As a Missouri auto accident lawyer, I was interested in an article about the progress of a wrongful death suit brought by family members of a high school baseball coach killed by an allegedly drunk driver. The Pulaski (Missouri) County Daily recently reported that the criminal and civil trials related to the crash will be held in separate counties to help ensure a fair trial for the defendant, since the families of both the defendant and the plaintiffs are well known in their community. News reports like this one help the public gain a better understanding of the rights and responsibilities that all of us have when we get behind the wheel of a car, and in the unfortunate event of an accident.
The crash occurred on June 4, 2009, when George Harry Widener, 65, of Jerome, was allegedly driving the wrong way on Old Route 66. His Chevy Avalanche SUV crashed head-on into Don Nelson, who was riding a motorcycle. Nelson was pronounced dead at the scene. Widener’s blood alcohol content was 0.214 percent, nearly three times the legal limit of .08. Widener is criminally charged with negligent homicide, a Class B felony punishable by five to 15 years in prison. He was convicted of drunk driving three times, in 1983, 1993, and 1999, and was driving on a restored license at the time of the 2009 crash.
Nelson was Waynesville High School’s head baseball coach as well as a radio sports announcer for KJPW/KFBD. Widener is a retired railroad employee, and his wife is a real estate agent. Because of the two families’ prominence in the Waynesville area, Widener’s attorneys requested that the civil and criminal trials be held in a different county. His attorneys argue that Pulaski County residents are prejudiced against Widener because of widespread news coverage and Nelson’s prominence in the community, so it would be impossible for him to receive a fair trial in the county. Already, the court had been deluged with phone calls from Pulaski County residents attempting to lobby the judge to require a high bail amount from Widener.
However, Nelson’s adult children, Kenneth Todd Nelson and Stacey Marie Cruz, who have brought the civil lawsuit, argued that their case should remain in Pulaski County. Kenneth Nelson and Cruz seek damages to compensate them for costs they have borne because of the accident, such as funeral and legal expenses, as well as “the reasonable value of the services, consortium, companionship, comfort, instruction, guidance, counsel, training and support” that they will no longer receive from their father. They also seek punitive damages in light of the “great physical pain and mental anguish” that they say their father must have experienced in the crash, and because Widener’s actions demonstrated disregard for the safety of others. Widener denies responsibility for Nelson’s death, saying that Nelson himself was responsible for it.
It’s too early to say whether Widener will be found guilty of the charges against him, regardless of where his trials are held. But what is very clear is that when someone makes the choice to drive while intoxicated, they are not just risking their own life. Their disregard for the safety of other drivers threatens the other drivers, as well as their families. And when a drunk driver’s negligent decision to get behind the wheel results in a fatal accident, an entire community can be torn apart. As Pulaski County is discovering, family, friendships and business relationships can be severed.
As a St. Louis car crash lawyer, I sympathize with Nelson’s children as they go through the painful process of trying to hold Widener responsible for his alleged harm to them and their father. Preventable accidents like the one that killed their father should be far less common than they are. I have seen a lot of cases in smaller communities like Waynesville where victims’ families have to see the person who hurt them in their community. This can make them feel uncomfortable about asking for compensation for their injuries. But victims need to preserve their ability to ask for compensation for the harms they have suffered. It would be unfair to expect them to not only bear the pain of their injuries but also all the expenses too — not just funeral costs, but pain and suffering and lost quality of life.
This is why it’s important for anyone involved in a car accident to contact a lawyer right away. An experienced southern Illinois car wreck attorney can take care of all the legal details so that victims can focus on making a physical and mental recovery. At Carey, Danis & Lowe, we work with families enduring the kind of pain that the Nelsons are undoubtedly experiencing. We help them legally recover compensation for their emotional and financial losses, so they can focus on comforting each other without worrying about how they’ll pay for funerals or medical costs.
If you or a loved one have been hurt in an accident, please call Carey, Danis & Lowe for a free consultation to learn about your legal rights. You can call us at 1-877-678-3400, or send us a message online.