Dallas, 10/17/2016 /SubmitPressRelease123/
In August, a truck driver who was involved in an accident that resulted in the death of six people, and serious injuries to six others, was charged with vehicular homicide.
Tony Weekly Jr., 53, a commercial truck driver, was charged with five counts of homicide, and is expected to stand trial sometime in 2017. Weekly was not charged with homicide in the death of the sixth person, because he was not the direct cause of that motorist’s death. Weekly, a resident of Baker, Florida, was also charged with reckless driving, and is an inmate at in the Keith County jail, where he is being held on $1 million bail.
The truck accident occurred on July 31, 2016, at about 11:30 a.m. on Interstate 80. Weekly was traveling westbound in a commercial truck through a construction zone with a temporary speed limit of 65 miles per hour, 10 miles lower than the normal speed limit of 75 miles per hour. For reasons that are still unknown, Weekly did not slow down as he approached a 2006 Dodge minivan in traffic, and his truck slammed into the rear of that van, causing extensive damage.
Jamison Pals, 29 was driving the minivan, and his wife Kathryne, 29 and their three children were also passengers in the vehicle at the time of the accident. The impact of the collision drove the Dodge minivan into a 1994 Plymouth Voyager minivan, a 2015 Nissan Rogue SUV, and a 2013 Ford van. Weekly’s semi truck and the 2006 Dodge minivan erupted into flames. All five members of the Pals family died at the scene of the accident. The children were identified as 3-year-old Ezra, 2-year-old Violet, and 2 ½-month-old Calvin. Terry Sullivan, the 56-year-old driver of the Plymouth minivan was taken to the hospital, where he died the next day after being placed on life support.
Weekly was treated for minor injuries, released from the hospital, and arrested.
Police described Weekly as “inattentive and distracted by outside influences,” and said he failed to slow down as his truck neared the Pals’ minivan. Police did not explain what they meant by “outside influences,” but it’s clear that Weekly was not fully focused on traffic in the moments before the accident occurred.
Authorities took a blood sample from Weekly after he was arrested, but have not disclosed the results. Fred Zwonechek, an official with the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety, said that the truck accident was the worst he’s seen in 10 years. Zwonechek referenced a November 6, 2006 accident in which five people died in a head-on collision on Interstate 80, as the last time he had seen an accident with the same type of severity.
The Pals were traveling to Palmer Lake, Co for a five-week language immersion and culture assimilation session in preparation for mission work in Nagoya, Japan that was to have started in October.
Weekly is a commercial driver for Bohren Logistics Inc., a truck carrier based in Garrett, Indiana.
A spokesperson for the company issued a statement that read in part, “We extend our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the relatives and friends of the Pals family for this devastating loss. Bohren Logistics is committed to cooperating with law enforcement authorities investigating this accident.”
Construction An Issue?
The area where the truck accident occurred has been undergoing reconstruction on the westbound lanes of Interstate 80. Because of this construction, traffic is restricted to head to head travel on the eastbound lanes of the highway, with a speed limit of 65 miles per hour. After the truck accident, there was some public outcry to tighten safety measures in the area to prevent more collisions.
But Vicki Kramer, Highway Communications Division Manager for the Nebraska Department of Roads, said that there were no plans to make any safety procedure changes in the construction zone until police released their report about the truck accident.
“Safety is always our main concern,” Kramer stated, but added that making any detours to another highway to ease traffic congestion would not increase safety, because that highway would still be restricted to two-lane, head to head traffic.
Distracted Driving A Persistent Problem
Distracted driving has been a persistent problem with commercial drivers, because any loss of focus can lead to a devastating accident. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has been at the forefront of regulations to lower the incidents of distracted driving among commercial truck drivers.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) banned texting for commercial truck drivers. At the time, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that distracted driving was one of the major contributing factors of truck accidents, and that the USDOT was taking aggressive steps to curb that behavior.
“We want the drivers of big rigs and buses and those who share the roads with them to be safe,” LaHood stated. “This is an important safety step and we will be talking more to eliminate the threat of distracted driving.” Commercial truck drivers who violate the ban on texting, face a fine of as much as $2,750. “Our regulations will help prevent unsafe activity within the cab,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro. “We want to make it crystal clear to operators and their employers that texting while driving is the type of unsafe activity that these regulations are intended to prohibit.”
Research shows that drivers who send text messages and read text messages, take their eyes off the road for a minimum of four to six seconds. Using those figures, the FMCSA estimates that a truck driver traveling at 55 miles per hours, will travel the length of a football field with his/her eyes on a mobile phone instead of on the road. Truck drivers who send and receive text messages while operating their vehicles are 20 times more likely to be involved in a collision, than drivers who are not distracted by their cellphones.
Distracted Driving Lawsuit
Truck carriers that employ drivers who fail to keep their focus on the road, have paid a stiff penalty. One of the largest trial awards in a distracted driving lawsuit occurred in 2009, when a judge ordered Holmes Transport, Inc, to pay $18 million to a Missouri man and his wife, who were seriously injured in an accident caused by the company’s driver.
Mark Tiburzi was seriously injured in a July 15, 2008 accident caused by Jeffrey D. Knight, a truck driver employed by Holmes Transport. The accident occurred when Knight reached for a mobile phone, taking his eyes off the road. The resulting accident killed three people, and injured 14, including Tiburzi who was left paralyzed and unable to talk. The lawsuit claimed that the accident was directly caused by Knight’s distracted behavior, and by the fact that the truck driver had driven longer than the hours of use law governing how many hours per week commercial drivers can operate their vehicles.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David D. Noce, awarded $13.8 million to Tiburzi, and $4.2 million to his wife. The judge found that Knight was negligent because he exceeded the number of hours he was allowed to drive his truck, and because he intentionally took his eyes off the road to reach for his mobile phone. The $18 million judgment was one of the largest ever awarded against a commercial truck carrier in which distracted driving was the major contributing factor in an accident.
Changing Long-Term Behavior
Distracted driving is a persistent problem among truck drivers because of the nature of their job. Commercial truck drivers are subjected to long hours on the road, and face intense pressure to make deliveries on time. This creates an environment in which some truck drivers consistently exceed the number of hours they are permitted to drive, in order to meet deadlines and make their company money.
“Truck Drivers are under extreme pressure” said Amy Witherite, partner at Eberstein & Witherite, LLP. “They are expected to make deliveries at a breakneck speed under a ridiculous timeline mandated by the trucking company. Other motorists are reaping the unwanted results which can be as damaging as loss of life or lives changed forever all in the name of a mighty dollar.”
The FMCSA has acknowledged that changing the expectations placed on truck drivers will require constant reminders that keeping the roads safe for all motorists should always be everyone’s top priority. That’s why the agency has held several national driving summits over the past several years in hopes to educate trucking companies on the guidelines and importance of keeping the highways and byways safe for all motorists above all else.
“It takes a concerted effort to change someone’s long-term behavior,” Witherite added.
“Greed and money sometimes has a way of clouding one’s judgement but the key is the trucking company owners. If we can get them to push these safety initiatives, then the positive effects will trickle down for all. And unfortunately, sometimes only a big accident and a large jury award is enough to get their attention.”
What You Should Do After An Accident
If you’ve been involved in a truck accident, you don’t have to feel alone. At 1-800-Truck-Wreck we have helped hundreds of accident victims find justice and peace of mind. Our team of lawyers has the expertise to help you through all the challenges that can result from an accident. Call us at 1-800-Truck-Wreck today, and speak with one of the lawyers at Eberstein & Witherite, LLP or fill out the online form, and we will call you immediately.
Eberstein & Witherite, LLP
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