With the one-year anniversary of an Interstate 16 pileup that claimed the lives of five Georgia Southern University nursing students coming up on Friday, the families of three of those students have reached settlements in lawsuits filed in the weeks after the wreck, their attorneys announced Wednesday.
Attorneys Robert Cheeley, Brandon Peak and David Rohwedder of Butler Wooten Cheeley and Peak LLP of Atlanta and Columbus, acting as lead counsel, and Billy Jones of Jones Osteen Jones of Hinesville, acting as local counsel, announced “substantial” settlements for their clients whose daughters died in the April 22, 2015, wreck on I-16 in North Bryan.
The cases were filed claiming the wrongful deaths of Caitlyn Nicole Baggett, 21, the daughter of Richard and Linda Baggett of Millen; Emily Elizabeth Clark, 20, the daughter of Craig and Kathy Clark of Powder Springs; and Abbie Lorene DeLoach, 21, the daughter of James M. DeLoach Jr. and Kim DeLoach McQuaig of Savannah.
Separate wrongful-death lawsuits were filed last year on behalf of the families of the other two students killed in the crash, McKay Pittman of Alpharetta and Morgan Bass of Leesburg.
Personal-injury suits were filed on behalf of the two students injured in the pileup, Brittany McDaniel of Reidsville and Megan Richards of Loganville.
The seven Georgia Southern students, in two vehicles, were on their way to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah for the last day of their spring-semester clinical rotations.
The DeLoach case was set to go to trial Monday in Bryan County State Court before Judge Jack Carney. The Clark and Baggett cases were set for May 16 in Bryan County Superior Court before Judge Paul Rose.
The lawsuits named 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 John Wayne Johnson, the driver of the big rig that caused the wreck, according to a news release issued by the attorneys.
The wreck occurred on eastbound I-16 at 5:55 a.m. April 22, 2015, when the tractor-trailer driven by Johnson plowed into the back of Clark’s vehicle, which was last in a long line of traffic stopped because of an earlier collision. The impact pushed Clark’s vehicle into the back of DeLoach’s vehicle, the release says.
Authorities said at the time that the first wreck occurred around 2 a.m. April 22, 2015, when a tractor-trailer and an RV collided on eastbound I-16 near mile marker 143.
“We determined from the black box in Abbie’s vehicle and the physical evidence at the scene that seconds before impact, Abbie and Emily unfortunately saw the tractor-trailer barreling down on them from the rear and did everything in their power to get out of the way,” Peak said. “They slammed on the gas and turned their vehicles to the right, but unfortunately did not have time to get completely off of the roadway prior to the collision. Abbie’s actions and quick thinking likely saved the lives of Brittany McDaniel and Megan Richards, who were passengers in her vehicle.”
Cheeley added that Total Transportation President and CEO John Stomps and Vice President of Safety and Recruiting Bob Viso admitted in sworn deposition that Johnson never should have been hired. According to that testimony, Cheeley said, Johnson did not meet the company’s hiring criteria because he had fallen asleep and rolled a tractor-trailer while working for another company.
Cheeley added that Total Transportation “unnecessarily” made Johnson “wait at the terminal (in Ridgeland, Mississippi) for approximately 10 hours before having his rig ready to roll.”
“Without even asking Johnson if he was OK to drive and knowing he had previously crashed a truck during the early morning hours, Total Transportation assigned Johnson a load that required him to drive throughout the night to Savannah,” Cheeley said. “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.”
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.”
Jones commended the GSP for its investigation and with “securing the evidence until we could have a chance to look at the wrecked vehicles with our experts.”
“The black box data from the tractor-trailer, along with the absence of tire marks on the road, proved that Johnson never applied his brakes before the collision,” Jones said.
Cheeley said the tractor-trailer was not equipped with a video camera or a collision-avoidance system that is designed to apply the brakes when a vehicle is stopped in front of it. He called on companies nationwide to ensure their big rigs have this equipment.
The attorneys did not reveal the amount of the settlements, but Rohwedder described them as “large.”
Cheeley said the tractor-trailer was carrying paper products to a Dollar General store in Savannah.
“We are confident that Total Transportation and U.S. Xpress would not have entrusted a driver with Johnson’s driving history to haul priceless art to Savannah, especially without being well-rested,” Cheeley said. “Why, then, would these companies put the public, and these priceless young women’s lives in particular, at risk? It just makes no sense at all.”