Press conference held to announce settlement with trucking company

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Blakeley Bartee and Tandra Smith

One day shy of the one-year anniversary of the I-16 crash that resulted in the death of five Georgia Southern University nursing students and injured two others, a press conference was held regarding the settlement of the wrongful death lawsuits against Total Transportation of Mississippi (TTM), the trucking company that hired the driver who caused the crash.

“We confirm that Total Transportation of Mississippi, LLC and its insurers have reached agreements with the families of four of the young nursing students who died and with one of the young ladies who was injured in this terrible accident,” John Stomps, CEO and president of TTM, said in an email. “Through their respective attorneys, we continue to talk to the family of the fifth student who died as a result of the accident and to others who were injured. We are grateful to all for their willingness to work with us toward resolution. On behalf of the employees of Total Transportation of Mississippi, I am profoundly sorry for the pain and loss we have caused, and we continue to pray for peace and healing for all affected by this tragedy.”

Attorney Bob Cheeley, partner at Butler, Wooten, Cheeley, & Peak, LLP, spoke at the press conference to a small crowd of friends, family and fellow students of the victims.

“These parents want [TTM] to deal with these problems so no parents will have to deal with something like this ever again,” Cheeley said.

TTM admitted that hiring truck driver John Wayne Johnson was a mistake, according to Cheeley. Johnson, who had a rollover and totaled his vehicle while working for Steven’s Transport and was fired from his job as a mechanic for a bus company in Louisiana for sexual harassment, failed to meet the company’s hiring policies.

“While Johnson had been deemed incapable of being [a professional driver by a former employer], he was welcomed at [TTM],” Cheeley said.

TTM is currently upgrading their equipment to the latest safety technology, including collision mitigation systems that are capable of stopping a vehicle when a driver fails to react, says Stomps.

“Since founding Total Transportation in 1991, we have strived to make the company a safe one, with driver hiring standards, operational practices and equipment specifications that far exceed what is required by law. We have put in place additional procedural safeguards to ensure that our drivers meet the higher standards we set for ourselves,” Stomps said in an email.

At the press conference, students were visibly shaken as Cheeley and family members of the victims spoke.

“Unfortunately, I have the opportunity to sit in one of these chairs [at the memorial garden], and as a parent… you understand the depth of the pain and the humility that also comes with being a parent,” Jimmy DeLoach, father of victim Abbie DeLoach, said. “Do I think that the people at the trucking company were negligent? Absolutely. Do I think they should be held accountable? Absolutely.”

For DeLoach, no amount of money gained from the settlement can make up for the loss of his daughter.

“I would trade my soul and my heart for just one more ‘Dad, I love you. Dad, I’ll be home in a couple of hours. Dad, I miss you,’” DeLoach said. “What is the value of that? How do you put thousands or millions of dollars on that? You can’t do that… Life is not cheap, and life is precious. And that’s why God gave us his son for eternity.”

After the press conference, many tearful members of the audience embraced. For friends and family of the victims, the settlement of the lawsuit does not mark the end of the pain of losing their loved ones.

“We were prepared to do whatever we had to do [for the girls]… We had some of the hardest working lawyers,” Kayla Wilkinson, senior marketing major and close friend to Emily Clark, said. “There’s no amount of money or time that’s going to make the days get easier. Every single day is going to be tough.”

Photo courtesy of Kelly Lowery.