In June of 2014, actor and comedian Tracy Morgan was severely injured in a truck accident on the New Jersey Turnpike near exit 8A in Cranberry. The accident was caused by a Walmart tractor trailer that rear-ended a Mercedes-Benz limo van, which was carrying Mr. Morgan and four other passengers. James McNair, Mr. Morgan’s longtime friend and fellow comedian, was pronounced dead at the scene. Mr. Morgan suffered a traumatic brain injury, a shattered leg, multiple facial fractures, and was in a coma for two weeks after the accident.
Following a lengthy investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) released a report regarding the cause of the accident. The report also contains several recommendations to prevent similar truck accidents from occurring in the future.
The NTSB’s investigation found that the driver of the Walmart truck was severely fatigued when the accident occurred at 12:55 in the morning. Because the Walmart driver had commuted nearly 800 miles before beginning his 14-hour shift, he had not slept for more than 28 hours prior to the accident. Moreover, the accident occurred near the end at the driver’s 14-hour shift and at a time when the body naturally craves sleep.
The report states the truck driver’s fatigued condition caused him to have a delayed response to the slowed traffic that was travelling through a construction zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. The truck driver was travelling at approximately 65 miles per hour through the construction zone where the accident occurred. The construction zone had a posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour, which the driver ignored. The report notes that if the Walmart driver had been traveling at the posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour, he could have stopped in time before crashing into the limo van carrying Mr. Morgan and his friends.
The report also found that Walmart did not have a structured fatigue management program in place that could have improved the company’s ability to monitor and educate its truck drivers about the risks of excessive fatigue.
In addition, the failure of passengers of the limo van to wear their seatbelts and to properly adjust their head rests contributed to the severity of their injuries, the report noted. As a result of the accident, the NTSB is recommending that the National Limousine Association develop guidelines for limo companies to conduct pre-trip safety briefings to strongly encourage passengers to wear seatbelts and to properly use head restraints.
The NTSB also reiterated its safety recommendations that all trucking companies implement fatigue management programs and use onboard monitoring systems to ensure that truck drivers are following the rules of the road.
The fatal truck accident has generated a national debate on truck safety and driver fatigue. Truck accidents in America kill approximately 4,000 people each year. Construction zones on highways are particularly dangerous. The Chairman of the NTSB, Christopher Hart, stated that, “Heavy trucks are involved in nearly one in eight fatal crashes. This alone demands our attention. In work zones, such as the one in which this crash occurred, one if four fatal crashes involves a heavy truck.”
NTSB Chairman Hart further stated, “Fatigue cannot be addressed solely by regulations. Strong hours-of-service rules are important. But they cannot govern what employees do on their own time. That’s where fatigue management programs can help, by educating drivers, dispatchers, managers, and their families that fitness for duty must be an unwavering commitment.”
Walmart has revised its policies and procedures as a result of the accident. The company’s truck drivers must now live within 250 miles of where they work or arrive at least 9 hours before their shifts begin, so that the drivers have adequate time to sleep time before going out on the road.
Walmart settled a personal injury lawsuit filed by Mr. Morgan for an undisclosed amount of money. Walmart is now suing several of its insurers, claiming that the insurance companies are acting in bad faith by refusing to reimburse Walmart for a portion of the money the company paid Mr. Morgan as part of the settlement.
In a recent interview, Mr. Morgan described the emotional trauma he has experienced in the aftermath of the accident. Mr. Morgan told a reporter, “You’re never going to be normal after you go through something like that. You don’t die for a few weeks and then come back to normal, trust me. Something’s going to be missing, something’s going to be gained – you just got to live your life after that. But after surviving something like that, I’m probably never going to feel normal.”