Parents of nursing students reach settlement with trucking company

Tandra Smith and Blakeley Bartee

A lawsuit was filed against trucking company Total Transportation of Mississippi (TTM) and its driver John Wayne Johnson by the parents of the five Georgia Southern University nursing students who passed away last spring and one survivor, Megan Richards.

Abbie DeLoach, Caitlyn Baggett, Emily Clark, Catherine “McKay” Pittman and Morgan Bass were killed on April 22 when a tractor-trailer slammed into the two vehicles carrying the nursing students on their way to their last day of clinical rotations in a hospital in Savannah.

“We don’t use the ‘A’ word, accident. Accidents are not avoidable. [This was] avoidable,” Bob Cheeley, partner at Butler, Wooten, Cheeley & Peak, LLP, said.

The law firm is representing four of the seven victims’ families, the father of Abby DeLoach, Jimmy Deloach, the parents of Emily Clark, the parents of Caitlyn Baggett, as well as one of the survivors, Megan Richards.The families of Catherine “McKay” Pittman, Morgan Bass and Brittany McDaniel, the other survivor, are being represented by other attorneys.

“Since last April when the wreck occurred, we filed the lawsuits, and since then we have been engaged in what is called ‘Discovery.’ That is finding out what has happened, who is responsible for the failures and the training of this driver and hiring the driver,” Cheeley said. “John Wayne Johnson had been fired from a previous trucking company from Dallas, Tx. for falling asleep [behind the wheel] and having a wreck about sixteen months before this wreck occurred.”

Cheeley also learned that TTM and US Xpress has a shortage of experienced, veteran drivers. With millennials reluctant to become truck drivers, these two companies were competing with one another. US Xpress bought TTM in 2006 and required the company to provide hiring policies and criteria for hiring drivers. This criteria included no more than three driving violations over a five year period and you could not have had a major crash in a tractor trailer.

Johnson worked for two previous companies before he was hired by TTM. While working for Steven’s Transport, he had a rollover and totaled his vehicle. Johnson then worked for a bus company as a mechanic in Louisiana where he was fired for sexual harassment. Both companies would not recommend him for hire at other companies, and yet TTM hired him anyway.

“They should have ended the interview right there, but they didn’t. He clearly did not meet their hiring policies. They decided there was so much incentive and pressure created there at Total Transportation by the CEO to hire drivers,” Cheeley said. “They’ve created such a culture there, and he had so much pressure on his recruiters who are in charge of doing nothing but the [hiring of drivers]. As a result, a man got hired who should have never been hired.”

Cheeley adds that it was utterly senseless for a company like TTM to put a man like him behind the wheel.

“So it was not a matter of ‘if’ there was going to be a fatality someday, but ‘when’ it was going to happen. These women had to pay the ultimate price for the irresponsible behavior of the trucking companies,” Cheeley said.

According to an April 20 press release, Cheeley, Brandon Peak and David Rohwedder of Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak LLP of Atlanta/Columbus, Georgia and Billy Jones of Jones Osteen Jones of Hinesville, Georgia have reached settlements for their clients. The DeLoach case was set to begin on April 18 while the Richards, Baggett and Bass cases were to commence on May 16.

Four of the five families, along with their attorneys, will hold a press conference today at 11 a.m., in front of the Nursing and Chemistry building. 

The US Xpress vice president of risk management declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Total Transportation of Mississippi could not be reached for comment.

Photo taken by Kiara Griffin.