NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — A truck driver accused of triggering a highway crash that injured Tracy Morgan and killed another comedian hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours before the accident, authorities said Monday as Morgan recovered in a hospital.
Wal-Mart truck driver Kevin Roper was originally expected to make an initial appearance in state court Monday, but a court official said the Jonesboro, Georgia, resident is scheduled in court on Wednesday. It wasn’t clear Monday if Roper had retained an attorney. He remained free after posting $50,000 bond.
Authorities said the 35-year-old Roper apparently failed to slow for traffic ahead early Saturday in Cranbury Township and swerved at the last minute to avoid a crash. Instead, his big rig smashed into the back of Morgan’s chauffeured Mercedes limo bus, killing comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair, authorities said.
The 45-year-old Morgan, a former “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” cast member, remained in critical but stable condition Monday. Morgan’s spokesman, Lewis Kay, said he was “more responsive” after having surgery for a broken leg but faces an “arduous” recovery.
Kay said Morgan suffered a broken femur, a broken nose and several broken ribs and is expected to remain hospitalized for several weeks. He said Morgan’s family is “tremendously overwhelmed and appreciative of the outpouring of love and support from his fans.”
Roper has been charged with death by auto and four counts of assault by auto. Under New Jersey law, to prove both crimes the state has to demonstrate the defendant operated the vehicle recklessly when the injuries or death were caused.
According to the criminal complaint, Roper was operating the truck “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours resulting in a motor vehicle accident.” It doesn’t specify the basis for that assertion.
Tyrone Gale, who was driving the limo bus, told ABC News that he was disoriented after the vehicle flipped over and could hear Morgan yelling for help.
“I climbed around and heard Tracy screaming for help,” Gale said. “I climbed up on the body of the limo bus … but I couldn’t reach them.”
Wal-Mart President Bill Simon said in a statement that the company “will take full responsibility” if authorities determine its truck caused the accident.
The National Transportation Safety Board is working with state police to look at any issues in the crash related to commercial trucking and limousine safety.
Federal regulations permit truck drivers to work up to 14 hours a day, with a maximum of 11 hours behind the wheel. The other time is usually devoted to loading and unloading and paperwork. They must have a minimum of 10 hours off between work shifts to sleep. Drivers can work a maximum of 60 or 70 hours per week, depending upon the type of company they work for.
Safety advocates said they hope the accident in New Jersey will help their case.
“This isn’t an aberrant or unusual thing that just sort of happened for no reason,” said Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “This is part of a systemic problem of having tired people driving at night and driving large trucks.”
But Dave Osiecki, vice president of the American Trucking Association, said no regulations can prevent a driver from making “bad choices.”
Morgan, a New York City native, was returning from a standup performance at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino in Delaware when the crash occurred. In all, six vehicles were involved in the pileup, but no one from the other cars was injured.
McNair, 62, of Peekskill, New York, was a close friend and mentor to Morgan, Morgan’s ex-wife, Sabina Morgan, told the New York Daily News. “He was one of the first comedians that took Tracy under his wing,” she said.
Associated Press writer Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.