Charges dropped against trucking firm in crash that killed nursing students

A southeast Georgia prosecutor said Wednesday that he has dropped the criminal case against a trucking company charged in a fiery interstate crash last year that killed five nursing students.

District Attorney Tom Durden, of Georgia's Atlantic Judicial Circuit, said he made the decision after Total Transportation of Mississippi agreed to spend $200,000 setting up a nonprofit group offering nursing students financial aid. A grand jury indicted the company in June on charges of vehicular homicide and other crimes related to the deadly crash on April 22, 2015.

Total Transportation was the employer of John Wayne Johnson, who drove the tractor-trailer that slammed into traffic backed up on Interstate 16 because of an unrelated crash. The big truck smashed two vehicles in which nursing students from Georgia Southern University were commuting to work at a Savannah hospital.

Johnson, of Shreveport, Louisiana, still faces charges in the crash and is scheduled to appear in court next week. While Georgia law allows for corporations to be prosecuted in criminal cases, it rarely happens in the state.

"It's kind of hard to prosecute a company. You can't put a company in jail," said Robert Cheeley, an attorney for the families of three of the women who died in the crash: Abbie DeLoach, of Savannah, Emily Clark, of Powder Springs and Caitlyn Baggett, of Millen. %

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Had Total Transportation been convicted in a criminal court, the only practical punishment would have been a fine, Cheeley said. And the company has already agreed to pay $78 million to settle civil lawsuits in the case.

“It’s interesting that they set up a nonprofit organization. They set up a 501c3, and the sole purpose of that would be to entitle it to get a tax deduction,” Cheeley told Channel 2’s Liz Artz.

Cheeley says the families he represents would have like to have seen the money used to improve the safety of trucks.

“Do a better job hiring drivers, cameras in cabs of drivers, install an autonomous braking system so the truck will stop itself if there’s traffic ahead,” Cheeley said.

Survivor Megan Richards told Cheeley the same thing.

"She would have preferred they spent the money on hiring better drivers and equipping their trucks with automatic braking systems so this collision never would have occurred in the first place," said Cheeley, who praised the district attorney for seeking to hold the company accountable.

Cheeley says Total Transportation’s parent company is U.S. Express.

“Top five largest trucking companies in the U.S. could have done a lot better than $200,000,” he said.

Abbie Deloache’s dad told Artz that he’d like to see changes to the company’s leadership.

“When you start taking human value and life over the financial gain, that’s when leadership or CEO needs to be changed,” Jimmy DeLoach said.

Also killed in the crash were McKay Pittman, of Alpharetta, and Morgan Bass, of Leesburg.

After civil lawsuits were filed in the crash, legal depositions revealed that Total Transportation hired Johnson even after he had disclosed being fired by a previous employer for falling asleep at the wheel. Johnson acknowledged under oath that the deadly I-16 crash was his fault but insisted he was awake.

Jimmy DeLoach said he wants the company to pay $1 million a year for every year the driver could possibly be sentenced to jail.

“So if we’ve got a 5-year sentence, even if the driver walks away, he can put $5 million into a funding for the nursing school,” Jimmy DeLoach said.

Durden said a judge signed an order Wednesday granting his request to drop the case against Total Transportation.

When he had discussed the case previously with victims' families, Durden said, they had asked if there was any way to make Total Transportation do something that would benefit nursing students. That's one reason he agreed to let the company establish an educational fund rather than stand trial, he said.

"This, I thought, would be a whole lot better than a fine, because it would mirror more of what the families told us in our meetings with them," Durden said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.