Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it wants to settle a negligence lawsuit by actor-comedian Tracy Morgan, a day after blaming the celebrity for injuries he sustained when his limousine bus was struck by a speeding company truck.
Morgan, 45, and two other people who were with him during the June 7 fatal collision on the New Jersey Turnpike are responsible “in whole or in part” for their injuries because they weren’t wearing seat belts, Wal-Mart said in a court filing two days ago. The company made the claim as part of a mandatory legal response to Morgan’s suit and prefers to settle out-of- court, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said yesterday.
“We’ve taken steps to try to resolve this issue,” Buchanan said in a phone call. The seat belt claim was “part of the response required by law. In terms of the content, I have to let it stand for itself.”
Morgan sued the world’s biggest retailer for negligence on July 10 after investigators found the truck’s driver, Kevin Roper, was speeding and hadn’t slept for at least 24 hours. Shifting blame for the injuries, if not the accident, onto Morgan and his companions would allow the Bentonville, Arkansas- based chain to try to reduce or eliminate some damages in the case.
An Oct. 27 hearing before U.S. District Judge Lois Goodman in Trenton, New Jersey, was scheduled yesterday, according to court records.
Morgan “acted unreasonably” by failing to wear a seatbelt, Wal-Mart said in the Sept. 29 filing outlining possible defenses in the case. In the same filing, Wal-Mart also asked Morgan to specify how much in damages he’s seeking.
Benedict Morelli, the attorney for the passengers, said Sept. 29 that Wal-Mart’s seat-belt tactic is a “disgraceful” reversal from the chain’s earlier claims to the press that it would take full responsibility for the accident.
Morgan remains in a wheelchair three months after the collision and all three passengers are receiving cognitive and speech vocational therapy “because of their traumatic brain injuries,” Morelli said Sept. 29. Police on the scene at the accident didn’t determine whether sea belts were being used, and the injuries would have been severe either way, the lawyer said.
“It’s a wonder that everyone wasn’t killed,” Morelli said. “People are calling the families of my victims and saying, ‘Do you realize they are blaming you?’”
Morelli didn’t immediately respond to a phone call yesterday seeking comment on Wal-Mart’s comment about settlement.
The bus was at a “dead stop” when it was hit by the truck, which was going 65 miles an hour, Morelli said.
Morelli also took issue with the portion of Wal-Mart’s legal filing that said it couldn’t “confirm or deny” Morgan’s claim that Roper, the truck driver, was a Wal-Mart employee.
“You can’t get any more disingenuous than that,” Morelli said Sept. 29.
Buchanan, the Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said in response to Morelli’s remark that Roper is an employee of the company, and that he’s been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.
“We’ve said so on numerous occasions,” Buchanan said yesterday. “I don’t know the ins and outs of the legal strategy and how things are written in legal responses.”
Roper drove from his home in Jonesboro, Georgia, to a Wal- Mart facility in Smyrna, Delaware, before making deliveries and pickups in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, the National Transportation Safety Board said last month. He 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, the NTSB said. He has been charged with death by auto and assault.
Wal-Mart “knew or should have known” it was unreasonable for Roper to commute about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) and then work almost 14 hours before the fatal crash, according to the complaint, which was filed in July.
Federal regulations aimed at reducing fatigue limit truck drivers to 11 hours of driving and 14 hours of on-duty time each day. There are also limits on the weekly number of hours of driving, which the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration tightened last year. The Senate is considering reversing part of that regulation.
Wal-Mart’s fleet of trucks is one of the largest transportation operations in the world, with about 7,400 drivers, 80,000 logistics workers, 6,121 tractors, 60,000 trailers and 124 distribution centers, according to Morgan’s complaint. The drivers drive more than 713 million miles a year, it says.
The case is Morgan v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 14-cv-4388, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Trenton).
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