A North Carolina trucker who prosecutors say disregarded electronic highway signs on Interstate 95 that warned of crashes on the road ahead before plowing into eight stopped vehicles near Petersburg, killing a 6-year-old boy, was convicted Tuesday of involuntary manslaughter in the child’s death.
Michael Wayne Everette, 55, crashed into vehicles that were halted by traffic on I-95 near the I-85 interchange due to several earlier wrecks on the morning of Sept. 26. The Virginia Department of Transportation had activated overhead digital signs at two locations miles ahead of the crashes that warned motorists of the wrecks and that all lanes were blocked, a VDOT official testified at Everette’s involuntary manslaughter trial in Petersburg Circuit Court.
Everette didn’t adjust his driving and was traveling 55-60 mph on slick roads when he “barreled” into eight vehicles whose brake lights were illuminated. The wreck killed Ryan Buttari, 6, of Waverly, and broke the neck of the boy’s mother, Jamie McCann, who was sitting in the front passenger seat. She survived. Her older son, Jessie McCann, 21, was driving.
The impact of Everette’s tractor-trailer hitting the McCann family’s small pickup truck sent the vehicle flying over another motorist’s car, said Petersburg prosecutor Les Lindsey. Several other people also were injured, including a woman whose back was broken.
Traffic on northbound I-95 approaching Exit 51 in Petersburg at 10:50 a.m. was backed up due to earlier crashes. It had been raining and the roadway was still wet, and traffic was described as slowing and coming to a complete stop, according to Lindsey’s summary of facts.
Everette told a state trooper that he was driving his tractor-trailer from Murfreesboro, N.C., to Louisa County to deliver a load of crane mats.
According to his statement to the trooper, Everette said he was in the right lane, traveling 55-60 mph, when he saw traffic “all up to a stop.” Everette said he then “started to try to stop and it was like, I didn’t have any brakes but I was sliding and tried not to hit anyone directly” and moved his rig into the center lane before running into multiple vehicles.
“One witness described [Everette’s rig] as a bowling ball going down the lane and just knocking cars over,” Lindsey said.
Motorists at the scene told authorities that they could see the brake lights of stopped cars from about a quarter-mile back. Another witness, who was riding a motorcycle but is employed as a truck driver, estimated that Everette didn’t apply his brakes until he was about “30 yards” from the stopped vehicles.
Everette testified that he observed VDOT’s overhead digital signs but the only messages he saw displayed were the distances to Richmond and to Ashland.
But Edward Correa, VDOT traffic operations center manager, testified that the overhead sign at mile marker 41.9 displayed the message, “CRASH MILE MARKER 52 ALL LANES BLOCKED THRU TRAFFIC USE I-295 AS ALTERNATE ROUTE.” That message was in effect from 10:22 a.m. to 10:54 a.m. and about 10 miles from the crash site.
Correa noted that a second overhead sign at mile marker 46.1, about 4-5 miles from the crash site, displayed a similar message. The message was displayed from 8:52 a.m. to 10:54 a.m. “and was clearly visible to motorists traveling north.”
“One of our star witnesses was a truck driver from Georgia ... who said he saw those signs 11 miles back and 4 to 5 miles back,” Lindsey said.
The defense argued that Everette’s actions constituted simple negligence like reckless driving, but did not rise to the level of involuntary manslaughter — an accidental killing that is the result of negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life. Criminal negligence must be proven.
Everette originally was charged with reckless driving, but prosecutors took another look at the case and obtained an indictment against him on Dec. 29 for involuntary manslaughter.
After hearing evidence, Petersburg Circuit Judge Dennis M. Martin agreed with the prosecution and convicted Everette of the manslaughter count. Sentencing was set for Nov. 23. He faces up to 10 years in prison.