Crime and Justice

Mechanic charged with manslaughter for approving inspection of vehicle

A year after the accident, Nelson Street below a steep road in Barre still bears scars where a 1992 Chevy Corsica driven by 86-year-old Donald Ibey scraped into the asphalt before colliding with a tree stump below, killing 83-year-old passenger Elizabeth Ibey.

The Vermont Attorney General’s office this week charged 31-year-old auto mechanic Steven Jalbert with manslaughter and reckless endangerment in connection with the accident, which took place on July 5, 2014.

Jalbert passed the Ibeys’ car inspection in spite of rusted brake lines and a rusted frame that contributed to the fatality, investigators say. The weathered brake lines appear to have burst immediately before or during the accident, which occurred only months after Jalbert performed the inspection, according to documents filed by the state.

Jalbert is unfairly being used to make an example, other mechanics say. The state’s inspection requirements holds mechanics to an impossible standard, they say – one that mechanics are encouraged to violate for elderly customers and others who can afford only the most essential repairs.

The law is clear.

Inspection mechanics must reject vehicles if “hoses or tubing leak or are cracked … or rusted,” according to the 2013 Vermont Periodic Inspection Manual.

The requirement to fail vehicles with rusted brake lines was a new addition to the manual in 2013.

That language describes most cars on Vermont roads, mechanics say. Almost a dozen mechanics in Barre said words to this effect but refused to be quoted.

Ibeys ‘car hopped’ for inspection

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Jalbert is charged with manslaughter for having failed to properly inspect the Ibeys’ brakes.

But Jalbert already knew the car, and knew its brake lines were in bad repair, the attorney general’s probable cause affidavit states.

Jalbert had previously told the Ibeys they should replace the car’s badly rusted brake lines, but the Ibeys refused the work, according to the affidavit.

Three years before the accident, the Ibeys’ brake lines had already corroded to the point that Jalbert recommended they replace all four, the affidavit states.

The Ibeys refused, and replaced only the one brake line that had corroded to the point that it was leaking, the affidavit states.

Only eight days before Jalbert inspected the Ibeys’ car, they took it to Cody Chevrolet, in Montpelier, where it underwent a 27-point check.

Among the 27 items included in such a check is a brake line inspection, according to the AG’s affidavit.

A state-certified inspection mechanic, Chad Santor, conducted the 27-point check, and recommended brake work that was completed two days before Jalbert’s inspection. That work did not include repair to the car’s brake lines.

Mechanics said owners of ailing cars often visit multiple mechanics in search of one who will allow their vehicle to pass an inspection.

“I call it car hopping, because it’s just like bar hopping,” state-certified mechanic Aaron Surprenant, of Classic Auto Exchange, said. This is a common practice, and often successful, since many mechanics don’t want to leave their customers stranded without a car, he said.

Santor told investigators the Ibeys’ car was in bad enough condition that he would have failed it if asked to perform an inspection.

The attorney general’s affidavit does not state whether Ibey had asked Santor to perform an inspection.

Vermont Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell said he could not comment specifically on the case beyond what was contained in the affidavit.

Jalbert’s attorney, Hal Stevenson, of Stowe, said he had no comment on his client’s case. Jalbert said he wouldn’t comment. Nor would Jalbert’s father, Armand Jalbert, who owns AJ’s Sunoco in Barre, where the Ibey’s vehicle was inspected.

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Donald Ibey said he, too, did not wish to comment for this story.

Rusty brakes common, mechanics say

“There ain’t a car out there without rust on the brake line,” Alan Young, owner of Duncan’s Auto in Burlington, said. “There’s rust on everything.

“I’ve got cars that’re 2010 and 2011, and it’s like – ‘oh, my God,’” Young said.

Others agree.

“If people don’t wash [the undercarriage], definitely within five years they will have rust on the brake lines,” Vitalie Vulpe, owner of A One Auto Repair in Burlington, said. This is true except for cars with coated brake lines, such as Volvos, he said.

As a result of Jalbert’s case, mechanics aren’t sure what to do with these vehicles, Young said.

“With what the state’s telling me right now … I look at a brake line, and I, ‘I’m not going to inspect your car, because I don’t want my mechanics getting charged with manslaughter and going to jail,’” Young said.

The state officer who investigated Jalbert’s case downplayed this fear.

“I think there’s a common-sense approach to what mechanics are expected to be doing,” DMV Lt. Tim Charland, a police officer and licensed inspection mechanic, said.

Inspection mechanics are expected to fail vehicles whose brake lines are pitted or flaking with rust, not those with superficial rust, he said.

Mechanics shouldn’t use rusty brake lines as an excuse to gouge customers, either, Charland said.

“The manual is very clear” that mechanics can’t recommend unwarranted repairs in the course of an inspection, he said.

But mechanics must frequently contend with a competing concern, they say, in the form of drivers who can’t afford even those repairs mechanics recommend for legitimate safety reasons.

Mechanics often see seniors in this position, Young said. The mechanics are often reluctant to fail these cars and leave their owners without transportation.

“The problem is, you get these people in their 80s, and they don’t have 10 cents,” Young said.

“My opinion is, [Jalbert] was trying to help these people out, so they can get to the doctor or whatever,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of old customers. You try to do the best you can to make sure they’re safe.”

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Mike Polhamus

About Mike

Mike Polhamus wrote about energy and the environment for VTDigger. He formerly covered Teton County and the state of Wyoming for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, in Jackson, Wyoming. Polhamus studied at Southwestern Oregon Community College, University of Oxford and Sarah Lawrence College. His research has been commissioned on a variety of topics such as malnutrition and HIV, economic development, and Plato’s Phaedo. Polhamus hails originally from the state of Oregon. He now lives in Montreal.

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