The Wal-Mart Stores Inc. truck driver charged in connection with the fatal crash that also seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan was working hours that were within federal guidelines to the company's knowledge, said the retailer, despite reports he had been driving for more than 24 hours, which is far beyond those guidelines.
Middlesex County, New Jersey, prosecutors on June 7 charged truck driver Kevin Roper of Jonesboro, Georgia, with one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto after the Wal-Mart tractor-trailer he was driving crashed into the van carrying Mr. Morgan at 1 a.m. Friday morning.
A passenger in the van, James McNair of Peekskill, New York, was pronounced dead at the scene, and the four other passengers, including Mr. Morgan, were taken to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where Mr. Morgan was listed in critical but stable condition, the prosecutor's office said.
The New Brunswick-based prosecutor's office said a preliminary investigation determined that the tractor-trailer crashed into the van, a 2012 Mercedes Sprinter, while both vehicles were in the northbound lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike. Four other vehicles were subsequently involved in the crash. None of the occupants of those vehicles was injured.
Mr. Roper told prosecutors he had been driving without sleep for more than 24 hours at the time of the accident, according to news reports. U.S. Department of Transportation regulations call for an 11-hour daily driving limit and a 14-hour workday.
“With regards to news reports that suggest Mr. Roper's working 24 hours, it is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours of service regulations,” Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart said in its statement Monday. “The details are subject of the ongoing investigation, and we are cooperating fully with the appropriate law enforcement agencies. The investigation is ongoing and unfortunately, we cannot comment further on the specifics.”
Wal-Mart said in a separate fact sheet that rules for its 7,175 drivers say, among other provisions, that they may drive a maximum of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours of duty, after which they must have 10 consecutive hours of rest.
A spokesman did not immediately respond to a question about the retailer's insurance.
Also, on Saturday, Wal-Mart U.S. President and CEO Bill Simon issued a statement that said in part: “We are working quickly to understand what happened and are cooperating fully with law enforcement to aid their investigation.
“The facts are continuing to unfold. If it's determined that our truck caused the accident, Wal-Mart will take full responsibility.”
A National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said the board has sent investigators to investigate the accident, particularly as it relates to the “broader issues surrounding commercial truck safety,” which include driver fatigue, technology, alcohol and drug testing, and driver distraction.
In July 2013, the Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said although an 11-hour driving limit and 14-hour work day would remain in effect, the average work week for truck drivers was limited to 70 hours under a new regulation effective July 1, 2013, to ensure that all truck operators have adequate rest.
The new regulation allows truck drivers who reach the maximum 70 hours of driving within a week to resume driving if they rest for 34 consecutive hours, including at least two nights when their body clock demands sleep the most, from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in statement.
The new regulation also requires truck drivers to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift.