It is always unfortunate when an auto accident causes serious injuries and death, but in the case of the wreck which left comedian and 30 Rock actor Tracy Morgan in critical condition over the weekend, some good might ultimately come of it.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Morgan, 45, was riding in a luxury Mercedes Sprinter limousine with his entourage of friends and colleagues. He had recently completed a performance of his “Turn It Funny” comedy tour at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino in Delaware.
Around 1:00 am, the traffic on the New Jersey turnpike in Cranbury, NJ slowed. This went unnoticed by a semi-truck driver following Morgan’s limo, and the big rig subsequently hit the limo, flipping it over and causing a multi-vehicle wreck also involving another 18-wheeler, an SUV, and two other passenger cars.
One of the occupants of Morgan’s limo was killed outright. He has been identified as comedian and writer James McNair (a.k.a. Jimmy Mack), 63, of Peeksill, NY.
Morgan was critically injured in the crash. He sustained a broken leg, broken nose, and several broken ribs. He has already undergone one surgery but remains in critical condition and is expected to remain hospitalized for several weeks.
Also critically injured in the collision were Morgan’s manager Jeffrey Millea, 36, of Shelton, CT, and comedian Ardie Fuqua Jr., 43, of Jersey City, NJ.
A fifth passenger, comedian Harris Stanton, 37, of Brooklyn, NY, escaped with a broken wrist.
It is not believed that the driver of the limo (chauffer Tyrone Gale) was injured.
Who Was At Fault?
Despite the strong indication that the crash was caused by the negligence of the truck driver, a full investigation remains underway. Blame will be assigned in due course. So far, it is not believed that drugs or alcohol were a factor in the accident, although reports have surfaced that the driver of the truck may have dozed off behind the wheel just prior to the wreck, which would go some way to explaining his negligible reaction time when approaching stopped traffic.
The truck driver has been publically identified as Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, GA.
Roper was arrested shortly after the wreck. He has been charged with one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto. He was released from prion on a $50,000 bail on Sunday and is expected to face arraignment in Middlesex County on Wednesday this week.
The criminal complaint filed against Roper states that he caused the accident due to his violation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Hours of Service Guidelines; “specifically by operating the aforementioned vehicle on the New Jersey Turnpike without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours.”
It has also emerged that Roper was an employee of Walmart and was driving one of their trucks when he allegedly caused the accident. Walmart’s US President and CEO Bill Simon released a statement in which he promised Walmart would cooperate fully with law enforcement to determine fault in the accident, and that if their driver was indeed found to be at-fault, Walmart would “take full responsibility.”
For my perspective as a board-certified truck wreck attorney, it certainly appears that Roper was indeed the motorist at fault for this fatal tragedy. However, a thorough investigation is still necessary in order to determine the full scope of Roper’s (and possibly even Walmart’s) negligence.
Truck Driver Fatigue Is a Major Problem
If you were disturbed by the report that the truck driver responsible for this crash fell asleep while driving a tractor-trailer along a busy freeway, then I’ve got some very bad news for you: This sort of thing happens with astounding frequency.
According to data compiled by the FMCSA, driver fatigue is the seventh most common cause for large truck crashes in the US, accounting for 13 percent of all accidents. A survey of professional commercial license truckers also found that one in four truck drivers admitted to falling asleep at the wheel at least once during the preceding month.
This is a very real and widespread problem. In 2012 alone (the most recent data published by TxDOT), there were 8,371 crashes in Texas where the primary contributing factor was that the at-fault was either fatigued or fell asleep.
Of course, there are measures in place to prevent overtired long-haul truckers from getting into the driving seat in the first place. Just last year, the FMCSA introduced tighter hours of service guidelines that limited the number of hours a truck driver could operate to a maximum of 70 hours per week.
In addition to this, they must take a break of 34 consecutive hours from driving after completing their 70 hour weekly limit before beginning their next work week.
Undermining Public Safety
What is no doubt going to be extremely embarrassing politically in the wake of this prolific truck wreck is that only last week the Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment which would undermine the FMCSA’s latest requirements by suspending the 34 hours break rule.
Those senators who approved that decision must surely be left with egg on their face as the public has suddenly become aware of the very real danger of truck driver fatigue which exists throughout the US on a massive scale.
I can only imagine that those who made this decision were influenced more significantly by powerful lobbying groups rather than the far more important issue of public safety. That is a shame. It should be clear to anyone who understands this issue that truck drivers are overworked and pushed to their limit every day. These hardworking individuals spend the majority of the time on the road and away from their families. They are constantly pressured to driver further, drive longer. The faster they deliver their loads, the more distance they cover in a day, the more they are rewarded.
By its very nature, the trucking industry in America presents a great hazard to all of who share the roads with these dangerous big rigs. Even the truck drivers themselves are in danger.
Regardless of the specific findings of the investigation into the New Jersey Turnpike collision, there should be public outcry at the Senate Appropriations Committee’s decision. Rules should be made more stringent, not more lax.
It will be very interesting once the investigation has been completed as to how much of the blame Roper must shoulder alone, and how much of it Walmart should also take responsibility for.
If he did indeed violate the current hour of service regulations, then Roper should be held negligent for that. His logbook and electronic on-board computer should provide sufficient evidence of this.
What we don’t know, however, is how much pressure he was under from his employer. Is there a culture of rule breaking in Walmart’s shipping division? We don’t know yet. But if one driver can commit such a reckless disregard for the rules, it begs the question of why Walmart hadn’t taken action against him to prevent this tragedy from occurring before it happened.
Maybe Walmart pushed their driver too hard. Maybe it is guilty of negligent scheduling or route planning.
These facts probably won’t come to light simply off the basis of this one wreck. But in order to truly get to the bottom of the cause, there are many questions which much be asked. Of course, it’s unlikely we will receive any answer. The fact that Walmart has already promised to “take full responsibility” suggests they would be much happier to settle any claims against them quickly and quietly, rather than go on the record in court.