Over $84 million has been awarded to the families of four of five Georgia Southern University students killed in a fiery, seven-car pileup on Interstate 16 in Bryan County April 22, 2015. The fifth family has not yet reached a settlement in their case.
Family members of three of the victims were at the university Thursday morning, where an attorney shared details of the crash as well as information about wrongful death suit settlements.
Two family members of the victims spoke during a press conference held in a plaza outside the GSU School of Nursing, displaying deep emotion as they each said the monetary settlements are nothing compares to the lost lives of their daughters.
Four of the five wrongful death cases were settled; one remains open, said Robert D. Cheeley, attorney with Butler, Wooten, Cheeley & Peak LLP of Atlanta . He and fellow attorneys Brandon L. Peak, and David T. Rohwedder represent the families of Caitlyn Nicole Baggett of Millen, Emily Elizabeth Clark of Powder Springs; and Abbie Lorene DeLoach of Savannah.
Baggett, Clark and DeLoach were killed April 22, 2015, when a tractor trailer slammed into their stalled vehicles on Interstate 16 as they awaited cleanup from a previous wreck.
Also killed were Morgan Bass of Leesburg and Catherine “McKay” Pittman of Alpharetta, represented by Render Freeman and Joseph Fried, of Fried, Rogers, Goldberg LLC of Atlanta.
Cheeley said families of his three clients received a total of $70 million in settlements. Freeman said the family of McKay Pittman received $14 million, and Fried said the Bass case remains ongoing and has not reached a settlement, although attorneys are working towards an agreement “hopefully soon.”
The wrongful death cases “were not about the money,” Fried said Thursday in a telephone interview with the Statesboro Herald. “While the numbers are huge, this case has never been about the money,” he said, but is about “getting the truth … to try to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
Cheeley spoke during the press conference Thursday morning, stating he hopes Total Transportation, the company that owned the tractor-trailer driven by John Wayne Johnson that caused the deaths of the five students, will learn from the tragedy and take steps tp avoid future crashes.
He said Johnson was hired to drive for Total Transportation in spite of not meeting their posted qualifications due to being fired by another company for a previous rollover semi accident when he allegedly fell asleep at the wheel.
He said the company also allowed Johnson to drive from Mississippi to Savannah after a 10-hour delay that followed Johnson’s having ridden a bus in an overnight trip from Louisiana the night before. He was delivering paper products to a Savannah Dollar General when he slammed into the halted traffic on Interstate 16 in Bryan County at speeds approaching 70 miles per hour, without braking.
The five girls “had a strong faith … were full of hope for their future as nurses … and truly loved people,” he said.
Jimmy DeLoach, father of Abbie DeLoach, was visibly emotional as he struggled to speak through tears. He talked about the horrors of being present during depositions, and the “depth of pain …of being a parent” who loses a child.
“Negligent? Absolutely. Should they be held accountable? Absolutely,” he said of Total Transportation and its affiliate companies. But the money from the settlements does not compensate for the loss, he said, saying the amounts compare to “pennies per breath.”
Tearfully, he said “I would trade my heart and soul for just one more ‘Dad, I love you;’ ‘Dad, I’ll be home in a few hours;’ ‘Dad, I miss you.’ What is the value of that?”
Kathy Clark, mother of Emily Clark, was equally emotional as she spoke to a crowd of GSU nursing students, friends and university officials.
“Nothing anybody can say or admit to will bring back our daughter,” she said, referring to Johnson’s and Total Transportation’s admission of guilt in the cases. “I know Emily would have made a wonderful nurse. She had a passion and we were so proud of her. We want justice for or girls; we know this never should have happened. Every day… I can’t tell you the pain we suffer every day.”
Cheeley said the truck was not equipped with a camera, as all school buses are required to be, and that it also had no sensor to apply brakes when a crash is imminent. He said if school buses are mandated to have cameras, transport trucks should also have that mandate so drivers’ actions can be reviewed.
He said the families of the five students have discussed a desire to donate to medical programs and help students attain nursing degree, but no definite plans or specific schools or programs have been identified as of Thursday.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.