Jury awards families $6 million in Crescent suit

mgordon@charlotteobserver.comMay 13, 2013 

— After four days of deliberations, a Mecklenburg County jury Friday turned a missing $200,000 traffic signal into a $6 million judgment against a Charlotte development company.

The unanimous verdict found that Crescent Resources’ failure to install a promised traffic light at an N.C. 49 intersection played a role in an April 4, 2009, traffic accident that claimed three lives.

After the judgment was announced, plaintiff Lisa Holt turned and stared toward the back of Courtroom 6130. There sat Steve Price, another of the plaintiffs.

Both had lost loved ones in the crash: Dan and Lisa Holt, their 13-year-old son, Hunter; Price, his wife, Cindy Furr, and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter Mackie.

The jury gave them $3 million each for the children (the suit had asked for $5 million per death). But Furr’s death got nothing, the jury apparently finding that the Winthrop University professor had been negligent when she pulled her car onto N.C. 49 from Riverpointe Drive.

Moments later her car was rammed by a Mitsubishi Eclipse driven by Tyler Stasko, who was racing another car at speeds that exceeded 100 mph.

After having the jury polled Friday, Crescent attorney Greg York asked Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin to set the verdict aside. For the third time in the three-week trial, York argued that the families’ attorneys had presented no evidence, only speculation, that a traffic signal would have prevented the crash.

Ervin gave both sides two weeks to submit arguments on York’s motion. Fred DeVore, an attorney for Price, also requested that the judge revisit the jury’s decision to exclude Furr’s death from any monetary award.

Afterward, the Morganton judge said he expected an appeal. “One side or the other will be taking this one to Raleigh,” he said.

For all its dramatic testimony and weeks of claims and counterclaims, the case seemed to turn during the last few hours in the jury room.

On Thursday afternoon, the jury’s foreman let it slip in open court that, at that time, only four of the 12 members favored the families.

Friday morning, the fourth day of deliberations, he told the judge that the six women and six men were at an impasse. At that point, he described the voting breakdown as 8-3-1 and said three members were not budging from their positions.

By midafternoon Friday, the case appeared destined for a hung jury. But just after 3:30 p.m., the foreman sent the judge a note. They had a verdict.

After it was read and each juror confirmed the decision, the Holts remained expressionless. Then Lisa put her head down and stared at the floor. Her husband reached over and squeezed her left leg. As they left the courtroom, they declined comment.

Crescent agreed to install the signal at Highway 49 and Riverpointe Drive in return for the county’s go-ahead in 2006 for construction of the Palisades community across the highway near Lake Wylie.

But the light didn’t go up. Residents said the intersection was growing increasingly unsafe, particularly when Crescent expanded the entrance to the Palisades. The state and county also had urged the company to install the light.

But Crescent said the Palisades hadn’t developed as quickly as planned, and two separate traffic studies launched by the company, including one in 2008-09, indicated the signal was not yet needed.

Two months after the crash, a light was put in.

In his closing argument, DeVore accused Crescent of gambling public safety on a bet that if the company waited long enough, someone else would pay for the light.

York, though, said the signal was not the issue. He blamed the deaths on drivers Stasko and Carlene Atkinson, who set off on their wild dash down N.C. 49 about a mile-and-a-half north of the intersection.

Four years ago last month, both drivers were returning from Carowinds. Stasko had gone there to pick up Hunter Holt and Rex Thomas; Atkinson, her daughter and the girl’s teenage friend. The four young people had spent the day together at the amusement park.

At the Shopton Road signal, the two cars taking them home came together on N.C. 49. Hunter and one of the girls flashed middle fingers, Rex Thomas testified. Both drivers floored it when the light changed. Stasko and Atkinson are now serving prison terms for their roles in the collision.

In his closing argument, Crescent’s York said Furr and Hunter also bore some responsibility for their own deaths: Furr for pulling out into oncoming traffic and Hunter for not asking Stasko to slow down or to let him out.

That assertion drew a withering rebuke from Amanda Mingo, the Holts’ attorney. She said Furr would not have pulled into the intersection had there been a stop light. Once there, with cars barreling down at her at a high speed that was hard to gauge, she “had nowhere to go.”

As for Hunter’s failure to get the 23-year-old Stasko to slow down, Mingo asked the jurors to reflect on the “audacity to accuse a 13-year-old boy of doing something wrong.”

Before the trial, Crescent had countersued Cindy Furr’s estate, citing her for negligent driving. Given Friday’s verdict, that could make her estate responsible for paying as much as half the damages awarded for the death of her daughter.

Reached by phone after the trial had ended, Mingo said the verdict sent a message.

“A company can’t do business in a bubble,” she said. “If you have an impact on those around you, and you have an obligation to make things safe, then you better do it.”

In all the jury spent some 18 hours discussing the case. Afterward, the members met privately with the judge. Then, led by a team of sheriff’s deputies, they left the courtroom chambers and walked silently toward the elevators, declining to speak to reporters.

Two friends of Steve Price, a man and a woman who had watched most of the trial by his side, were in the courthouse hallway when the jurors passed.

A woman juror stopped to hug Price’s female friend. Behind them, the jury’s foreman and the other friend shook hands.

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