Lawyers suing the Salvation Army over the van crash near Joliet that killed 11 people said Wednesday their wrongful death claims are much stronger because the van’s driver didn’t have a valid driver’s license.

Garneal T. Matthews, 44, actually had two different records with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office: One showed him having a valid license; another indicated he couldn’t legally drive, the lawyers found.

And lawyers representing the families of the victims are changing their wrongful death lawsuits against the Salvation Army to claim the charity negligently hired Matthews.

The Jan. 26 accident on Interstate 55 just south of Interstate 80 near Joliet instantly killed Matthews and nine other Chicago residents on their way to visit friends and family at two downstate prisons.

The 2000 Dodge passenger van was in the left lane just south of Interstate 80 when it lost control, skidded across the grass median and into oncoming traffic, where it was hit broadside by a 1985 Mack semi truck hauling telephone books.

The collision crushed the van and threw four people onto the highway.

All but one of the van’s occupants was declared dead at the scene. The lone survivor, 24-year-old Shawanda Cross, died 12 days later at Loyola Medical Center in Maywood.

Although secretary of state officials said in the days after the crash that Matthews had a valid license and a clean driving record, it turns out a 1974 hit-and-run conviction resulted in his driving privileges being revoked.

Despite that conviction, Matthews was able to get a license in 1994 — probably because a state employee only checked his Social Security number, not his name, plaintiff attorneys said.

In 1974, Matthews did not have a driver’s license, so he did not have a record with the secretary of state under his Social Security number.

Plaintiff lawyers said Wednesday they are checking to see if Salvation Army officials did their own background checks on job candidates when Matthews was hired, or if they contracted with an independent firm to do the research.

Either way, the lawyers claim Matthews never should have been hired.

“His employer should have known about it,” said Timothy Cavanagh, a lawyer representing the family of crash victim Jill Henry. “If they had taken the extra 10 seconds to punch in his name, they wouldn’t have been hired him.”

The lawyer, working with representing the Salvation Army could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

A coroner’s inquest ultimately determined the crash was an accident, with officials saying bad weather contributed to the collision.

An autopsy of Matthews showed he had no medical problems — such as a heart attack or stroke — that could have caused the crash. A toxicology test revealed he had taken an acceptable amount of an over-the-counter cold medicine.

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