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What if the Tracy Morgan crash happened in Michigan?

October 18, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

Van Tracy Morgan crash

Yesterday, I wrote about the Tracy Morgan crash, and how Walmart is resorting to the same defense tactics of refusing to take responsibility and blaming the victim that I see Walmart and insurance companies use in so many of the cases I litigate.

I suspected that it might resort to its old ways. My only hesitation was that because Tracy Morgan is such a well-known and well-liked celebrity, that Walmart might be forced to treat this one case differently from how it usually litigates personal injury cases. Walmart is notorious among attorneys for its bare-knuckles approach to opposing personal injury claims. I have been to legal seminars in the past that have had presentations titled “Dealing with Walmart,” because of the scorched Earth reputation it has.

I suspected Walmart was going to take a different approach when I read the wording of Walmart’s public statement earlier in July:

“We know it will take some time to resolve all of the remaining issues as a result of the accident, but we’re committed to doing the right thing for all involved.”

Yes, you read that correctly: “[D]oing the right thing for all involved.”

That’s not usually the way Walmart talks when it has negligently caused catastrophic personal injuries to several people, killing one.

But, as it turns out, my cynicism that Walmart would resort to its old ways was warranted. Walmart has decided to go with the strategy of “the best defense is a good offense” and blame Mr. Morgan and his fellow passengers for their injuries.

Just wait until Walmart sends them out for its “independent medical examinations.”

Walmart has conspicuously failed to take responsibility here. It has failed to acknowledge its own overwhelming negligence:

  • “Investigators found that the [Walmart] truck driver was speeding and hadn’t slept for at least 24 hours.” (Bloomberg)
  • Walmart’s driver, who has been charged with “death by auto and assault [by auto]” as a result of the crash he caused, “drove at 65 miles per hour for the 60 seconds before the June 7 crash in an area where the speed limit was 45 mph due to construction …” (Bloomberg)

What if the Tracy Morgan truck accident had occurred here in Michigan?

Had Walmart’s sleep-deprived, speeding driver rear-ended the limo van carrying Mr. Morgan and others on a Michigan highway, rather than New Jersey where the  crash  occurred, here are some of the traffic laws that would apply:

  • Rear-end crashes: Any driver who causes a rear-end collision “shall be deemed prima facie guilty of negligence.” This rule also applies “to the owner of [the at-fault, rear-ending] vehicle and to the employer of its driver or operator.” (MCL 257.402(a))
  • Seat belts: Generally, the driver and front seat passenger of a “motor vehicle” must wear seat belts. If they don’t and they’re involved in a crash (but not at-fault in causing the crash), then their “[f]ailure to wear a seat belt” is “considered evidence of negligence and may reduce the recovery of damages” for injuries resulting from the crash, but “shall not reduce the recovery for damages by more than 5%.” (MCL 257.710e(3) and (7)) However, if the limo van “is not required to be equipped with safety belts under federal law” or if the limo van qualifies as a “bus” (“a motor vehicle designed for carrying 16 or more passengers, including the driver” (MCL 257.4b)), then the seat belt requirement for drivers and passengers does not apply. (MCL 257.710e(1)(b) and (f))

But the fact is that tragic crashes like this one do happen here in Michigan. In fact, they’re happening all the time. They also happen more in Michigan than in almost every other state.  And the reason why we have more “Tracy Morgan” crashes involving such horrible facts as this tragic wreck is because Michigan does not have a punitive damages law.

That means there’s no real risk of punishment. And on the other hand, there’s a real financial incentive for trucking companies and giant retailers to push drivers to drive over hours of service and put severely sleep-deprived truck drivers on the roads.
Without the threat of punitive damages, trucking companies do not need to be as vigilant about following mandatory safety regulations. These companies do not need to be as vigilant about making sure the trucks and the drivers it puts on our public roads are safe.

Sadly, even though this tragic crash happened in New Jersey, there will be many more similar crashes in our state because the risk of trucking companies ensuring against this is less than the profits to be made of ignoring the safety rules and regulations.

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