The trial against a London-based trucking company whose semi-truck was involved in a multi-fatality crash in Tennessee six years ago was set to begin on Tuesday.
But that trial was put on hold by the presiding judge, who said a press release by the plaintiff's attorney to media in the Chattanooga, Tennessee violated federal laws. The case was set for a jury trial in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Tennessee.
The lawsuit against Cool Runnings Express, of London, was filed by Travis and Tina Close (plaintiffs) of Chattanooga, in 2016. The lawsuit alleges that the truck company failed to conduct proper background checks on driver Benjamin Brewer. Brewer was driving northbound on Interstate 75 near Ooltewah, Tennessee, just north of Chattanooga, in June 2015 when he slammed into stopped vehicles in a construction zone. Six people died in the crash, with several others injured.
The press release from a marketing company sent out the press release by the Close family's attorney, Danny Ellis, which stated:
“After many delays, we are eager to share the Close Family’s incident from the deadly I-75 crash with a jury. We are confident that the facts regarding Cool Runnings Express’ negligent hiring and operating practices speak for themselves. Safety regulations are integral to almost every aspect of the trucking industry, but they only protect the lives of the drivers and our communities when trucking companies actually adhere to them.”
According to information from a Chattanooga TV station's website, the federal judge saw the information on local news reports and brought that to the court's attention as the trial opened on Tuesday morning. The rule prohibits attorneys from making statements concerning a trial other than a quotation or reference to public records. The judge felt the statement would create an unfair trial.
The Close family - including two children - were injured in the 2015 crash and filed the lawsuit against Cool Runnings Express after driver Benjamin Brewer had been charged with vehicular homicide in the deaths of the six people. The lawsuit claims that the trucking company hired Brewer just 10 days before the collision and did not conduct a criminal background check or a five-year driving history. Had that been done, the lawsuit states, there would have been reason to deny Brewer's employment as he was not qualified to operate a commercial vehicle.
The lawsuit also claims that Brewer was under the influence of illegal substances at the time of the crash and had exceeded the federal guidelines for hours of operating a commercial vehicle.
Brewer was indicted in Hamilton County in 2016 and found guilty of six counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of reckless aggravated homicide, speeding and driving under the influence by a Hamilton County, Tennessee jury in January 2018. Brewer was sentenced in March of that year, for a total of 55 years in prison.
Cool Runnings Express has since filed bankruptcy.
No new trial date in the case has been set as of Wednesday evening.