Actor-comedian Tracy Morgan was in a coma for days with a traumatic brain injury after a highway crash in which his van was struck from behind by a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. truck five months ago, according to his lawyer.
Morgan, 48, who starred in “30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live,” suffered a subdural hematoma, a life-threatening collection of blood outside the brain, said attorney Benedict Morelli. The June 7 crash on the New Jersey Turnpike has placed Morgan’s career in limbo.
“He had a very, very bad brain injury,” Morelli said in an interview this month. “Let’s assume for a moment that he can go back and do everything that he was able to do before. When is that going to be? A year from now? Two? Three? I don’t know. Six months? I doubt it.”
Morgan and three others have sued Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, over the crash, which killed comedian James McNair. Trucker fatigue gained new attention when police said Wal-Mart driver Kevin Roper went at least 24 hours without sleep before his tractor-trailer hit Morgan’s van. Roper has pleaded not guilty to charges of vehicular homicide and assault by auto.
Morelli and lawyers for Wal-Mart met behind closed doors today with a magistrate judge in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, to discuss scheduling in the negligence lawsuit. On Nov. 14, Roper’s lawyer asked the judge to let the driver intervene in Morgan’s lawsuit and delay it while his criminal case is pending. A decision is pending.
Roper drove from his home in Jonesboro, Georgia, to a Wal-Mart facility in Smyrna, Delaware, before making deliveries and pickups in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, the National Transportation Safety Board has said. He drove at 65 miles per hour for the 60 seconds before the crash in an area where the speed limit was 45 mph due to construction, the NTSB said.
Wal-Mart “knew or should have known” it was unreasonable for Roper to commute about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) and then work almost 14 hours before the fatal crash, according to the complaint, which was filed in July.
In a Sept. 29 court filing in response to the lawsuit, Wal-Mart said Morgan “acted unreasonably” by failing to wear a seat belt. The filing, which outlined possible defenses, also asked Morgan to specify how much in damages he’s seeking.
After that filing, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said the company wanted to settle the lawsuit. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company has also said it’s cooperating with the government investigations of the crash.
“Today’s court conference is part of the ordinary course of legal proceedings,” Buchanan said in an e-mail. “Our thoughts continue to go out to everyone involved, and we remain committed to doing what’s right.”
Morgan was returning that night from a stand-up comedy show at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino in Delaware. Another comedian suing with Morgan, Ardley Fuqua Jr., also suffered a traumatic brain injury, according to Morelli.
In the interview earlier this month, Morelli said he intends to question Wal-Mart employees, including dispatchers, to learn how it assigns truck drivers.
“We’re going to find out exactly what kind of culture they’ve set up,” Morelli said.
With Roper driving 750 miles from home and then working almost 14 hours, “it doesn’t take anyone with any knowledge of any medicine or any science to know that anyone who is up for 24 hours straight and driving a big rig, which certainly isn’t the easiest thing to drive, is going to be fatigued,” he said.
Aside from the subdural hematoma, the accident left Morgan with multiple facial fractures, a leg shattered in several places, and blood in one eye, Morelli said. On a neurological scale known as a Glasgow Coma Scale, with 3 as the worst score and 15 as the best, Morgan scored a 3, the lawyer said.
On July 10, Morgan left a rehabilitation center for his home in Cresskill, New Jersey. He undergoes cognitive, physical and speech therapy five days a week, Morelli said.
“He was released earlier than he would have normally been released because he was Tracy Morgan,” Morelli said. “They sent all of the rehab people who they needed to rehab him to his house for a period of time.”
Morgan’s recovery path from the brain injury is unclear.
“A lot of times with traumatic brain injuries it takes months, if not years, to get back as much as you’re going to get back,” Morelli said. “So we don’t know. I know that he’s in all of these therapies, and I know that because of the severity of his injuries, there’s got to be a lot of cognitive deficits, but we haven’t tested it because we can’t yet.”
Morelli said Morgan is often depressed.
“Sometimes he shows sparks of who you know him to be on television,” he said. “There’s a hint of mint, I call it. I’m hopeful that we’ll get our Tracy back, the guy everyone loves.”
“He is straightforward and honest and often scared now of what’s going to be, but hopeful,” Morelli said.
The case is Morgan v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 14-cv-04388, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Trenton).
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