Lawsuits say truck in fatal Georgia crash had warning system

AP News
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Posted: May 13, 2015 4:29 PM

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A tractor-trailer blamed for causing a fiery highway crash that killed five Georgia nursing students was equipped with a warning system designed to alert drivers to avoid collisions, according to civil lawsuits filed by the victims' families.

The Georgia State Patrol is still investigating the deadly April 22 pileup on Interstate 16. Troopers have previously said a tractor-trailer failed to slow down and smashed into stop-and-go traffic backed up by an unrelated wreck. The big truck smashed into two vehicles filled with nursing students commuting from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro to a Savannah hospital where they were wrapping up clinical training.

Parents of two of the dead women — Caitlyn Baggett, 21, of Millen and Emily Clark, 20, of Powder Springs — filed wrongful death lawsuits Tuesday against the truck's driver, John Wayne Johnson of Shreveport, Louisiana; his employer, Total Transportation of Mississippi; and its parent company, Tennessee-based U.S. Xpress Enterprises.

Another nursing student who was injured but survived — Megan Richards, 20, of Loganville — also sued in Bryan County Superior Court.

The lawsuits say Johnson "never applied the brakes, and never made any maneuver to avoid a collision" before his truck crashed into the nursing students' vehicles. The lawsuits also say Johnson's truck was equipped with a collision avoidance system — an electronic device that uses some combination of radar, cameras and computers to detect objects in front of a vehicle and alert the driver if a crash is imminent.

Bob Cheeley, an attorney for the crash victims' families, said Wednesday that an inspector helping his law firm reconstruct the crash found the warning device in the tractor-trailer's cab.

"We don't know the circumstances yet as to whether that system worked or didn't work," said Cheeley, who called the crash "totally preventable."

Capt. Mark Perry, a spokesman for the Georgia State Patrol, confirmed Wednesday that the truck was equipped with a crash avoidance device. He said investigators haven't determined whether the device was functioning.

Total Transportation CEO John Stomps did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment Wednesday. The Associated Press could not find a working phone number for Johnson.

Prosecutors are awaiting results of the State Patrol's investigation before deciding whether to seek criminal charges. Authorities have said that could take months.

The mother of another young woman killed in the crash — Abbie DeLoach, 21, of Savannah — filed her own lawsuit last month. Cheeley said her attorneys have agreed to merge that case with the others.

Also killed in the collision were Morgan J. Bass, 20, of Leesburg and Catherine M. Pittman, 21, of Alpharetta.