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Sleep and Society || Tracy Morgan Takes on Wal-Mart

Update: The Morgan-Walmart case was settled out of court and Morgan, McNair, and comedian Ardie Faqua were awarded a combined total of $100 million.

This case shines a bright spotlight on federal regulations currently aimed at reducing fatigue in commercial truck drivers.

Actor-Comedian Tracy Morgan

It appears that Wal-Mart is aiming to settle out of court with regard to the case of Tracy Morgan v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., in which actor-comedian Tracy Morgan was badly injured in a multi-vehicle pileup in New Jersey last June. The collision took the life of his friend and fellow comedian, James (Jimmy Mack) McNair; two other passengers were also injured.

Wal-Mart was initially sued by Morgan in July for negligence based on reports that its tractor trailer driver Kevin Roper was allegedly awake for more than 24 hours at the time of the crash, which led to allegedly driving drowsy and the likelihood he fell asleep at the wheel.

Early reports from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed Roper was both speeding and running up against his drive time limit, a voluntary regulation in the commercial trucking industry meant to prevent drowsy driving in long-haul truckers.

Wal-Mart previously denied responsibility for the wreck and, in documents filed in New Jersey Federal Court this week, blamed Morgan’s injuries on his failure to “exercise ordinary care in making use of available seat belts” and acting “unreasonably and in disregard of the plaintiffs’ own best interests.” Wal-Mart also expressed the possibility that Morgan’s injuries “may have been caused by third parties over whom Wal-Mart had no control.”

Representatives for Wal-Mart said that shifting some of the blame for the injuries onto Morgan and his companions would free the box store chain to reduce or eliminate some damages in the case as part of the settlement process.

Regardless, Morgan expressed outrage at the implications of the Wal-Mart statement this week. “I can’t believe Wal-Mart is blaming me for an accident that they caused,” he said in a statement.

However, one day after Wal-Mart condemned Morgan for not wearing a seat belt, they released a more conciliatory statement, saying they were “committed to working to resolve all of the remaining issues as a result of the accident… While we were required to respond to the lawsuit, we have also taken steps to encourage settlement discussions. Our thoughts continue to go out to everyone involved, and we remain committed to doing what’s right.”

Meanwhile, Morgan’s attorney reported Tuesday that the actor-comedian has also suffered traumatic brain injury which has impaired both his speech and cognitive function. Morgan is also still unable to walk and relies on a wheelchair to ambulate. His attorney said it’s unclear whether Morgan will be able to return to acting or stand-up comedy.

Wal-Mart truck driver, Kevin Roper, who initially pleaded not guilty to charges of vehicular homicide and assault by automobile, remains free on bail but was suspended by the corporation pending the outcome of the investigation.

This case shines a bright spotlight on federal regulations currently aimed at reducing fatigue in commercial truck drivers. Voluntary compliance demands that 11 hours of driving per day be matched with 14 hours of on-duty time total, with weekly limits on all driving hours also held to account. These rules were tightened by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) last year, but they are currently being scrutinized by the Senate, which is considering a reversal of some compliance rules for truck drivers.

Morgan’s case also brings into stark review other similar tragedies: one in May 2013, in which a woman lost three of her nine children in a tractor trailer crash on a Georgia highway; the other just last week in Oklahoma, when four members of a Texas community college women’s softball team were killed when a tractor trailer hit their bus.

A quick Google search shows that these kinds of accidents are far more prevalent than presumed. Nearly 4,000 people are killed annually in accidents involving tractor trailer trucks and semi trucks, sometimes due to poor driving by all parties, but nearly half, by some reports, occurring due to the fatigue induced by economic pressures on commercial drivers to work through sleeping periods in order to meet delivery times.

Currently, New Jersey is the only state to view drowsy driving as a criminal behavior; in the language of that state’s law, a drowsy driver is defined as “a driver that has been without sleep for 24 hours.” They are “considered to be driving recklessly, in the same class as an intoxicated driver. (New Jersey Statues §2C:11-5).”

This blog post compiled from reports by Bloomberg News, CNN.com, The New York Daily News and People Magazine.

Sleep and Society || Tracy Morgan Takes on Wal-Mart

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