SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The employer of a tractor-trailer driver blamed for a fiery interstate crash that killed five Georgia nursing students has agreed to settle wrongful death lawsuits for large sums, with at least one victim’s family receiving $14 million, attorneys in the case said Wednesday.
The settlements were announced just before the April 22 anniversary of the crash last year. A tractor-trailer traveling on Interstate 16 slammed into stop-and-go traffic that had backed up because of an unrelated wreck. The big truck smashed two vehicles in which nursing students from Georgia Southern University were commuting to work at a Savannah hospital.
After civil lawsuits were filed in the crash, legal depositions revealed that Total Transportation of Mississippi hired the truck’s driver, John Wayne Johnson of Shreveport, Louisiana, even after he had disclosed being fired by a previous employer for falling asleep at the wheel. Johnson acknowledged under oath the deadly I-16 crash was his fault, but insisted he was awake.
“We got those answers and the defendants had to pay a substantial amount that should represent a very painful lesson,” said Robert Cheeley, an attorney for the families of three of the young women — Amber DeLoach of Savannah, Emily Clark of Powder Springs and Caitlyn Baggett of Millen.
Cheeley and David Dial, an attorney for Total Transportation and affiliated companies that were also parties to the settlements, both declined to discuss any dollar amounts.
But attorney Render Freeman, who represents the mother of crash victim McKay Pittman of Alpharetta, told The Associated Press the Pittman family alone would receive $14 million.
“It’s an extraordinary amount of money,” Freeman said. “But these were extraordinary young women.”
Dial said Total Transportation was still working to reach a settlement with the parents of the fifth student killed, Morgan Bass of Leesburg. All of the women who died were between 20 and 21 years old.
“Total Transportation certainly continues to express great remorse for what happened,” Dial said.
When attorneys in the case questioned Johnson on Dec. 17, the truck driver said he takes responsibility for causing the wreck, though he struggled to explain why he failed to notice a long line of snarled traffic in time to avoid the collision.
“That’s something I’ve been battling with since that time, and I have yet to come up with a best explanation on that,” Johnson said, according to a transcript of his deposition.
Johnson insisted he was awake when the Georgia crash happened just before 6 a.m. He said the cruise-control on his truck was set at 68 mph and other vehicles had been passing him before the collision.
“I’m going down, driving, and I see traffic ahead of me, and the next thing I know I’m on that traffic, and it’s done,” Johnson said.
He said his truck was equipped with a collision warning system that was supposed to beep if he got too close to other vehicles, but he never heard it. Johnson also told lawyers he doesn’t recall crashing into the two vehicles carrying the nursing students, just hitting the back of a tanker truck that had been idling in front of them.
Johnson walked away from the crash uninjured.