Wal-Mart is playing the blame game in response to a lawsuit recently filed on behalf of “Saturday Night Live” comedian Tracy Morgan and several of his friends who were critically injured, one fatally, on the New Jersey Turnpike after a Wal-Mart truck slammed into the back of their limousine-van in the early morning hours of June 7, 2014. Morgan suffered brain and orthopedic injuries in the violent rear-end collision.
Shortly after the accident, Wal-Mart CEO and President of U. S. operations Bill Simon said, “If it’s determined that our truck caused the accident, Wal-Mart will take full responsibility.” However, in their formal Answer to Morgan’s lawsuit, Wal-Mart denies liability for the crash and places blame on Morgan and his friends claiming their injuries were caused “in whole or in part” by their failure to wear safety belt restraints.
Examining the crash site, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the Wal-Mart truck was speeding and that its driver may have been asleep at the time of the accident after driving for more than 24-hours. The NTSB investigation also found the Wal-Mart truck was travelling at 65 mph at the time of impact despite construction signs warning of reduced speeds from 55 mph to 45 mph, and lane closures ahead due to road construction. Wal-Mart’s driver has been charged criminally with vehicular homicide and assault by auto.
Despite these findings by the NTSB, this is not a slam-dunk case against Wal-Mart.
Regulations developed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) limit over-the-road drivers to a 14-hour workday with an 11-hour daily driving limit. To combat the issue of driver fatigue, several new FMCSA regulations were enacted July 1, 2013 reducing the maximum number of weekly work hours to 70 hours down from 82 hours per week.
Although the Wal-Mart driver had technically not yet exceeded the 14-hour workday limit since his driving logs showed he had been on the job for 13 hours, 32 minutes, in reality, he had actually been driving well in excess of 14 hours since he commuted 750 miles from Jonesboro, Georgia to Smyrna, Delaware before starting his 14-hour shift for Wal-Mart making deliveries and pick-ups in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Attorneys who filed suit on behalf of Tracy Morgan contend Wal-Mart “knew or should have known” its driver was fatigued, and it was unreasonable for their driver to be driving since their driver was commuting from so far away. Given this, shouldn’t it logically follow that Wal-Mart also knew the number of hours this driver was driving, whether on the job or not, exceeded the number of hours a driver can safely drive without compromising safety and placing everyone on the road at risk?
Despite the NTSB findings of excessive speed, driver fatigue and that the driver may have fallen asleep at the wheel before the fatal crash, Wal-Mart argues that the extent and severity of Morgan’s injuries and that of his friends would be less had they used the seat belt restraints provided. Although Wal-Mart’s defense strategy is not very popular in the news media or among Morgan’s fans, it is a legitimate defense that must be used in its answer to Morgan’s lawsuit.
Wal-Mart will use the seat belt “defense” to avoid its responsibility or to reduce the amount of damages suffered by Morgan and his injured friends. It is up to a judge or a jury to examine the conduct of all parties involved to determine the percentage of fault for causing the crash and the resulting injuries.
States have different rules to determine the degree of fault of each party. In some states, if a plaintiff is found to be even 1% at fault recovery is barred by law. Kentucky uses a pure comparative fault analysis so any award against a defendant is reduced based on the plaintiff’s share of fault. States that use a comparative fault analysis examine the conduct of each party involved and divide damages between the negligent parties based on the amount of fault of each party. Indiana is a modified comparative fault state meaning a plaintiff is barred from recovery if the plaintiff is more than 50% at fault; if the plaintiff is 50% at fault or less, fault is apportioned and damages reduced according to percentage of fault.
Wal-Mart is obviously to blame for the accident but a judge and jury will also have to determine if using seat belts may have prevented or lessened the injuries suffered by Tracy Morgan and his friends. If Mr. Morgan’s conduct could have minimized his injuries the judge could reduce the damages awarded. In this case, it appears that a fully loaded semi crashed into the rear of a stopped van. How the failure to wear a seat belt would have changed the severity of the injuries to Mr. Morgan and prevented the death of his companion is difficult to understand. Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the accident tragically illustrates why using seat belts at all times, and in all types of vehicles, is so important.