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Posted On June 11, 2014 Car Accidents

Tracy Morgan’s Truck Accident Highlights New Jersey’s Criminal Driving Laws

Update: On September 30, 2014, MSN and other news sources reported on a legal filing by Walmart in the case of the collision that injured Tracy Morgan and others and killed James McNair. Walmart claimed that the limousine passengers failed to wear seat belts at the time of the crash and that it was this “unreasonable conduct” on their part that caused their injuries, MSN reported.

Morgan’s fans shouldn’t worry too much, because this development is unlikely to completely absolve Walmart of liability. New Jersey acknowledges comparative negligence, where both parties involved in an accident can be found to be partially at fault. Even if it’s true that Morgan and his fellow limo passengers were not wearing seat belts and it’s determined that their injuries resulted from not wearing a seat belt, the Walmart truck driver who hit them is still accused of failing to obey the speed limit and of driving when he had not slept in 24 hours. If it’s confirmed that the other driver is at fault for the collision, Walmart can still be held legally responsible for its driver’s role in the accident. Morgan’s compensation would simply be reduced by the same percentage (if any) that he is found to be at fault for his own injuries.

For now, let’s take this new development as a chance to remember, and to remind our own loved ones, that it’s important to wear seat belts in every circumstance, because you can’t predict when another motorist will crash into your vehicle. We continue to wish Morgan and his fellow accident victims well.

Original post: On Saturday, June 7, a Walmart tractor trailer caused a fatal six-car collision right here in New Jersey. The truck struck a limousine van on the New Jersey Turnpike near Cranberry Township. The limousine rolled over, landing on its roof and leading to the involvement of an additional four cars in the crash. The driver, who has been criminally charged with vehicular homicide and multiple counts of assault by auto, is accused of driving while going 24 hours without sleep. Yet it’s not the alleged behavior of the driver that made national headlines, but instead the famous occupants of the limo.

James McNair, a 62-year-old comedian known by his stage name Jimmy Mack, was tragically killed in the collision. The accident also left 45-year-old actor and comedian Tracy Morgan hospitalized in critical condition. Morgan suffered injuries to his nose, ribs, and leg, and had to undergo femur surgery. At one time, rumors that Morgan would have to have his leg amputated swirled, though a representative has since issued a statement quashing those reports. Also in critical condition after the accident are two fellow passengers of the limo, comedian Ardie Fuqua and Morgan’s assistant Jeff Millea. This accident illustrates an important and unfortunate truth: that when there are careless drivers on the road, every one of us is in danger. Just as a car accident can happen to a celebrity, it can happen to you or me. None of us is invincible – and that’s why safety on the road must be taken seriously.

In New Jersey, reckless drivers who seriously hurt or kill others on the road can face criminal charges as well as civil liability for the damage they have caused.

What Exactly Do the Charges Mean?

To many news readers, “assault by auto” and “vehicular homicide” may be unfamiliar terms.

  • New Jersey law defines assault by auto as when “the person drives a vehicle recklessly and causes either serious bodily injury or bodily injury to another.” To prove a charge of assault by auto, the prosecution must show that the defendant was driving the vehicle, that he or she caused a physical injury or impairment, and that the injury resulted from the defendant’s reckless driving.
  • The statuteregarding the other charge, vehicular homicide, is as follows: “Criminal homicide constitutes vehicular homicide when it is caused by driving a vehicle recklessly.” The prosecution in this case would have to show again that the defendant was driving the vehicle, but this time that the defendant caused the victim’s death and did so by driving the vehicle recklessly.

In either case, prosecutors have to provide compelling evidence that the victim wouldn’t have been hurt or killed if it hadn’t been for the actions of the defendant.

Police believe that the truck driver who caused the collision, 35-year-old Kevin Roper, had not slept for at least 24 hours prior to the accident. Driving while sleep-deprived is incredibly dangerous. A study published in a 2012 issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine (now JAMA Internal Medicine) found that drowsy drivers are just as severely impaired as drunk drivers are. In New Jersey, driving while impaired by drowsiness is a criminal act. If prosecutors can prove that Roper did indeed drive while impaired by lack of sleep and broke a law in doing so, it would bolster the state’s claim that he behaved recklessly at the time of the accident and that his recklessness caused the injuries and death.

Truck Safety Laws

Unfortunately, this accident may be high-profile due to the celebrity victims, but it is far from unusual. Nationwide, the number of collisions involving tractor trailers rose substantially from 2009 to 2012. In 2012, 12 percent of all fatal crashes – 3,702 crashes total – involved a large truck or bus, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Hundreds of thousands more large trucks and buses were involved in injury crashes.

Naturally, these numbers are alarming, as is the realization that driver drowsiness is among the most common factors in tractor trailer accidents in which the truck driver is at fault. Regulations that cap truck drivers’ workdays at 14 hours were meant to fix the problem, but some critics argue that the workday limit may just make the problem worse, according to NBC News. If companies refuse to make routes more manageable, drivers may have to cram more driving into that 14-hour day. That means that when an issue arises, from traffic delays to inclement weather to the start of drowsiness, drivers may have to choose between completing their work on time and keeping themselves and everyone else on the road safe. Essentially, these drivers are choosing between the near-certainty of losing their jobs and the possibility that they could hurt someone – a possibility that may seem less likely than it really is.

I wish Tracy Morgan, Ardie Fuqua, and Jeff Millea as complete and speedy a recovery as possible, and for the family and friends of James McNair to find some peace. It’s never easy dealing with the loss or severe injury of a loved one. If there’s any chance that something good can emerge from such a tragedy, it’s the opportunity that the government and specifically the trucking companies that employ drivers have to reassess their regulations and practices, and to make safety-inspired changes before any other innocent people are killed. No matter what the product is or how much it’s worth, a speedy delivery is simply not worth a human life.