Today marks two years since 24-year-old Jackson Hatton Jr. was killed in a construction zone accident in Macon County, but circumstances that led to his death are no closer to being rectified than they were the day he died.
Hatton, an assistant engineer for Macon County, was stooped over in front of his work truck, gathering asphalt samples for testing on the shoulder of County Road 10 when his vehicle was struck by a dump truck hauling asphalt for the project. The truck had made its delivery and had pulled off to the shoulder to allow a loaded truck to pass.
According to information obtained by Montgomery-based law firm Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis & Miles, PC, the driver of the dump truck, William F. Bowman, tested positive for traces of marijuana and other drugs. In addition, Bowman’s driving record reflected “multiple moving violations and prior license suspensions.”
Macon County District Attorney secretary Tywone Wright said that a grand jury declined to indict Bowman on charges of vehicular homicide during its spring 2007 term. But civil lawsuits filed by Hatton’s survivors contend that officials from Wiregrass Construction, the contractor on the job, did not follow its own agreements governing the job because they allowed dump trucks to enter the construction zone un-escorted. In addition, they say, Wiregrass officials departed from traditional construction procedures by allowing trucks to perform U-turns in the zone instead of exiting and turning around on the other side of the zone.
Hattons survivors have questioned who, if anyone, is in charge of overseeing the safety records of those who are contracted to work in road construction zones.
Alabama Department of Transportation government affairs manager Tony Harris said the responsibility does not fall to ALDOT.
“Those assertions (that ALDOT should regulate safety records of those on construction jobs) are misguided,” Harris said, pointing out that drivers licenses are issued and overseen by the Alabama Department of Public Safety and trucking companies are subject to federal regulations. “We don’t have any regulatory authority as an agency,” Harris said.
Harris said that safety issues are largely governed by free markets because contractors and subcontractors with poor safety records would find it difficult to secure necessary insurance.
“Certainly, insurers and bonding companies are going to be more reluctant to continue to do business and support a contractor if that contractor has a poor safety record,” Harris said.
But Mike Crow, the Beasley Allen attorney representing Hattons family, said the market does a poor job of regulating safety.
“To most (insurance) companies, it doesn’t really matter what (a contractor’s) safety record is,” Crow said. “If (contractors) go to an insurance agency asking for insurance, they will find it. They may pay a premium, but somebody’s going to write that risk.
“It’s just a matter of how much they will pay.”
Crow said Hatton’s survivors have reached a civil settlement with David Bulger Inc., the subcontractor for which Bowman worked, and that they are pursuing a civil case against Wiregrass Construction. Crow said he expects that case to go to trial in August.
“Under Alabama’s wrongful death statute, the only damages you can pursue are punitive damages,” Crow said.
He added that the family has not decided on a monetary figure to pursue but that the damages will seek to punish Wiregrass and set an example for other “similarly situated companies” to improve safety policies.
Wiregrass Construction President John Harper could not be reached for comment Tuesday.