Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) apologized after a highway accident involving one of its truck drivers critically injured actor-comedian Tracy Morgan and prompted the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to join a state investigation.
Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Georgia, was charged in Middlesex County, New Jersey, with one count of death by auto and four counts of assault after the Wal-Mart tractor trailer he was driving crashed into a limousine van whose occupants included Morgan. A comedian traveling with the former “Saturday Night Live” television star was killed.
The six-vehicle accident, at 1 a.m. yesterday on the New Jersey Turnpike, occurred as U.S. lawmakers consider ending U.S. rules designed to help prevent long-haul truck drivers from dozing at the wheel.
“This is a tragedy and we are profoundly sorry that one of our trucks was involved,” Bill Simon, the president and chief executive officer of Wal-Mart U.S., said in a statement released yesterday on the Bentonville, Arkansas, retailer’s website. “We are working quickly to understand what happened and are cooperating fully with law enforcement to aid their investigation.”
Wal-Mart U.S. is a unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retail chain, with about $476 billion of revenue for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2014.
Roper “failed to observe” slow-moving traffic ahead of him until it was too late, colliding with the limousine, said Gregory Williams, a sergeant first class with the New Jersey State Police. The limousine van, a 2012 Mercedes Sprinter, spun and then flipped over, Williams said.
James McNair, 62, of Peekskill, New York, who was in the limousine van, was pronounced dead at the scene at 1:53 a.m., according to a press release issued by the Middlesex prosecutor’s office. Morgan, 45, who starred in the television comedy “30 Rock” after leaving “Saturday Night Live,” was one of three people in the van critically injured.
“There were multiple vehicles involved, so we would like to see what issues are at play in this accident,” said Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the NTSB, which rarely looks into highway wrecks. “As in all investigations, we will look at the work/rest schedule of the drivers.”
The NTSB will work with the state police, looking at safety issues “related to commercial trucking and limousine safety,” Holloway said yesterday in an e-mailed response to questions.
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment last week that would suspend the main federal regulation requiring truckers to take an extended break after reaching weekly time limits, potentially undoing a 15-year effort to reduce highway fatalities caused by long-haul drivers who fall asleep at the wheel.
The 70-hour cap on a driver’s workweek immediately drew criticism from the trucking industry when the regulation took effect last July.
The legislative amendment would be attached to a larger transportation funding bill that must still be adopted by the full Senate. In turn, the funding bill would have to be reconciled with appropriations legislation drawn up by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Both Williams, the New Jersey police sergeant, and the NTSB’s Holloway said they didn’t have information on whether the truck driver was dozing when the accident occurred. James O’Neill, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said he couldn’t disclose why charges were filed against Roper, adding that the information remains part of the investigation.
O’Neill said in an e-mail that it’s “not routine” to make an arrest in a traffic accident of this sort.
A section of the turnpike was closed from about 1 a.m until 6:25 a.m. yesterday, Williams said.
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