In June, a Walmart driver slammed his truck into the back of a limousine carrying comedians Tracy Morgan and James McNair. Morgan suffered severe personal injury. The collision killed McNair.
The crash generated much media discussion about highway safety and, particularly, the safety of large commercial trucks on our roads. Morgan sued Walmart as a result of the truck driver’s negligence. In his suit, Morgan contends the truck driver had not slept in 24 hours prior to the accident. Fatigued truck drivers pushed to make quick deliveries are real and far too common dangers on our highways.
I have represented individuals in cases against Walmart in the past. I always expect Walmart to fight as hard as possible to avoid accountability or liability. Walmart even takes a hard line when its own employees are hurt on the job! Ask a seriously injured Walmart worker if the company provided workers’ compensation benefits without a fight! Maybe the public spotlight and scrutiny will make Morgan’s case different? Maybe Walmart will treat Morgan better than others in an effort to avoid bad publicity? Maybe? I don’t know what course the retailer will take in his case. It looks like Walmart began defending the claims as it does most others. That’s a shame.
In its initial response to Morgan’s suit, Walmart even blamed Morgan for his own injuries. I’ve written a few articles about the shameful efforts of other defendants to avoid responsibility by trying to blame the injured victim. Yet, this is not the only tactic Walmart is apparently using to avoid or delay justice in Morgan’s case.
According to ABC News:
The truck driver charged in a New Jersey highway crash that injured comedian-actor Tracy Morgan and killed another man filed a request Friday to delay a federal lawsuit while his criminal case proceeds in state court.
The defense tactic of trying to delay civil justice due to pending criminal charges is also one I’ve seen in past cases. A couple years ago, I represented the family of a local paramedic who was struck and killed while helping someone on the side of an Alabama highway. The defendant in that case was speeding in icy conditions, drove past a law enforcement officer waving for him to slow down, lost control, and skidded off the side of Interstate 65. Law enforcement arrested the defendant driver and pursued criminal homicide charges against him. When we filed a wrongful death suit for the paramedic’s Decatur family, the defendant immediately asked the Court to stop our proceedings until his criminal charges were resolved. The defendant in our case argued our civil proceedings would violate his right under the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution not to incriminate himself.
Was the defendant entitled to a stay of our Alabama civil damages case? The answer is, not necessarily. The Alabama Supreme Court has previously ruled:
The United States Constitution does not automatically require a stay of civil proceedings pending the outcome of parallel criminal proceedings or potential criminal proceedings.
. . .
There are situations where the right against self-incrimination can be adequately protected while the civil case proceeds in some limited way.
Should an injured plaintiff simply agree to stop or delay his damages case? No. Our justice system already moves far too slowly. Serious cases involve many issues. While the U.S. Constitution certainly protects the defendant from being forced to testify against himself in a criminal matter, this protection does not necessarily mean the entire civil case process should stop. The parties can often continue with other discovery issues or the depositions of witnesses and doctors. The parties can continue to move forward with some trial preparations. Why wait to start preparing your damages case? In Alabama, our Court has developed a number of factors for balancing a defendant’s Constitutional right against self-incrimination with the important private and public interests in moving damage cases forward. Hopefully, in Morgan’s case, the Court will continue to move the wheels of justice forward.