By Larry Bodine, Publisher of The National Trial Lawyers
Tracy Morgan was lucky to get out alive from the big-right truck crash that put him in the hospital last month. Large 18-wheel trucks going too fast or operated by sleep-deprived drivers kill or injure 5,400 California drivers every year.
And it’s getting worse, as fatalities and injuries from crashes with tractor-trailer trucks have been increasing since 2010 in California. Most of them took place in Los Angeles, with the areas around Berkeley, Bakersfield, Fresno, Orange County and Riverside also marked as danger areas for big truck crashes, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Speeding is the leading factor in of all these 18-wheeler crashes, and to a lesser extent, an unsafe lane change, an improper turn or a move into an automobile’s right of way. When fully-loaded truck gets into a collision — weighing up to 80,000 pounds and traveling at 60 miles per hour — it will destroy anything else on the road.
Driver error is the primary cause of most crashes. According to the US Department of Transportation, this includes prescription or illegal drug use while driving, being lost, abuse of over-the-counter drugs, failure to check blind spots, and fatigue.
Asleep at the wheel
Actor and comedian Tracy Morgan was riding home from a stand-up comedy show after midnight on June 7, when his driver slowed down because of highway construction work.
At that moment, a massive, 40-ton tractor-trailer truck, racing forward at 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, rammed into Morgan’s vehicle from behind. The giant Wal-Mart truck killed Morgan’s friend comedian Jimmy Mack and seriously injured everyone else inside.
Morgan suffered multiple fractures that required numerous surgeries, extensive medical treatment and significant physical rehabilitation. He was immediately put out of work and will have disabilities that will last his lifetime.
Wal-Mart knew, or should have known, that the driver’s hours violated the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations, designed to combat the dangers of driver fatigue, according to Morgan’s federal lawsuit against the company. Wal-Mart disputes this.
The truck was part of Wal-Mart’s private fleet of 7,400 drivers and 6,100 tractor trucks. The driver had not slept in 24 hours and was commuting 700 miles from Georgia to Delaware, making pickups and deliveries along the way. Just before the crash, he fell asleep at the wheel, according to Morgan’s lawsuit.
Legal theories in a truck crash
The driver is facing criminal charges of death by auto and assault by auto. However Wal-Mart is the target of the lawsuit, which seeks to recover damagesusing a legal theory called vicarious liability. This makes employers responsible for the negligent acts of their employees.
Fellow passenger Jeffrey Millea is also seeking to recoup the loss of consortium that his 8-month pregnant wife Krista suffered. This includes maintaining their home, providing love, companionship, affection, society, sexual relations, moral support and solace to his wife.
The passengers may also recover punitive damages if the evidence shows that Wal-Mart acted intentionally or recklessly, or engaged in a pattern of having its drivers work longer shifts than federal regulations allow. Wal-Mart has more than 124 distribution centers across the country, and could have let the driver reduce his commute, according to the lawsuit.
The Peterbilt truck had state-of-the-art anti-collision features, including automatic brakes. The lawsuit charges that Wal-Mart was negligent because the safety features were not functioning, and could have prevented the accident.
One thing is certain: truck crashes that cause deaths and injuries are increasing not only in California, but nationwide. Across the country fatal crashes involving large trucks increased by 3.7 percent. The next time you’re on the highway close to a giant 18-wheeler, be one your guard and keep a sharp lookout.