Victims of deadly TN church bus crash sue tire maker, bus driver

Published: Sep. 6, 2014 at 2:51 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 5, 2014 at 9:48 PM EDT
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IREDELL COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - The victims of a deadly church bus crash in Tennessee have filed a lawsuit against the maker of the tire that was deemed to be the cause of the crash.

A lawsuit was filed in Iredell County court on Wednesday by members of Front Street Baptist Church. A bus from the church was involved in a deadly crash along Interstate 40 last October.

Eight people were killed in the collision, six of them were members of the church.

The lawsuit was filed 12 survivors of the crash, in addition to estate executors of five of the six people killed in the wreck.

The crash occurred on October 2 along Interstate 40 westbound near mile marker 423. The driver of an 18-wheeler and the passenger in a SUV were also killed in the crash.

Following an investigation, the Tennessee Highway Patrol announced in April the wreck was caused by a tire blowout.

The lawsuit claims 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 shows 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.

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.

The maker of the tire, New Jersey-based Hankook Tire, was named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also names the estate of Randolph "Randy" Morrison as a defendant. 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 lawsuit claims Morrison "maintained and operated the bus as his ministry to Front Street Baptist Church."

The lawsuit was filed by the law firm of Homesley, Gaines, Dudley & Clodfelter. Edmund Gaines and Ragan Dudley have taken the lead on the case.

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. "And that we contend in the complaint that the bus did not hit any foreign object in the road, causing the accident."

The lawsuit claims 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.

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 claims.

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

"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 claims.

The lawsuit claims 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 are seeking damages that "exceed $10,000."

Gaines and Dudley have teamed up with the law firm of Butler, Wooten, Cheeley and Peak from Columbus, Georgia. The law firm specializes in product liability, Dudley told WBTV.

WBTV reached out to Hankook Tire company officials for a comment on the lawsuit. So far the company has not replied.

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