Nearly 15 months ago, a tractor-trailer driver en route to Savannah slammed into the back of two cars carrying Georgia Southern University nursing students, killing five young women and injuring two others.
On Wednesday, a grand jury indicted both that driver and his trucking company on multiple counts, including first-degree vehicular homicide, serious injury by vehicle and reckless driving.
“Despite all of the attention that this case received, the law enforcement officials involved with this took the time they needed to get to the bottom of it,” attorney Joe Fried told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The families are content to allow the criminal justice system to move forward. This has been a long time coming,” said Fried, who represents some of the victims’ families.
John Wayne Johnson, 56, of Shreveport, La., admitted in a deposition to using his cellphone to text and exchange sexually provocative messages with a woman prior to the crash. But he denied he was using his phone at the time of the early morning crash on April 22, 2015.
Earlier that morning, seven young women left Statesboro and were headed to Savannah for their final clinical of the school year when the deadly pileup occurred.
Five students died in the crash: Emily Elizabeth Clark, 20, of Powder Springs; Morgan Jane Bass, 20, of Leesburg; Abbie Lorene Deloach, 21, of Savannah; Catherine “McKay” Pittman, 21, of Alpharetta; and Caitlyn Nichole Baggett, 21, of Millen.
Two others were seriously injured, but survived: Megan Richards of Loganville and Brittney McDaniel of Reidsville.
No criminal charges had been filed in the case until Wednesday, when the Bryan County grand jury indicted both Johnson and his employer at the time of the crash, Total Trucking.
Johnson was indicted on nine counts, including five counts of first-degree vehicular homicide, serious injury by vehicle, reckless driving, following too closely, and failure to exercise due care.
Though Johnson is believed to have been at fault in the crash, the decision to seek indictments against the trucking company is somewhat unusual, including one count of criminal responsibility of corporations.
“I’ve not seen a charge like this levied against a corporation,” Fried said. “It is an aggressive move by a prosecutor, and I understand why they feel like if there was ever a case for this charge, this is it.”
Veteran Atlanta attorney Don Samuel, who is not involved with the Georgia Southern crash case, said the law allows for corporations to be blamed for the actions of employees. Still, not all prosecutors go after the corporations unless there is sufficient evidence.
“The problem with indicting a corporation is the people get punished,” Samuel said. “The shareholders. The employees. When you indict a company, all you can make them do is pay a fine.”
Prosecutors in the Georgia Southern case may believe the trucking company’s culture contributed to the crash if Johnson was fatigued after working a long shift.
“He denied falling asleep, but we allege that he did,” Fried said. “Something out of the ordinary must have happened, because this is a long straightaway with great visibility at a time he should have been able to see a stream of red lights.”