Articles Posted in Southeastern truck accidents

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Wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases involving commercial trucks are seldom just about a moment’s inattention. Usually we find there are issues of training, supervision and rule violations, though frankly with a local delivery truck in rush hour it is sometimes simpler than that.

Lithonia truck driver Stephen Scott has been charged with second degree vehicular homicide and following too closely in the Friday crash that killed a Lawrenceville couple, Donna and John Kesse, on I-985 in Gwinnett County, according to media reports.

Traffic was slowed in the interstate’s southbound right-hand lane due to merging traffic from Ga. 20 about 3:20 p.m. Friday when a box truck driven by Scott slammed into the Keese vehicle, then careening into a Dodge Ram pickup truck and a Saturn minivan towing a small trailer with an ATV on it.
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Fatalities in large truck accidents increased 8.7% in 2010, according to a report released last week by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

NHTSA said in its annual report that 3,675 people died in trucking related accidents in 2010, an increase of 295 over the 3,380 fatalities in 2009. The number injured in trucking accidents increased 12% from 17,000 to 19,000. (Those number are surely rounded off.)

NHTSA did not clearly identify a cause, but increased truck traffic due to gradual economic recovery is likely a major factor.
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Truck driver fatigue is one of the more common causes of tractor trailer collisions. Too often the trucking industry pushes drivers to complete deliveries on impossible schedules, falsifying their logs if necessary to look legal if they are stopped. Over the years as a trial lawyer specializing in interstate trucking accident cases, I have heard truck drivers’ stories of economic pressure to break the hours of service laws. This is one of the factors that makes truck driving a dangerous occupation.

I don’t know if that is what led to a fatal crash this week just across the state line on I-85 in Anderson County, SC. However, authorities in Anderson County have already concluded that a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel causing a wreck that killed three people. According to the coroner, an autopsy ruled out a stroke or heart problem.

South Carolina state troopers report that a big rig driven by Eddie Wyatt, 69,of Rockmart, Ga., was southbound on I-85, when it careened across the median into the northbound lanes, crashing head on into another tractor trailer head on. The second 18 wheeler jack-knifed and struck an SUV and a pick-up truck.

Both tractor trailer drivers, Wyatt and , Clay Johnson, 38 of Charlotte, N.C., were killed.

The third fatality was Jeremy Wilson, 33, a lawyer in Lincolnton, N.C., who was driving a Toyota Tundra towing a fishing boat on a trailer.

Curtis and Beverly Schulze, were airlifted to Greenville Memorial Hospital. They were released on Sunday.
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A tractor trailer driver did not slow from 65 mph before crashing into a line of vehicles that had slowed for traffic on I-40 in North Carolina on June 30th. One passenger vehicle caught fire, and one person was killed.

According to a report from the North Carolina Highway Patrol, 50-year-old tractor trailer driver Ronald Eugene Graybeal of Newport, Tennessee was charged with felony death by vehicle, driving while impaired and possessing drugs including marijuana and methadone. According to media reports, he was convicted of rape in Cocke County, Tenn., in 1981 and is listed on the national sex offender’s registry.

Graybeal was driving for Hawley Transport Services of Newport, TN, a company with ten trucks and ten drivers. That company’s records with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration indicate a score of 82.4% on “fatigued driving – hours of service” in on-road inspections in the past two years. Out of 73 relevant Inspections, 21 of those discovered a total of 29 fatigued driving violations.

Hawley Transport also has multiple prior reports of unsafe driving and vehicle maintenance violations.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations have zero tolerance for use of drugs that can impair drivers. Trucking companies are required to have random drug tests of drivers. However, when we sue trucking companies after catastrophic crashes, we often find companies that have continued operation after being cited dozens of times for failure to comply with drug testing rules, as well as hours of service and vehicle maintenance violations. This often appears to be part of a slack corporate culture that disregards safety rules.
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Monday was a rainy day here, and in the rain there were at least three tractor trailer wrecks on the Atlanta expressways. The worst was on I-285 Northbound just above I-20 West, as a tractor trailer overturned after colliding with at least one other vehicle.

One of the basic rules for operation of a large commercial truck is to exercise “extreme caution” when bad weather affects visibility or traction.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations §392.14 provides:

Extreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle shall be exercised when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist, rain, dust, or smoke, adversely affect visibility or traction. Speed shall be reduced when such conditions exist. If conditions become sufficiently dangerous, the operation of the commercial motor vehicle shall be discontinued and shall not be resumed until the commercial motor vehicle can be safely operated. . . .

The Commercial Drivers License Manual says:

It will take longer to stop, and it will be harder to turn without skidding, when the road is slippery. Wet roads can double stopping distance. You must drive slower to be able to stop in the same distance as on a dry road. Reduce speed by about one-third (e.g., slow from 55 to about 35 mph) on a wet road.

Just an educated guess here, but I would bet that at least one of the truck drivers involved in those wrecks on Monday didn’t exercise extreme caution and slow down by one-third.
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As Georgia trucking lawyer who has lived in Sandy Springs for 26 years, I was saddened to hear recently that a woman was killed when she was hit by a 18 wheeler on I-285 near Riverwood High School where my son had his glory days in high school football.

Rosario Velez, 44, was in her minivan stopped in the I-285 emergency lane at Riverside Drive, making a phone call, when she was struck by an tractor trailer that, according to the police report, crossed over into the emergency lane to hit her.

Today, Sandy Springs police arrested Joseph Leon Golden, 43, the truck driver from El Paso, Texas. He has been charged with second-degree vehicular homicide and a lane violation, and is being held at the Fulton County Jail on $5,500 bond.
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Most professional truck drivers follow the zero tolerance rules about drinking and drugs before driving a tractor trailer or other commercial vehicle. As a trucking safety trial attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, I see a lot of serious safety violations but seldom one involving DUI.

But a recent tragedy in West Virginia demonstrates why there is no tolerance for truck drivers operating an 80,000 pound, 18-wheeler semi tractor trailer truck when impaired by alcohol or drugs. Police there say Breazeale Norris was driving drunk when he hit a car on I-64 in December 2009. One 18-year-old boy died in the crash and three others were injured. Norris was charged with DUI causing death and leaving the scene of an accident.

About 37% of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations deals with alcohol and drug testing procedures.

49 C.F.R. § 392.5 absolutely prohibits use or possession of alcohol in operation of a commercial motor vehicle. “No driver shall . . . [u]se alcohol, . . . or be under the influence of alcohol, within 4 hours before going on duty or operating, or having physical control of, a commercial motor vehicle; or . . . [u]se alcohol, be under the influence of alcohol, or have any measured alcohol concentration or detected presence of alcohol, while on duty, or operating, or in physical control of a commercial motor vehicle.” Any driver is violation of this is placed in “out of service status” for 24 hours.

It further provides that “No motor carrier shall require or permit a driver to . . . [v]iolate any provision [of this section or] [b]e on duty or operate a commercial motor vehicle if, by the driver’s general appearance or conduct or by other substantiating evidence, the driver appears to have used alcohol within the preceding 4 hours.”

49 C.F.R. § 391.15 provides that a driver is disqualified by driving a commercial vehicle with blood alcohol 0.04% or more, or under influence of drugs, or refusing to take drug or alcohol test.
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Thursday night on I-20 near North Augusta, SC, a tractor trailer changed lanes due to slowing traffic, forcing another motorist into the median and causing a fatal crash. Aaron Jennings of North Augusta was pronounced dead at the Medical Center of Georgia‘s emergency department. According to witnesses, Jennings was in the lane closest to the median when a tractor-trailer pulled in behind him from the slow lane and forced his Ford Explorer off the roadway and into the median where it rolled over several times.

The tractor trailer driver did not stop, but a witness took down information about the truck and the SC Highway Patrol was able to locate the driver. At last report, SC officials had not released information about the accident reconstruction investigation or what charges the tractor trailer driver might face.
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When a tractor trailer from Alabama crossed the median on I-65 in Kentucky last week and struck a passenger van head-on, it killed 10 devout Mennonites en route to a wedding. The truck driver also died in the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating why the tractor trailer crossed the median and collided with the van. However, one thing that has to come to light is that the trucking company had an unsatisfactory safety rating with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Hester, Inc., of Fayette, Alabama, had a Safestat rating of 88.4 based on failed safety inspections. Any Safestat score above 75 is considered unsatisfactory. An official of the American Trucking Association stated to the Washington Post that Hester should not have been operating, based on that Safestat score.

There is no report yet as to specific violations of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations related to this crash. But in my experience companies with Safestat ratings that bad have a terrible safety culture and we find multiple violations of safety rules when a crash occurs.
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Since I represent victims of catastrophic trucking accidents in Georgia, I tend to deal with some pretty bad stuff. A friend from high school days who occasionally glances at this blog asked me a few days ago, “are there ever any positive outcomes for any of the cases you represent?” My response was that people don’t call me because nothing bad happened.

But recently I met members of a Georgia family who are incredibly blessed to be alive. A tractor trailer crossed the median of an interstate highway and struck them head-on. Another truck struck them from behind, knocking them back into the first truck. Miraculously, none of them were catastrophically injured. Of course they had some injuries, but it is amazing that anyone came out alive.
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