Two wrongful-death lawsuits were filed Tuesday in Bryan County Superior Court in connection with the Interstate 16 pileup that killed five Georgia Southern University nursing students last month, and a third is expected soon.
The suits were filed on behalf of the parents of two of the students who died in the April 22 wreck near the Highway 280 exit: Caitlyn Baggett, 21, of Millen, and Emily Clark, 21, of Powder Springs. A third suit was filed on behalf of a woman who survived the crash, Megan Richards, 20, of Loganville, according to a news release issued Wednesday by the Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak law firm, which has offices in Atlanta and Columbus.
The suits name as defendants Total Transport of Mississippi, the trucking company that owns the 18-wheeler alleged to have caused the early morning pileup; U.S. Xpress, the trucking company’s parent company; U.S. Xpress’ insurers; and John Wayne Johnson, 55, of Shreveport, Louisiana, the driver of the big rig said to have started the chain-reaction crash.
The suits also name Greywolf Logistics Inc., a Georgia-based trucking company, and its driver, Robert Gordon Tayloe of Laurens County, “alleging that these defendants were negligent in causing the first wreck earlier that morning on I-16, which resulted in the stalled traffic,” the news release says.
Natalie Cole Parker, the director of communications for U.S. Xpress Inc., issued a brief statement Wednesday in response to a query from the News.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the Georgia Southern community,” she wrote. “We do not comment on litigation matters.”
The first wreck happened shortly before 2 a.m. April 22, according to authorities, when a tractor-trailer and an RV collided on eastbound I-16 just near mile marker 143. Tayloe was driving the tractor-trailer, and the large vehicles blocked traffic on the interstate for several hours, according to the lawsuits.
The second crash happened shortly before 6 a.m. when Johnson’s big rig plowed into the backed-up traffic between mile markers 140 and 141 in Black Creek, the suits say.
“It is a senseless and horrible loss of Georgia’s best and brightest young women,” said Bob Cheeley, a partner in the firm, which is lead counsel in the four cases. “We intend to thoroughly investigate the hiring practices of Total Transportation and its parent company, U.S. Xpress, to understand why Defendant (John Wayne) Johnson did not see the long line of traffic with brake lights shining in the darkness just before 6 a.m. We intend to get to the bottom of why this happened. After grieving the loss of their beautiful daughters, our clients are deeply disturbed over the facts of this wreck, and they are demanding justice for the innocent blood which was shed on the roadway that morning.”
These lawsuits contain specific allegations that had not previously been made, including in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed April 29 in Bryan County State Court by Mark Tate, an attorney for Kim DeLoach McQuaig, the mother of Abbie DeLoach, 21, of Savannah.
The Wednesday news release says McQuaig will be represented by Tate and Jim Shipley of Savannah as well as by Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak. A Butler Wooten spokeswoman said Wednesday that the law firm is in the process of filing an amended wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of McQuaig in Bryan County Superior Court.
According to the news release, Johnson “inexplicably ran into the rear of seven stopped vehicles in the right lane.”
“Defendant Johnson did not brake, made no effort to avoid colliding with the stopped vehicles on the roadway and collided with the rear of a Toyota Corolla at a speed just under 70 mph,” the release says.
That Toyota had three Georgia Southern nursing students in it who were on their way to their last day of clinical training for the spring semester at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah: Clark, Baggett and McKay Pittman of Alpharetta, all of whom were killed in the wreck. The force of the impact slammed the Toyota into a Ford Escape, which had four other GSU nursing students headed to that clinical training: DeLoach, Brittany McDaniel (who survived), Morgan Bass and Richards.
The lawsuits allege that the Ford was crushed into the rear of an 18-wheeler fuel tanker, “forcing the fuel tanker onto the shoulder of the highway and tossing the Ford into the air where it rolled several times, resulting in the ejection of passengers McDaniel and Bass from the Ford SUV.”
The suits add that the 18-wheeler Johnson was driving had a collision-avoidance system, which would have provided verbal and/or audible alerts to the stopped traffic ahead, “but it is not known if it was operational.”
The news release also says DeLoach “was trapped behind the steering wheel for a considerable period of time and was extricated from the vehicle as a result of the timely efforts of firefighters.”
“Abbie DeLoach was alive for several hours and was loaded onto a life-flight helicopter but did not survive her injuries suffered in the horrible collision,” the release says.
Richards “suffered severe physical injuries and permanent emotional and psychological trauma as a result of the violent crash and its aftermath, including witnessing her friends die when an explosion of the fuel tank engulfed the Toyota,” according to the news release.
‘Every parent’s worst nightmare’
Johnson has not been charged in the wreck pending an ongoing investigation by the Georgia State Patrol’s Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team. Sgt. Ben Garrett, SCRT team leader, said charges are pending autopsy results from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab.
“This is every parent’s worst nightmare,” said Brandon Peak, another in Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak, who also is representing the plaintiffs. “These young women were on their way to their final clinical rotations at a Savannah hospital, and they never had a chance with an out-of-control 18-wheeler barreling down on them from behind. Witnesses who saw the collision described it as if a bomb exploded when the 18-wheeler struck the young women’s vehicles on the roadway.”
Added co-counsel Billy N. Jones of Hinesville: “This carnage on I-16 is, without a doubt, the worst case I have ever seen in my 43 years of practicing law in coastal Georgia. “Never have I seen such indefensible conduct by someone operating a motor vehicle.”
The suits also seek unlimited punitive damages on behalf of the plaintiffs.
“Any cap on the amount of punitive damages applied in this case would be unconstitutional for a number of reasons, including that it violates the inviolate right (to) a trial by jury contained in Georgia’s Constitution,” the suits say.
Paul Floeckher contributed to this report.