
Dane has also been served with a civil lawsuit by the Kaplan family seeking $10 million in compensatory damages.
“Tell your wife how much you love her every chance you get, because you just don’t know when you’re not going to get a chance to do that,” Kaplan said.