NASHVILLE — Chattanooga attorneys on Monday selected an out-of-town jury for the upcoming trial of a truck driver charged with killing six people on Interstate 75.
Thirteen women and three men will be bused down to Chattanooga and sequestered for the June 19 trial of Benjamin Brewer, who faces six counts of vehicular homicide after he crashed into stopped traffic on I-75 near the Ooltewah exit on June 25, 2015.
Agreeing that Brewer's case received too much media attention to find an impartial jury in Chattanooga, defense attorneys and prosecutors traveled to Davidson County's courthouse to whittle down a pool of 110 prospective jurors.
Right off the bat, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole dismissed about 40 jurors who had hardships that couldn't be rescheduled, like a business trip, school or childcare. The other 70 answered questions from attorneys.
Prosecutors say Brewer, 41, was driving over the federal time limit for commercial motorists and was high on methamphetamine when he crashed into the stopped vehicles. Public defenders have countered that police illegally seized several pieces of evidence when they detained Brewer on the scene for several hours but didn't formally arrest him.
Deputy Public Defender Mike Little stressed the importance of having an open mind, despite jurors having to view crash scene photos and hear about gruesome deaths.
"Are there children involved?" one juror asked.
"Of the six who died, two are children," Little replied. "And you will see the car."
Brewer, who wore a suit Monday, also faces four counts of reckless aggravated assault, one count of driving under the influence, one count of speeding, and one count of violation of motor carrier regulations. He is being held in the Hamilton County Jail on a $500,000 bond and has no prior history here. He was, however, fired from a previous trucking job because of illegal drug use and had crashed seven times in the three years before joining Cool Runnings Express, a mom-and-pop company that ran trucks out of London, Ky.
Cool Runnings Express is no longer operational, but hasn't filed for bankruptcy, its attorney, John Griffin, said Monday.
As in many wrongful death or serious injury situations, family members have sued Brewer and his employer for civil damages. There are five pending cases before Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Marie Williams and another in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court.
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The difference here is, Cool Runnings Express had few assets to give in the first place.
"Cool Runnings Express Inc. has no corporate interests to be identified," Griffin wrote in a court filing in August 2015. "Cool Runnings Express Inc. has no parent corporations. No publicly held corporations own 10 percent or more of Cool Runnings Express Inc.'s stock."
The amount of insurance a company has isn't discoverable to a victim with a serious injury or wrongful death case in state court. But Cool Runnings Express complied with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Griffin said, which requires any driver operating a tractor trailer across state lines to have a minimum of $750,000 in coverage.
Across six cases, though, $750,000 minimum isn't a lot of money, meaning plaintiffs' attorneys need to rope in other companies if they want to earn a larger settlement for their clients.
"I had a case several years ago in Bradley County where a 4-year-old in a car was paralyzed by a tractor trailer that was on the wrong side of the road," said attorney Hu Hamilton, who handles wrongful death and serious injury cases. "They were carrying the minimum amount of insurance required by federal requirements, so it really forced us to look beyond the trucking company, which was a mom-and-pop place out of Kentucky."
What they found out, Hamilton said, was the truck involved in this accident had been pulling a load of corn from South Georgia, and it hadn't been weighed since it left for Tennessee.
"So we sued the company that loaded the corn, because there wasn't enough insurance," Hamilton said, "and we were able to get some of the other players to contribute money to a pretty significant settlement."
In the Brewer case, local attorneys C. Mark Warren and his associate Ryan Womack are following a similar strategy. They added the construction agency working on I-75 that evening; a transportation service that hired Cool Runnings and Brewer for a run; and a Kentucky repair company that fixed one of Brewer's breakdowns before he sideswiped a car in Florida and then wrecked in Tennessee.
"Cool Runnings and each of them, knew or should have known of the Florida wreck, the ensuing delays in delivery, and of Brewer's ensuing of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration hours-of-service mandatory limits," Womack wrote in the civil suit. "Defendants had a duty under federal regulations to halt Brewer from continuing to drive."
As defender Little reminded jurors Monday, what matters in Brewer's criminal proceeding is that prosecutors prove impairment beyond a reasonable doubt. They will be bused down Sunday, put up in a hotel and unable to regularly communicate with the outside world until the trial is over.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@times freepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zack peterson918.