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Walmart Settles Multi-Million Dollar Lawsuit with 30 Rock Star and Stand-Up Comedian Tracy Morgan

When a lawsuit settles everyone has the same the question – how much? As with most settlements, the terms of the Tracy Morgan/Walmart settlement are confidential. However, the most important thing for most seriously injured people to understand is the how of a personal injury settlement and not necessarily the how much. At the Washington Firm, our attorneys have successfully handled multi-million dollar personal injury suits against major companies – companies you know – companies you see on TV each day and companies whose trucks share the road with you.

To get to the how much of the Tracy Morgan/settlement we have to take a quick look at his career and the wreck that injured him. Tracy Morgan made his way into the living rooms of millions of Americans 20 years ago as the iconic Hustle Man in the sitcom Martin. Morgan’s character quickly became a fan favorite selling items ranging from wedding bands to car tires to wedding plans while at the same time delivering street-wise one-liners without cracking a smile. The result, Morgan’s brand of comedy was officially on the map.

By the end of his run on Martin, Tracy Morgan was in big demand. The one-time New York street comedian was making appearances on HBO’s Def Comedy Jams and the series Snaps. By the end of the 1990’s Morgan was a regular on Saturday Night Live. Morgan would remain a regular on the show for seven years. For Morgan, like so many other comics, Saturday Night Live was a launching pad into movies and internationally televised one-man shows. Morgan would ultimately appear in more than two dozen movies, nearly a dozen TV shows and performed his unique brand of stand-up comedy across the country. As expected Morgan earned millions of dollars. Understanding Morgan’s earnings over the years is very important first step in determining the appropriate amount of any settlement.

In the early morning hours of June 7, 2014, Morgan and three other comedians were traveling home from a comedy show in New Jersey. Unfortunately, for Morgan and his fellow comedians their bus was rear-ended by a Walmart 18 wheeler. According to published reports, the Walmart employee driving the truck hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours and was traveling greater the posted speed limit. The result of the collision with the 18 wheeler owned by world’s largest retailer was Morgan and two others were critically injured. Another comedian, James McNair was killed in the collision. Morgan suffered a badly broken leg, numerous broken ribs and would ultimately spend more than two weeks in a coma and approximately three weeks in the hospital followed by another three weeks in a rehabilitation center. The Walmart driver would eventually be charged with vehicular homicide. Morgan and the others injured in the crash would sue Walmart, a company that earns billions of dollars each year, alleging various forms of negligence. Walmart’s profitability and the number of trucks that it has traveling the roads with American drivers – drivers that are potential jurors – is the second key to determining the how of Morgan’s settlement. Fear of a large verdict from a jury that sees Walmart (or any corporate defendant) as a faceless conglomerate with deep pockets that may endanger the jury members and their families is a very real concern that drives settlement figures higher.

For large companies like Walmart and insurance carriers, settling lawsuits is rarely about justice or doing the right thing. Instead, settling lawsuits is about minimizing or eliminating risks. In the case of Morgan versus Walmart, the plaintiff, Morgan was a likeable, quick-witted charmer. In addition to being a comic with a 20 year career, Morgan is also a husband and a father. At age 45 when the wreck occurred, Morgan was a relatively young man that could reasonably expect to work another 20 years and live another 30 years or more. Finally, like in any personal injury case involving life-changing injuries, Morgan’s past earnings and the change to his earning capacity now that he relies a cane and suffers from headaches and recurring nosebleeds would be evaluated by economists, doctors, occupational and vocations therapists hired by Morgan and another set of the same professionals hired by Walmart. For Walmart, Morgan’s age and likability represent major risks as trial lawyers and judges across the country can attest likable people do well with juries.

The next step in getting to the how much of the Tracy Morgan/Walmart settlement is determining what if anything Walmart did to encourage its driver’s behavior. That is, was Walmart negligent? The first question, you have to ask yourself is why would a driver for the world’s largest retailer go more than 24 hours without sleep? The answer is simple. Money. Walmart’s truck drivers like most other truck drivers are paid by some combination of miles driven and the on-time delivery of goods. In other words, parked trucks don’t earn income and empty store shelves are bad for business. So until something bad happens – for example a wreck on the New Jersey turnpike that kills one comedian and critically injures another famous comedian – large companies have very little incentive to develop expensive training and incentive programs geared towards making sure its drivers don’t take unnecessary risk that might endanger the public.

So now that the basics have been laid out, how much did Walmart pay Tracy Morgan? The answer is as simple as understanding the how. Undoubtedly, after three weeks in the hospital, surgery and another three weeks in a rehabilitation center, the 30 Rock star had several hundred thousand dollars of medical and rehabilitation expenses. Just like most other injured people, Morgan missed work while hospitalized. That lost time from work is typically referred to as lost wages. For Morgan, that was a minimum of a few hundred thousand dollars, but could have been several million dollars as Morgan reportedly earned more than $200,000 per episode on 30 Rock and $5,000,000 for lending his voice to animated movie Rio 2 in 2014.

After getting past the lost earnings for Morgan or any seriously injured person, the next step is to examine how the injuries will impact his ability to carry on his career. Here the analysis is a little more complicated. In virtually every case, the corporation or insurance company will claim that the injured person can return work even if in a different capacity. For Morgan, an actor and comedian, it would be very difficult to find work of any sort that pays anything close to what he earned before the wreck. As a result, Morgan’s earning capacity was damaged tremendously and therefore would be worth several million dollars. To arrive at their numbers, each side will hire economists, accountants and life care planners to help determine the amount of money required to justly compensate Morgan for change to his life as a result of the injuries. In an age where some actors earn in excess of a $20,000,000 per movie and some entertainers earn in excess of $100,000,000 a year touring, the damage to Morgan’s earnings capacity was tremendous. The risk for Walmart was also significant was also significant as most jurors aware of the company’s status as the world’s largest retailer and the money that it earns.

After accounting for Morgan’s earnings (large lost wages in the past and large loss of earning capacity), the number of trucks that Walmart places on America’s roads each day (risk that jurors see Walmart as a risk to them) and the injuries to Morgan (sympathy for Morgan), it is easy to determine what Walmart paid Tracy Morgan – a lot!