In the spring of 2015, there were two separate five-fatality truck crashes on I-16 in Georgia. The first one got most of the publicity because the victims were all beautiful young nursing students, but both were equally lethal and egregious. In both cases, there were at least indications that a truck driver fell asleep before running over a line of stopped traffic.
On April 22, 2015, in Bryan County, John Wayne Johnson, a truck driver from Louisiana driving for Total Trucking, a subsidiary of US Express, ran over vehicles stopped traffic. He killed five Georgia Southern University nursing students and injured two others. It appears he went to sleep as there was clear visibility on a long, straight stretch of road before he ran over the stopped vehicles. Johnson admitted he had been texting and exchanging sexually provocative message with a woman while driving but denied he was on the phone at the time of the crash.
Less than a month later, on May 19, 2015, on I-16 at its intersection with I-95, a line of traffic was stopped due to road work. David Gibbons of Pooler, driving from Georgia Freightways Corporation, while towing an intermodal container chassis trailer that carried a shipping container for CMA CMG (America), LLC, the US subsidiary of a French shipping line. The tractor-trailer was seen weaving for some distance prior to crashing into the line of stopped traffic, killing five people and injuring one. While the driver’s cell phone was allegedly destroyed in the resulting fire, phone bills indicated he was connected to the internet all day. He admitted to police on video at the scene, “I must have went to sleep.” The GBI crime lab found that he had a sleeping medication in his system, the most common trade name for which is Ambien. In deposition, he asserted his 5th Amendment right to remain silent on every question other than his name. (Disclosure: Our firm is involved as co-counsel in several of those cases.)
This spring, the Chatham County District Attorney charged Gibbons for five counts of vehicular homicide for the May 2015 crash.. This week, a Bryan County grand jury indicted Johnson for on nine counts based on the April 2015 crash, including five counts of first-degree vehicular homicide, serious injury by vehicle, reckless driving, following too closely, and failure to exercise due care. In an unusual move, the company that employed him was also indicted.
Several weeks ago, the civil cases arising from the Bryan County case were settled for substantial amounts. That was relatively simple as such things go since the trucking company and its parent company reportedly had $100 million in liability insurance coverage.
The Chatham County civil cases remain pending. It is more complex because a small trucking company with few assets had only had $1 million liability insurance coverage, so it is necessary to involve companies that are responsible for the flow of intermodal freight traffic into and through Georgia. Those cases remain actively in litigation with trial dates scheduled in 2017.
The conditions that led to both of these lethal crashes remain essentially unchanged. Truck traffic, largely to and from the Port of Savannah, may have had some cyclical waning but remains heavy. Tired and impaired truck drivers are still on the road. The Georgia Department of Transportation continues to repair sections of roadway, leading to lane closures and occasional traffic backups.
Moreover, trucking companies still resist use of forward collision avoidance technology and in-cab devices to monitor and alert drowsy drivers. As Congress is concerned more about protecting trucking companies from implementation of more safety measures than with safety of the public on the roads, these tragedies will continue until being unsafe becomes more expensive than being safe.
Ken Shigley is a double board certified trial lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia. He has served as president of the State Bar of Georgia, chair of the largest practice area section of the American Association for Justice (Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section), and chair of the Institute for Continuing Legal Education in Georgia board of trustees. He is a member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys, lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (2010-2016) and a chapter author of the 2016 edition of Handling Motor Vehicle Accident Cases, both published by Thomson Reuters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.