Many Americans have now heard about thetruck accident in which Tracy Morgan was seriously injured. Morgan, an actor and comedian formerly on Saturday Night Live, was badly hurt in June when a Walmart truck crashed into the limousine occupied by Morgan and some friends. Morgan suffered a brain injury, a broken leg, and broken ribs in the accident.
Morgan and others in the limo filed a lawsuit against Walmart. They claimed the driver of the Walmart tractor trailer had been up for more than 24 hours at the time of the crash. They also claimed that the driver had been behind the wheel for 13 hours that day, even though federal rules limit daily driving hours to 11.
Because of these grim factors, they are claiming the case involved reckless or criminal behavior, rather than just negligence, on the part of Walmart’s driver. They are seeking punitive damages in addition to the usual economic and pain-and-suffering type damages. Meanwhile, the truck driver is facing separate criminal charges.
Shortly after the accident, Walmart’s CEO Bill Simon said Walmart would take full responsibility if its truck were proven to have caused the accident. However, once the lawsuit was filed, Walmart defended itself by blaming Morgan and his friends. According to Walmart, Morgan and the others worsened their own injuries by failing to wear seat belts inside the limo.
Walmart’s seat belt defense resulted in some public shock and criticism. However, as lawyers who represent people injured in truck accidents, we were not surprised to see it. Trucking and insurance companies defending accident cases typically raise every conceivable defense available, even ones which sound unfair or ridiculous. Defendants typically don’t back off from scorched earth strategies until trial – if ever.
These elements of the case represent a familiar story. There have been many tractor-trailer accident cases where truck drivers cut corners on safety and caused terrible accidents. There have been many cases where the trucking company tries to blame the victim for his or her injuries. There have been many cases where the enormous forces involved in a tractor trailer impact cause brain injuries to the people on the receiving end as well.
There are, nonetheless, a few elements which make this case different.
The first is the practical impact of the brain injuries Morgan suffered. Brain injuries are a problem for anyone, but they can be absolute career-killers for people in certain lines of work. This is a real concern for a gifted comic actor like Morgan. A performer of Morgan’s caliber has to memorize lines, display perfect comedic timing, and exercise emotional control, among other things. These tasks demand considerable brainpower.
There have been advances in the field of brain injury in the last few decades, and it’s safe to assume Morgan is receiving excellent care. Unfortunately, recovery can still be elusive and slow. One can only hope that Morgan will eventually return to his previous high-functioning ways. If he does not, his lost earnings will be huge.
The second difference is the constraint on Walmart’s behavior imposed by the highly public nature of the case. Again, trucking companies often defend cases with aggressive, scorched-earth litigation strategies. They know they will not be facing widespread criticism in a low profile case, so they employ these tactics with impunity.
This case is different because it involves a well-liked celebrity. It is therefore newsworthy, so every claim or argument Walmart makes is scrutinized by the media and the public. Walmart has accordingly been forced to soften its tone. Its representatives have made some conciliatory statements, offering at times to discuss resolution and do the right thing.
Walmart’s kinder, gentler approach under the klieg lights may end up being a good thing for Morgan and his friends. However, people should not have any illusions about it. If Tracy Morgan weren’t Tracy Morgan, he would almost certainly be getting the same rough treatment as any private person who got in the way of a Walmart truck. Ultimately, that may be the greatest tragedy of all.
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