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Payout in police-involved fatal crash in jury's hands

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A panel of six jurors has been asked to quantify the value of a man who died when his 1990 Plymouth Acclaim was broadsided by a speeding Gwinnett police officer's cruiser five years ago. Attorneys on both sides agree the officer was breaking state law and department policy at the time of impact.

By way of a 1940s mortality chart, the victim's salary history, a hand-drawn "life pie" graphic and a bounty of colorful metaphors, attorneys for the widow of 52-year-old Willie Sargent Jr. applied a rough price tag to the days the electrician wasn't able to live, while urging jurors to consider those he left behind.

Attorney Terry Jackson in closing arguments told jurors that conservative estimates would have a fit guy like Sargent living 24 more years, with each day of life worth at least $500.

"All day long this is a $5 million case," Jackson told jurors. "If you decide to award more, that's up to you."

The attorney representing Gwinnett County, Michael O'Quinn, said any money the jury awards will be paid from the county's fund for automobile liability claims. His position is that at least part of the blame rested with Sargent, who was turning left in front of the officer, as studies have shown.

If Sargent would have retired at age 70, his earning potential was around $400,000, which O'Quinn urged jurors to use as a "baseline amount." Prior to working as an electrician, Sargent was a car salesman. Whether or not he had a college degree from a Mississippi college, as he told his wife and family, was the source of much debate in the three-day trial, as a degree would have upped his potential earnings.

"All we want is what's fair," O'Quinn said. "The county's not denying the obvious. We had an officer here who didn't do what he should have done."

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Sargent's wife, Faustina, seeks $5 million in damages. It claims Gwinnett police Officer James Stoudenmire, then 25, was negligent in causing the crash on U.S. Highway 78 just before midnight on Dec. 15, 2006.

Accident experts determined Stoudenmire, who'd been patrolling for only a few months, was traveling to a non-emergency call at 78 mph in a 45 mph zone with his emergency lights and sirens off.

For his actions, Stoudenmire was suspended from the department for 24 days without pay and then relegated to desk work for three months. He was also sent back to the police academy to re-train in emergency response, he testified this week. He later resigned from the force following an off-duty DUI arrest in 2009.

Another attorney for the plaintiff, Gary Cooper, humanized the officer's plight for jurors but urged them to consider the void Sargent's family has been dealt.

The officer "was just a hot-rodding guy who made a mistake," Cooper said.

Deliberations began late Wednesday afternoon. The six jurors must reach a unanimous decision on damages, and also on what percentage of the blame for Sargent's death lies with whom, attorneys said.