A San Bruno father has been charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter after a November roll-over crash killed two of his daughters and severely injured a CHP officer, the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office announced Thursday, Aug. 22.
Arvind Tandel, 48, was driving home from a Black Friday all-night shopping trip with his 34-year-old wife and four daughters, ages 12 to 24, when the accident occurred on Nov. 23, 2012, at 6:49 a.m. on U.S. Highway 101 at Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto.
Tandel was driving his Lexus SUV north from Gilroy after having only three hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, said Cindy Hendrickson, supervising deputy district attorney.
The four daughters were crowded into a back seat fitted for only three. The two who died were not wearing seat belts. A seat in the third row was folded down to make room for the family's purchases, Hendrickson said. The official charges are misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence.
"These dangerous conditions led to an enormous tragedy that could have been even worse. This was a preventable tragedy.
"The defendant is not the first person to drive while extremely sleepy nor the first person to drive with unbelted passengers. Yet this case shows in tragic detail the consequences that can flow from such conduct. It should serve as a reminder to us all about the need for vigilance in adhering to safety rules. This is why the district attorney's office decided that charges were warranted in this case despite the defendant's extreme personal loss," Hendrickson said.
A witness driving behind the Lexus allegedly saw Tandel driving close to the white line that separates the freeway lanes from the right-hand shoulder just before the accident, and the witness moved to the far left lane to stay away from the impending crash, Hendrickson said.
A California Highway Patrol officer was in his cruiser on the shoulder assisting two motorists attempting to change a tire on their truck. The motorists had set out three emergency triangles, and the officer's car was flashing a left-directional arrow directing drivers to move left, Hendrickson said.
Tandel's SUV drifted closer to the police car and struck its left rear, sending it into one of the two stranded motorists and severely injuring the officer. The accident was recorded on the patrol car's video recorder, which showed that the officer's car and the disabled truck were pulled over on a wide shoulder.
The Lexus rolled as many as seven times. Two of Tandel's adult daughters were ejected onto the freeway. Nisha Tandel, 24, was pronounced dead at the scene. Her sister, Sheetal Tandel, 20, died that night at Stanford Hospital, according to the CHP.
Tandel's wife, Yogita Tandel, was also brought to Stanford Hospital with major injuries but survived. The 12-year-old daughter sustained moderate injuries, and she and Payal Tandel, 22, were taken to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. Arvind Tandel suffered major injuries and was also taken to Valley Medical, the CHP said at the time.
The CHP officer only returned to work last month. Had the officer exited his vehicle, which he planned to do, he would have been killed, Hendrickson said.
"It is absolutely miraculous that there weren't more deaths," she said, adding that the SUV rolled off the freeway and up the off-ramp before landing in a depression off the road. Traffic was heavy on the freeway and on the off-ramp, but perhaps because motorists saw that Tandel was losing control of his car, they avoided the accident.
Filing the charges is not meant to make an example out of Tandel, Hendrickson said.
"It is a recognition that a great harm occurred because of a violation of the law and of the consequences of that," she said. "The harm to the public could have been much worse. That's the issue we can't ignore."
Tandel has no previous record of traffic violations, Hendrickson said. She hopes the case will serve as a reminder to everyone of the tragic consequences of a lack of sleep, which she said is as detrimental as driving drunk, and also of not wearing seat belts.
Tandel is expected to turn himself in soon for booking. He and his family were notified of the pending charges, Hendrickson said. He will be released on bail or without bail after booking, she said.
Considering Tandel's personal losses, the DA's office will not seek jail time or probably even community service, which are typical punishments for this type of offense, Hendrickson said. But Tandel could face restrictions on his driver's license based on Department of Motor Vehicles rules, which could mean a suspension for up to 1.5 years.
Tandel's private attorney, Dan Barton, said his client is devastated by the death of his daughters and injury to his wife and other children.
"It's really a tragedy that they are deciding to file criminal charges. He's certainly a man who is suffering or grieving in a very painful manner. This isn't going to do any good for anyone -- not for Mr. Tandel or his wife or his daughters, who will now see their father facing criminal charges.
"I think it's unnecessary. The mistake he made is a very ordinary mistake and one that any driver can relate to.
"Nothing that happens is going to be worse than what has happened to him," Barton said.