The driver of a tractor-trailer that plowed into stopped traffic on Interstate 16 in North Bryan last year, killing five Georgia Southern University nursing students and seriously injuring a sixth, was indicted Wednesday in connection with the early morning pileup.
So was his employer, Total Transportation of Mississippi, according to documents filed in Bryan County Superior Court.
John Wayne Johnson was driving a 2012 Peterbilt Model 587 big rig eastbound on I-16 when it crashed into traffic that had been backed up from an earlier wreck. The chain-reaction crash killed Georgia Southern nursing students Abbie Lorene DeLoach, Morgan Jane Bass, Emily Elizabeth Clark, Caitlyn Nicole Baggett and Catherine McKay Pittman and rendered Brittney Deshe’ McDaniel’s spine useless, according to the indictment.
Johnson was indicted on five counts of first-degree homicide by vehicle and one count each of serious injury by vehicle, reckless driving, failure to exercise due care and following too closely.
Total Transportation was indicted on five counts of first-degree homicide by vehicle and one count each of criminal responsibility of corporations and serious injury by vehicle.
The indictment of Total Transportation says the corporation knew that Johnson was an unsafe truck driver, yet continued to employ and use him to drive its tractor-trailers.
Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden said Wednesday he was not able to comment beyond what was said in the indictments.
When asked about Total Transportation being indicted not just for corporate responsibility, but five counts of homicide by vehicle, Durden said, “This is a unique case.”
In April, the families of three of the students who died in the wreck — Baggett, Clark and DeLoach — reached settlements in lawsuits filed against Total Transportation, Total Transportation of Mississippi; New Mountain Lake Holdings LLC, the holding company of Total Transportation’s parent company, U.S. Xpress Enterprises; U.S. Xpress Inc.; U.S. Xpress Leasing Inc.; and Mountain Lake Risk Retention Group LLC, an insurer of the U.S. Xpress companies, all of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The suit also named Johnson as a defendant.
A seventh student, Megan Richards, also was injured in the pileup. All seven students, in two vehicles, were on their way to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savanah for the last day of their spring-semester clinical rotations.
Billy Jones, a Hinesville attorney who was acting as local counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a news release announcing the settlement that Johnson “never applied his brakes before the collision,” based on the big rig’s black-box data.
Attorneys Robert Cheeley, Brandon Peak and David Rohwedder of Butler Wooten Cheeley and Peak LLP of Atlanta and Columbus, acted as lead counsel in the suit.
Cheeley said in April that Total Transportation made Johnson wait 10 hours at the terminal in Ridgeland, Mississippi, before having his tractor-trailer ready, and then made him drive through the night to get to Savannah.
“Though he denies it, Johnson likely either fell asleep behind the wheel or was distracted by taking his eyes off the roadway, perhaps looking at his cellphone,” Cheeley said.
The attorney added, “Johnson claimed he could not remember the four-digit code to his iPhone, so we will never know if he was looking at something on the phone at the time of the wreck.”