I got up to let my crazy cat out about 4 a.m. this morning and was startled by an 18 wheeler literally flying down the road in front of my house. He had to be doing about 90. We live on a rural dark 2 lane road, it’s not a highway and it doesn’t have any shoulders on either side, just trees and drop offs. We happen to live across from a private high school and on a short straight-away. I was instantly angry at this jerk for driving like a madman and hoped (and still do) that he gets pulled over and in lots of trouble. It’s also disquieting to see how silent these huge rigs are then truckers aren’t riding the brake and they are at high speed. He made no more noise than a Camry.
Then when I was checking my email, I saw a newslink for Tracy Morgan’s ongoing lawsuit with WalMart. Since I deal with trucking accident cases every year, I checked it out to see where they were in the case. Tracy had a broken leg (as in the bone was sticking through the skin broken), several broken ribs and a broken nose as well as lacerations and a concussion. He is still in physical therapy. Two of his friends and the driver were also injured and one of his friends was killed. Witnesses had to pull his dead friend off of him to get Tracy out of the vehicle. They were slowing down through a construction zone on their way back from a standup gig when a WalMart truck driver, who hadn’t slept but 3.5 hours in the past 24 hours and had driven from Georgia to Delaware to pick up the load he was carrying, slammed into them at high speed. It creamed the limo bus the injured were riding in. Tracy and the other Defendants are suing Walmart for medical bills, lost wages and punitive damages. WalMart is pressing for them to disclose the punitive amounts they are seeking. In filing this request, WalMart claimed that Tracy and his fellow passengers were primary contributors to their injuries because they didn’t have on seatbelts when the truck hit them. So their defense is basically “if you had worn a seatbelt, you wouldn’t have been injured so badly when our truck, carrying a full load and driven by a sleeping man, slammed into you from behind on your way home from work”. Good luck with that, WalMart.
In researching the rising number of trucking deaths in the United States, I came across this heartbreaking story. To sum it up, a Dad had shoulder surgery and let his wife and their two boys go ahead to visit family on a short vacation without him. On the wife’s way home, she braked for traffic in a construction zone. A trucker, admittedly asleep at the wheel, slammed into her from behind and pushed her vehicle under another truck. She was killed, one of her sons will remain in a wheelchair and need constant care for the rest of his life, and the other son was badly injured but recovered enough to attend college. The man was shattered with the loss of his wife and best friend and the terrible trauma suffered by his son. Here’s the trucker’s admission of being asleep before the accident:
He had several infractions before the accident and this, combined with the negligence showed with the crash, resulted in him being sentenced to 5 years in prison, of which he served 27 months. The family received about $40,000,000 in a settlement. Mr. Slattery, the father who lost his wife and now cares for their disabled wheelchair bound son, insisted the settlement be public and not private. He wanted the world to know what the company had to pay and that they were at fault as punishment to them and as a warning to other trucking companies to ensure their drivers exercised more care on the road.
Several states, including Tennessee, have tried to enact laws that would make it easier to hold truck drivers criminally accountable in accidents caused by their negligence. Only two states, Arkansas and Delaware, have gotten it through. One bill is pending in Tennessee and another failed.
A trucker being interviewed for a story on the difficult decisions facing truck drivers (obey your body and sleep or obey your employer and stay on the road and get the load delivered) talked about something I found fascinating. He said “I recognize “dreamtime” and I pull over immediately, I don’t care if I’m 5 miles away from my destination”. He described “dreamtime” as the state of being in between awake and asleep and believes it is caused by the long monotonous roads or an over-reliance on familiarity of an area. The truck driver went on to say that these hypnotic states didn’t necessarily happen when a driver knew they were tired, they could just descend on you out of nowhere. We’ve all done it in our cars. You’re in the final stretch home and you blank out for a minute daydreaming, next thing you know you’re at your driveway. Apparently, our brains can do autopilot fairly well while we drift off, but where the problem comes in (and the truck driver reiterates this), is when something unexpected happens on your trip . . . a deer runs in front of you, someone cuts across your path, you pop over a hill and traffic is at a standstill . . . that’s when it’s hard for our brains
The Federal Government has many regulations in place to ensure truckers get enough sleep. But it’s easy for truckers and their employers to get around these rules and the penalty for being caught doing it is rarely enforced and, if it is, is just a citation. Truck drivers say their companies use the GPS tracking information to spy on them when they are resting and they will receive calls 15 minutes after pulling over to nap reminding them of their delivery times and urging them to get back on the roads. There is a nationwide shortage of trucker drivers but, with the economy picking up, the need for someone to carry loads of goods is ever-increasing. So the trucking companies take the contracts to deliver goods knowing they are understaffed, but still promising to get the loads delivered in a quick time frame. What else is there to do but ask the truck driver to driver longer hours with less rest?
I had a case once similar to the truck versus car accident in the above story. The outcome was very satisfactory to me and the family of the victim, but the pain they deal with every day and will for the rest of their lives haunts me. The driver of that truck fell asleep, too. He left the country, but he deserves to be in jail for what he did to my clients.