LAWRENCEVILLE -- Jurors awarded $2 million Thursday to the widow of a driver killed five years ago by a speeding Gwinnett police officer -- a ruling the county's attorney will appeal on grounds key evidence was kept from court.
The panel of six jurors returned with the decision about 10 a.m. Thursday after several hours of deliberations. They did find that the victim, Snellville electrician Willie Sargent Jr., 52, was 5 percent at fault in the collision, because he turned left in front of the officer.
That percentage will be deducted from the payout, bringing it to roughly $1.9 million, said the attorney representing Gwinnett County, Mike O'Quinn.
The two-vehicle accident happened a few minutes before midnight on a Friday in December 2006. Sargent's widow, Faustina Sargent, filed a wrongful death suit two years later, seeking $5 million in damages.
An internal Gwinnett police investigation found that rookie Officer James Stoudenmire, then 25, was traveling about 34 mph above the 45 mph speed limit when he broadsided Sargent's 1990 Plymouth Acclaim on U.S. Highway 78, killing Sargent at the scene. The officer walked away with minor injuries.
At the time, Stoudenmire was speeding to a non-emergency call with his emergency lights and sirens off, a violation of state law and department policy.
Veteran civil attorney Gary Cooper, part of Sargent's legal team, said it could be years before his client sees any money, which would be paid from the county's fund for automobile liability claims. Though the award was millions short of what Sargent had hoped for, Cooper said he doesn't expect to file a motion for more money to be added to State Court Judge Carla Brown's final judgement.
"It's just a tough, ugly case all the way around," Cooper said Thursday. "You don't want to sue the county you live in, but (Sargent) had to."
O'Quinn expects to file a notice of appeal within a month to challenge the verdict.
The plaintiff's attorneys "were able to convince the trial judge to exclude some very damaging evidence against their client," O'Quinn said. "And that, in my opinion, was a game-changer. It eliminated what I regarded as my primary defense to the case."
O'Quinn was referring to evidence that jurors never heard -- that Willie Sargent's blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit when he died, according to O'Quinn. He pointed to those findings in court outside the jury's presence and in his written response to the lawsuit.
Brown, the judge, ruled that evidence about Sargent's drinking would be too prejudicial for jurors and fell outside the real issue -- that an officer acted inappropriately and caused Sargent's death.
O'Quinn said he also plans to appeal an earlier ruling by the court that the payout could exceed $100,000, a liability cap he contends was governed at the time of Sargent's death by Georgia statute.
For his actions, Stoudenmire was suspended from the department for 24 days without pay, relegated to desk work for three months and sent back to the police academy to re-train in emergency response. He later resigned from the force following an off-duty DUI arrest in 2009.