April 22 marked the one-year anniversary of a fiery crash that claimed the lives of five Georgia Southern University nursing students when a tractor-trailer plowed into them as they sat a line of traffic that was halted due to cleanup efforts following a prior accident. Families of all five women filed wrongful death lawsuits against the semi driver’s employer, Total Transportation of Mississippi.
According to the lawsuits, the semi driver was traveling at 68 mph and did not slow when he crashed into the Toyota Corolla occupied by three of the women. The Toyota then hit a Ford Escape which held four other students, two of which were killed after the chain reaction crash. The truck driver admitted the deadly I-16 crash was his fault, but insisted he was awake despite not remembering crashing into the vehicles. He also said that his truck was equipped with a collision warning system that was supposed to beep if he got too close to other vehicles, but he never heard it. Johnson walked away from the crash uninjured.
During legal depositions it was revealed that trucking company hired John Wayne Johnson of Shreveport, LA despite knowing he had been fired by a previous employer for falling asleep at the wheel, rolling a tractor-trailer. Additionally, Total Transportation President and CEO John Stomps and Vice President of Safety and Recruiting Bob Viso said that company officials made Johnson “wait at the terminal (in Ridgeland, Mississippi) for approximately 10 hours before having his rig ready to roll.” Instead of beginning his trip at 7 a.m. on April 21 as scheduled, Johnson waited in the driver’s lounge after having ridden the bus all night and began his trip at 5 p.m., expecting to make it to Savannah overnight. An attorney for the plaintiff’s also said that evidence showed that the semitrailer was not equipped with a video camera or a collision-avoidance system.
Days before the anniversary of this fatal crash, Total Transportation agreed to settle three of the wrongful death lawsuits for what the plaintiff’s attorneys described as “substantial” settlements, although one report stated that at least one of the victim’s family will receive $14 million.
This gut-wrenching accident has gain national attention over the last year. Now, the plaintiffs and their attorneys hope it will send a message to the trucking industry that cutting corners for profit sake is not acceptable.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), more than 80 percent of deaths and injuries from rear-end crashes “might have been mitigated had the vehicles been equipped with a collision avoidance system.” A collision avoidance system monitors the road ahead of the vehicle. Radars and sensors detect if a collision is imminent. Drivers are typically then prompted to react to the object via an alert within the vehicle. If the driver does not apply the brakes, and the system detects an imminent crash, the collision avoidance system takes over the brakes and engine to avoid a crash, or at least make it less severe.
Even with all the most advanced safety features installed in a truck, if a driver is negligent or reckless, they can still cause a serious accident. The ultimate responsibility for truck safety rests on the shoulders of the driver and their employer. Trucking companies need to be diligent in who they hire to operate its fleet of commercial motor vehicles. The hiring process should include examining the applicant’s experience, previous training and driving record. A thorough hiring process increases the likelihood of hiring safe, competent and professional drivers. However, when these companies cut corners, it is possible for unsafe, unprofessional or even unlicensed drivers to be hired, posing a significant threat to all motorists. Training is necessary to fully prepare drivers for the challenges involved in handling a big rig. When companies, such as Total Transportation, knowingly employ under-qualified workers to operate their vehicles, schedule routes that exceed hours of service regulations or do not have steps in place to prevent fatigued drivers from getting behind the wheel, needless to say, it can be a recipe for deadly disaster.
Despite installing the latest technology, and despite a trucking company’s hiring procedures and training process — at the end of the day a good dose of common sense goes a long way in making our roadways safer.
Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series—Mark Bello is also the CEO of Lawsuit Financial and the country’s leading expert in providing non-recourse lawsuit funding to plaintiffs involved in pending litigation. He is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.