A wrongful death lawsuit is expected to be filed next week in connection with the car crash last March that claimed the life of Eric MacLean, an 18-year-old high school senior who was thrown from a Jeep driven by his friend and classmate, Seamus O'Brien.
But instead of naming Mr. O'Brien as a defendant, the lawsuit brought by Mr. MacLean's family reveals a new twist in the case and places the blame for the Jeep's mechanical failure on the person who sold the 1979 Jeep to Mr. O'Brien's father on June 16, 2000.
A spokesperson for Mr. MacLean's family told the Gazette yesterday that the lawsuit is aimed at Robert Cimeno, the owner of Beach Road Moped Rentals in Tisbury, who family members allege is responsible for putting a phony inspection sticker on the Jeep when it failed an inspection at Buddy's Auto Repair in Oak Bluffs just days after selling it for $3,500 to Mr. O'Brien.
"Witnesses saw him putting the sticker on the Jeep," said the family friend who asked not to be named. "The family is holding Mr. Cimeno personally responsible for Eric's death. Although we know it was stupid of them to be driving that vehicle, Patricia (Bergeron, Eric's mother) is angry at only one person and has no anger toward the O'Briens."
"This is not about money," the friend continued. "This was something that shouldn't have happened, and now this is something Patricia needs to do to go through the grieving process."
In police documents obtained by the Gazette and through his attorney this week, Mr. Cimeno denied any role in placing a fake inspection sticker on the Jeep and denied any responsibility for Mr. MacLean 's death.
Police declined comment on Mr. Cimeno's connection to the case, but acknowledged they are still trying to find out how the Jeep ended up with an apparently valid inspection sticker even though it was rejected for having no emergency brake and faulty steering.
"The police have an active, ongoing criminal investigation as it relates to the sticker, specifically with the Cimeno operation," said Oak Bluffs police chief Joseph Carter.
Investigators ruled two weeks after the accident that a steering malfunction caused the Jeep to veer off County Road in Oak Bluffs. Police charged both Seamus O'Brien and his father, James O'Brien, with falsifying Registry of Motor Vehicle documents. That charge remains under investigation. Meanwhile, last month in Edgartown District Court, the charge of vehicular homicide against Seamus O'Brien was dropped.
According to official police documents obtained by the Gazette this week, police spent three hours on April 13 interrogating Seamus's twin brother Sean O'Brien about the inspection sticker.
Sean O'Brien told police that he was working at Beach Road Moped Rentals last June when his father purchased the Jeep from his boss, Mr. Cimeno. When he told Mr. Cimeno that the Jeep had failed inspection, "[Mr.] Cimeno started bad-mouthing Buddy's," according to the police narrative report.
"O'Brien stated that in the afternoon he observed Cimeno come out of the front door of the business, walk over to his Jeep, peel the rejection sticker off with a razor and put a new sticker on," the report continued.
Afterwards, according to Sean O'Brien, Mr. Cimeno came back into the office and got into an argument with his wife, Patricia, who is also named as a defendant in the wrongful death lawsuit to be filed. He could not hear what the argument was about, according to the report.
"I honestly didn't know something was wrong with Cimeno putting on a sticker. I didn't know how it works," Sean O'Brien told told police, while adding that he did not inform his father of the sticker incident until after the accident.
Police documents stated that the inspection sticker number was traced to a garage in Somerville and was originally issued to a Volkswagen Golf.
When police contacted the Cimenos in Florida, Mr. Cimeno gave a different version of what happened after the Jeep failed inspection. When Sean O'Brien drove the Jeep to work, Mr. Cimeno said he "noticed the rejection sticker and offered to buy the vehicle back but O'Brien refused this offer and drove the vehicle away, stating that he and his father, James, would make the repairs necessary to pass inspection."
The MacLean family spokesperson acknowledged yesterday that the O'Briens family actions showed negligence. "Not to condone them buying that vehicle, but this is a totally different kind of conduct," she said. "Being stupid doesn't make you a criminal."
Also, the two families had a longtime friendship. "Seamus practically lived at their house," the spokesperson said. The MacLean family's lawyer, Brian Mone, could not be reached yesterday for comment at his Brockton office. The spokesperson did not know if the lawsuit is seeking a specific sum for damages.
Other police reports obtained this week offered many more details about the condition of the Jeep.
According to a three-page report, the only component of the vehicle in good shape was the tires. They were almost new, but that was not enough to counteract the defective steering.
With bolts missing, U-joints corroded and steering gear with no fluid, front wheels were prone to shimmying. And the play in the steering wheel could have exceeded eight inches. In an initial interview with Seamus O'Brien, who later refused to cooperate with police, he told them that right before the crash, the wheel pulled hard to the right. Loose steering, the report said, "would make the recovery of control in the event of front wheel shimmying almost impossible."
Besides the steering and lack of emergency brake, the Jeep's chassis and body mounts were badly corroded.
Police also interviewed a high school classmate who said most students at the school considered the O'Brien Jeep a junk car.