Leader Blues

Monday, October 16, 2006

TOP STORY >>Survivors file suit in fatal truck accident

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

The widow of the Cabot man crushed and killed February 23 when a loaded gravel truck slammed into a line of stopped traffic on the Hwy. 67/167 Main Street overpass in Jacksonville sued in White County Wednesday for actual and punitive damages against the driver and his direct and indirect employers.

Jerry Justice, 34, of 22 Geraldine Court, Ward, was pronounced dead at the scene after the gravel truck, driven by Donald Ray Watkins, 35, slammed two pickup trucks through the overpass guardrail and plunged after them onto Main Street, about 20 feet below, dumping the gravel on the other vehicles, according to the state police account.

Monica Justice, his wife, was a passenger in his truck, and she said she filed suit in part because eight months later, prosecutors had not charged Watkins with anything. Monica Justice, 35, also of 22 Geraldine Court in Ward and Jerry Justice’s mother, Patricia Justice, 57, of 145 Crossroads Cove, Ward, both were hospitalized for their injuries.

Watkins, driving a Burns Truck and Excavating dump truck, had painkillers and Valium in his system at the time of the accident, according to a State Police toxicology screen. He was hauling pea gravel from Bald Knob to North Little Rock at the time of the accident.

“I’ve got three daughters, a mother-in-law, sister-in-law and family in Fayetteville—so many people that lost him and that he had so much to give,” Justice said. “I have massive brain damage, memory problems connected with the wreck,” she said. “His mom’s real bad. We all depended on him,” said Justice, who also has multiple sclerosis. “When I was in a wheel chair, I depended on him. We grew up together.”

“(Watkins) decided to take a bunch of drugs and get behind the wheel of a truck,” she said. Watkins had Diazepam, Nordiazpam and Trazodone in his blood, according to an April 4 state Crime Lab report, but no alcohol. The report noted that the quantities in the blood of Watkins were “consistent with values widely considered to be normal or therapeutic.”
The report did not say whether or not the quantities in question could have impaired Watkins driving and contributed to the accident.

A pharmacist who asked not to be identified said that Diazepam—a generic Valium—and Trazodone used together could be “really sedating,” and should not be taken at the same time. Each would carry a warning not to operate heavy equipment or machinery, the pharmacist said. The Nordiazepam was the Diazepam that had already been metabolized, said the pharmacist.

Monica Justice filed suit as administrator of the Jerry S. Justice Jr. estate, for herself and also for Patricia Justice. Defendants include Watkins, Burns trucking, Burns Excavating, Scurlock Aggregates, Inc., and others unnamed. In her complaint, filed by attorney Cheryl K. Maples of North Little Rock, Justice alleges that the gravel truck was overloaded, that Watkins was speeding or traveling too fast for existing conditions, and that he lost control, crashing into a 1995 Ford F-250 pickup owned and operated by Shirrell (Tommy) Simpson, which was then driven into the Justices’ vehicle.

Simpson and his wife Amanda filed a similar suit against Watson, Burns and Scurlock Aggregates for actual and punitive damages Sept. 22 in Pulaski County. Justice’s death left behind his disabled wife, Monica; disabled daughter, Haley N. Justice; two other daughters, a mother and a sister. The estate is suing for damages for pain and suffering sustained by Justice before he died, damages family members sustained due to the loss of his support and their mental anguish.

They want compensation for funeral expenses, damage to the destroyed vehicle and personal property. Monica Justice also is suing for punitive damages. She also wants compensation for permanent physical impairment and disfigurement, excruciating pain, extensive medical, mental and rehabilitation expenses as the result of injuries including complete degloving of the right side of her skull, with severe nerve damage; severe closed head injury, lacerations, clinical depression, three fractured vertebrae, a broken nose and other injuries.

Justice maintains that the defendants had a duty to the general public to exercise reasonable care in operating the motor vehicle. The Simpsons sued the same defendants, alleging that Tommy Simpson has required and continues to require medical care, treatment and rehabilitation likely for the remainder of his life for severe vertebrae and spinal cord injury. Amanda Simpson lost “consortium, society and aid” of her husband, the complaint alleges, including “loss of household services.”

Paul J. James of James and Carter in Little Rock represent the Simpsons.