Debate Continues Over Potential Criminality of Trucking Accident that Injured Actor-Comedian Tracy Morgan

While a charge of drinking and driving is one of the more serious traffic-related offenses for a Garden State motorist to receive, there are other types of “impaired” driving that can be just as serious when it comes to accidents resulting in injury or death. The New Jersey court system is no stranger to personal injury lawsuits arising from impaired driving; and for years now, law enforcement, state legislators and numerous traffic safety advocates have warned about the effects of cellphone use and distracted driving, not to mention drowsy driving.

The recent news coverage of the fatal multi-vehicle crash involving a limousine carrying well-known comedian and NBC “30 Rock” television star, Tracy Morgan, has ramped up debate regarding serious and fatal traffic collisions caused by motorists who are simply too tired to drive. As with intoxicated driving, drowsy driving can be deadly; however, the proof of whether a driver was too fatigued to properly operate his or her motor vehicle may be more difficult to come by than that involved in drunken driving cases.

Nevertheless, this latest high-profile news story has brought the issue of drowsy driving to the fore, with Walmart employee, Kevin Roper, in the spotlight and facing serious charges, including that of vehicular homicide and assault by auto following the death of comedian James McNair. The crash, as many people already know, took place last Saturday along a portion of the New Jersey Turnpike in Middlesex County. Mr. Roper, 35, has since entered a plea of not guilty across the board, though the case has much farther to go.

The criminal aspect of this tragic trucking-related fatality stems from the criminal complaint lodged against the driver not long after the accident that left Mr. McNair dead at the scene and a handful of others seriously injured. Morgan, of Saturday Night Live fame, was taken to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick where he is being treated for numerous injuries received in the crash, including a leg fracture, broken nose and fractured ribs.

There is no doubt that commercial motor vehicle (CMV) operators have a difficult job full of stress and the constant possibility of being involved in a traffic accident that could result in serious injuries, if not one or more fatalities. As professionals, commercial truck drivers have a great responsibility to maintain the safety of their vehicles, as well as the safety of the motoring public with whom they share the road. Similarly, truckers have much to lose – not the least of which is their livelihood — if they are found to have violated strict federal and state regulations regarding CMV operation.

With drunk driving or drug-impaired DUI apparently not an issue in this case, the focal point of this incident is tied to charges of alleged drowsy driving, sometimes referred to as being “asleep at the wheel.” The question of whether Mr. Roper had violated commercial trucking regulations involving the number of hours a commercial driver must rest between stints on the road remains to be seen, but authorities have already alleged that the man had been awake for more than 24 hours before the collision.

This is a very serious issue for any CMV operator involved in a fatal traffic wreck in the Garden State, since under state law a trucker can be in deep legal trouble if the prosecution can prove that the individual in question went without sleep for 24 hours. In this case, which is being heard in Middlesex County Superior Court, the state maintains that the truck driver failed to notice the slower moving traffic ahead of him, allegedly leading to the collision with Morgan’s limo and other cars.

In addition to New Jersey authorities, the National Transportation Safety Board has been involved in the investigation, stating that Roper, who resides in Georgia, had commuted up to Delaware prior to the day of the crash; however, it was not known when the commute occurred or if it prevented the defendant from getting the proper amount of rest hours before going to work.

Walmart, Roper’s employer, has stated that its understanding was that the driver operated his vehicle within federal rest guidelines, which mandate that CMV drivers work no more than 14 hours in any one shift, 11 of which can involve actual vehicle operation on the road. This, plus the New Jersey law involving lack of sleep exceeding 24 hours, may help to provide proof of negligence, or even recklessness, on Mr. Roper’s part.

Whether the charge of vehicular homicide can be proven will have to do with the state’s ability to show that a death was caused by the defendant’s actions. If the prosecution can show that an individual was reckless, as opposed to being simply negligent, by violating state and federal regulations, which then led to the fatal crash, the driver could face many years in jail as a consequence.

One of the keys is the reckless versus negligent behavior. Both can result in bodily injury or death; however, to be reckless means that an individual does so in “conscious disregard” of any risks. As experienced New Jersey DWI-DUI attorneys, we know that many legal cases can turn on just one piece of evidence. Obviously, this upcoming trial will address all of various bits of information pertaining to the tragic case, which may or may not result in a conviction. One thing is certain: the media has shifted into high gear in its effort to keep the public informed on this high-profile story.

Was Tracy Morgan crash a crime or accident?, CNN.com, June 10, 2014