Settlement reached in fiery Tennessee bus wreck that killed six Statesville church members

Settlement reached in fiery Tennessee bus wreck that killed six Statesville church members
Crash scene (Source: WVLT)
Crash scene (Source: WVLT)
Front Street Baptist Church members on trip (Source: WRAL)
Front Street Baptist Church members on trip (Source: WRAL)

STATESVILLE, NC (WBTV) - A settlement has been reached in connection with a fiery church bus crash that killed eight people in Tennessee in 2013.

In Oct. 2, 2013, a church bus from Front Street Baptist in Statesville, N.C. crashed after blowing a tire on Interstate 40 westbound near mile marker 423 in Tennessee.  Six of the dead were members of the Baptist church.  The driver of an 18-wheeler and the passenger in a SUV were also killed in the crash.

A lawsuit was filed in Iredell County in 2014 by members of the Front Street Baptist Church. The lawsuit was filed for 12 survivors of the crash, in addition to estate executors of five of the six people killed in the wreck.

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On Tuesday, a spokesperson with Butler Wooten & Peak LLP announced five wrongful death cases and 12 personal injury cases were settled for an "undisclosed confidential amount" in connection with this deadly wreck.

The lawsuit initially claimed the tire was "negligently and defectively manufactured and designed" saying it "failed to meet the reasonable expectations of an ordinary consumer as to its safety." The investigation showed that the 1997 Metrotrans Europa Motorcoach, owned by Front Street Baptist Church, had a left-front tire failure that caused the driver to lose control.

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The suit alleged that the maker of the tire, New Jersey-based Hankook Tire, "defectively designed and manufactured the Hankook tire that catastrophically failed."

Investigators believe the tire hit something about 50 miles before it blew out. They determined there was not a defect in the manufacturing of the tire. Hankook Tire was then named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Hankook Tire attempted to move the case to federal court shortly after the case was filed, the law firm states.

The case was then moved to the Superior Court of Iredell County in Jan. 2015 where it has been "extensively litigated since," officials said. Attorneys claim that the tire company attempted to blame Randolph "Randy" Morrison for the crash.

Morrison was a member of the church and was driving the bus when the deadly crash occurred.  His wife, Barbara, was killed in the crash and her estate is listed as one of the plaintiffs in the case. The law firm states that Hankook Tire attempted to blame Morrison for over three years.

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The lawsuit claimed Morrison "maintained and operated the bus as his ministry to Front Street Baptist Church." When asked why Morrison was named in the suit, Dudley pointed to a section of the lawsuit:

"Plaintiffs believe that the Hankook Defendants will contend in this case, as they do in virtually every case, that Randy Morrison breached his duty to exercise reasonable care by negligently operating and/or maintaining the church bus and the subject tire," the section of the lawsuit claims.

"It's our contention that the sole cause of this accident was this defective tire failure," Edmund Gaines said in 2014. "And that we contend in the complaint that the bus did not hit any foreign object in the road, causing the accident."

The lawsuit stated that Hankook failed to warn consumers about "the dangerous characteristics" of the tire, even though they "had knowledge of such hazards, risks, and dangers."

Investigators say five members of the church were ejected from the bus during the crash. In addition to Morrison and his wife, Cloyce Matheny, Brenda Smith, Marsha McLelland and John Wright were killed in the crash.

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Twelve other church members were injured in the crash. The group was returning from the 17th Annual Fall Jubilee at the Gatlinburg Convention Center.

During its initial investigation, troopers said the bus veered across the median and into oncoming traffic after a tire blew out, hitting a sport utility vehicle and a tractor-trailer, which caught fire.

Troopers said that the wire median barrier was not made to handle the weight of the bus.

As a part of their investigation, troopers say the crash was "the result of blunt force impact to the front tire that weakened its internal structure and caused the tire's failure," Tennessee Highway Patrol Colonel Tracy Trott said. "There was no evidence of any pre-existing condition to the tire."

The lawsuit disputes the investigation, saying the tire, purchased in September 2008, "suffered a sudden, catastrophic, and complete tread/belt separation. The tread/belt separation was caused because the subject Hankook tire, which was manufactured at Hankook's Geumsan plant in the Republic of Korea, was defective."

"These collisions were foreseeable to the Hankook Defendants and were caused by a failure of the defective front left Hankook tire," the lawsuit claimed.

According to the lawsuit, the survivors claim no one felt any sort of impact with "a road hazard" before the deadly crash.

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"The front left defective Hankook tire caused the collisions, the deaths of Plaintiff's decedents, and serious personal and emotional injuries to the surviving Plaintiffs," the lawsuit claimed.

The lawsuit claimed the survivors incurred "significant medical expenses" from their injuries and continue to suffer from the injuries they sustained.

For the five that died, the lawsuit claims they experienced "pre-impact shock, fright, and terror, and consciously suffered" prior to their deaths. Each of the 17 plaintiffs were seeking damages in excess of $10,000.

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The law firm states that the specially set trial was to begin on Jan. 16., but was "temporarily side-tracked when Hankook Tire Co. LTD., for a second time, attempted to remove the case to federal court on January 18, 2018."

Court filings state that the plaintiffs were "seeking a default judgement" against the tire company for allegedly "concealing crucial evidence for more than two years."

An emergency motion was then filed by the plaintiff's counsel to remand the case back to the Superior Court of Iredell County on Sunday, which was granted by Chief United States District Judge Frank D. Whitney Monday, according to the law firm. The case then returned to the Iredell Superior Court for the second time, according to the law firm.

The law firm states that the settlement ends a case that "has been extensively litigated for more than three years." The settlement "also secured closure for the surviving passengers and family members" of those who died in the wreck, the law firm stated.

According to the law firm, there are currently three lawsuits which connect to the October 2013 crash pending in the Superior Court of Iredell County.

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