Actor-comedian Tracy Morgan and three others have filed a negligence suit against Walmart for a June 7 fatal crash in which Morgan was severely injured and another passenger in his vehicle was killed.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court of New Jersey, and alleges the retail giant was “careless and negligent” in the ownership and operation of its tractor-trailer, which crashed into the back of a limousine van carrying Morgan and four other passengers. One of those passengers, comedian James McNair, died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash.
The lawsuit states that Morgan and the other passengers sustained “severe painful bodily injuries” including multiple fractures requiring multiple surgeries, extensive medical treatment, and significant physical rehabilitation. It also alleges that the truck driver, 35-year-old Kevin Roper, fell asleep behind the wheel while driving, and that the collision avoidance technology installed in the truck failed to automatically engage the brakes.
Roper, is facing five criminal charges from the state of New Jersey, including one count of death by auto. He has pleaded not guilty.
The other three plaintiffs in the suit are comedian Ardley Fuqua Jr.; Morgan’s personal assistant Jeffrey Millea; and Millea’s wife, Krista. Fuqua and Jeffrey Millea were passengers in the van when it crashed.
The lawsuit alleges that Roper commuted from his home in Jonesboro, Ga., roughly 750 miles from the Walmart distribution center in Smyrna, Del., before starting his work shift on the morning of Friday, June 6, approximately 13 and a half hours before the crash. A criminal complaint filed by the Middlesex County prosecutor states that Roper had not slept for “a period of in excess of 24 hours,” but the document does not state any additional details as to how investigators arrived at that conclusion.
“Wal-Mart knew or should have known that it was unreasonable for Mr. Roper to commute more than 700 miles from his home in Jonesboro, Georgia to work at a Wal-Mart facility in Smyrna, Delaware, especially immediately before he was to commence a long shift operating a truck that weighed approximately 30-450 tons,” the suit stated. “Additionally, there were many Wal-Mart distribution facilities closer to Mr. Roper’s home – including at least nine in Georgia alone – which would have significantly reduced Mr. Roper’s commute to work.”
Walmart issued a statement in response to the lawsuit, calling the incident “a terrible tragedy” and wishing for a full recovery for the crash victims.
“Our thoughts continue to go out to them, their families and friends, as well as to the families and friends of everyone involved, including Mr. McNair who lost his life,” the company stated. “We are deeply sorry that one of our trucks was involved. As we’ve said, we’re cooperating fully in the ongoing investigation. We know it will take some time to resolve all of the remaining issues as a result of the accident, but we’re committed to doing the right thing for all involved.”
The National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report on June 19, stating that Roper’s day started 11:22 a.m. on June 6, according to his electronic driver log. It would end at approximately 12:54 a.m. on Saturday morning, when his 2011 Peterbilt tractor-trailer slammed into a 2012 Mercedes-Benz limousine van near milepost 71.4 of the northbound lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike.
The NTSB’s June 19 report states that according to electronic driver log information, Roper had logged 9 hours 37 minutes of driving time when the crash occurred. With respect to the maximum 14-hour consecutive duty period for commercial motor vehicle drivers, Roper had logged 13 hours 32 minutes at the time of the collision, per the NTSB report.
The impact of the crash caused both vehicles to move forward, causing secondary impacts with other vehicles that were slowed in the traffic queue that developed south of some road construction. The limo van rolled over and came to rest on its left side, facing east, across the center and right lanes, according to the report.
The NTSB report states that Roper had made a series of pickups and drop-offs during the day in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. The e-log reportedly shows that he left a Walmart facility near Bristol, Penn., roughly 54 miles southwest of his destination in Perth Amboy, N.J., at 12:20 a.m. on Saturday. The crash occurred roughly 30 miles away, near Cranbury, N.J.
The report states that the traffic congestion began some 2.7 miles north of the crash site, where construction contractors were performing work on a large overhead sign, causing the right and center lanes of the turnpike to be closed. The report states that an advance warning sign about one mile south of the crash location was activated, notifying drivers of the lane closure. At approximately one-half mile before the crash site, the posted speed limit was reduced from 55 mph to 45 mph.
According to the report, Roper had logged 9 hours and 37 minutes of drive time when the crash occurred, and 13 hours and 32 minutes of on-duty time. The report also states that the engine control module (ECM) on his Peterbilt recorded a traveling speed of 65 mph for the 60 seconds preceding the crash.
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