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Nearly $5.7M awarded for teen's car death
A Paulding County Superior Court jury has reached a $5.67 million verdict against a drug-impaired driver who crossed the center line and killed a 15-year-old riding in another car.
The jury awarded Mark and René Williamson $5,407,284 for the full value of the life of their son, Zachary, plus an additional $263,409 for Zachary's pain and suffering, medical and funeral expenses. The jury also awarded punitive damages, but held that amount to $250 after the defendant testified about how sorry he was.
The jury reached its verdict about 7 p.m. on June 12, on the second day of the trial before Paulding Circuit Superior Court Chief Judge Tonny Beavers.
"The parents were satisfied that the jury recognized the full value of their son's life," said their attorney, Lance Cooper of the Cooper Firm in Marietta. Zachary was a college-bound student and a member of the football and wrestling teams at North Paulding High School, where he was a sophomore. "They also wanted to make sure word got out about the financial consequences that can result when someone drives under the influence of drugs."
Now, the plaintiffs are waiting to hear whether the verdict will be paid or appealed, or whether more litigation will follow.
The defendant, Dylan Turner, was insured by USAA with a policy limit of only $25,000. But Cooper said the insurer may be responsible for the full verdict because the family made a time-limited demand for the policy limits that wasn't met fully a factor that can lead to insurers being on the hook for more than their policy limits.
"The insurance company responded but wanted the family to sign a release which contained some unacceptable language," Cooper said. The language included a clause saying Turner wasn't responsible for the accident.
"We don't know yet. They may pay the judgment. Or there may be some sort of action against the insurance company by Dylan Turner, the insured, for not settling when they should have," Cooper said.
Cooper said he had been concerned a Paulding County jury might not be receptive to a plaintiff's case, and he said the panel members were a conservative group business owners and health care professionals. "At the end of the day, they did what most juries do," he said. "They took their job seriously."
Cooper said he struggled with whether to ask for punitive damages but thought they were appropriate in this case. He credited the strategy used by defense attorney Douglas Smith of Carlock, Copeland & Stair with holding them down to a mere $250.
Smith didn't call Turner to testify until after the verdict on liability, during the punitive damages phase of the trial. Then Smith questioned Turner aggressively about his actions on the evening of the fatal crash.
"Doug Smith did a very good job in examining him and getting him to acknowledge his responsibility," Cooper said. "Doug was pretty hard on him, and I think it was pretty effective."
Cooper said Smith asked Turner, "Do you know you did a stupid thing?"
"I agree," Cooper said Turner answered. Then, looking directly at the bereaved parents, he said, "I wish it had been me instead of Zach."
Reached for comment Thursday, Smith said only, "We are weighing all options."
Turner was allowed to appear at the trial in street clothes, but he is serving a prison sentence for first-degree vehicular homicide. Cooper said the jury was aware that even after Turner is paroled, he will serve more years under home confinement. Turner pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and driving under the influence of drugs. Turner tested positive for marijuana, oxycodone and Xanax, Cooper said.
Turner was 18 on the night of the crash, Aug. 14, 2010. He had driven from Paulding County to West Cobb County to buy more pot and was headed to a buddy's house to smoke it, Cooper said. It was about 7 p.m. He was driving a borrowed red 2005 Dodge Neon. He crossed the center line of Old Cartersville Road near Bone Circle in Dallas, crashing head-on into a Jeep Wrangler driven by Zachary's lifelong friend, Tanner Field, who was 17.
Tanner's girlfriend, Bethany Welch, was riding in the front passenger seat of the Wrangler. Zachary was sitting in the back seat behind Tanner. They were going out to celebrate Tanner's birthday.
"Zachary was an only child, and his parents were very protective," Cooper said. "It was the first time they had ever let him ride with a friend in a vehicle. He had gotten to the age where they felt they needed to let him go out."
Cooper said Zachary's parents had struggled painfully with all the events of the night. "You can't ask yourself, 'What if?' but you do," Cooper said.
The others' injuries weren't serious. But after the impact, the Jeep rolled over on top of Zachary. One of the most difficult parts of the trial was detailing Zachary's injuries and the extent of his suffering, Cooper said.
Cooper said he deposed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner who performed the autopsy. It showed Zachary took a crushing blow to the chest. Said Cooper, "There was no significant head injury. He likely survived seconds and maybe even minutes before he died. It was relatively short, thankfully, but he probably was alert before the chest injuries to his heart and lungs resulted in his death."
The case is Williamson v. Turner, No. 11-CV-386-TB.