In the early morning of March 5, Leon Thurman, a 70 year old well-known and respected Cohutta man, was delivering newspapers for The Daily Citizen. He had been delivering newspapers for more than 15 years and had a particular route, never letting anyone take his night shift. He worked through the night, seven days a week, for years, the only exception being Christmas Day. At about 1:30am, Mr. Thurman crossed four lanes on Cleveland Highway trying to get to a side road. Varnell police officer James Smith was also on the highway at the time, driving from Dalton to Varnell with a 19 year old male participating in a citizen ride along. That area of the highway has a posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour. The latest news indicates that Officer Smith's blue lights were not on and he was not responding to a 911 call at the time. It was believed that Officer Smith was returning from Dalton with office supplies after apparently having stopped at Wal-Mart. The patrol car driven by Smith slammed into Mr. Thurman's Dodge Neon, then swerved and hit the Neon again. Mr. Thurman was thrown from the car as the car shot forward and burst into flames in the middle of the road. Officer Smith's car jumped the curb and went down an embankment.
Mr. Thurman died at the scene. Officer Smith was treated for minor injuries and released from Hamilton Medical Center. The 19 year old accompanying Smith, Cody Coker, was unharmed. Officer Smith has been on administrative leave since the crash pending a Georgia State Patrol investigation according to Varnell police chief Lyle Grant.
The initial police report said that Mr. Thurman failed to yield, but did not indicate the speeds of the two cars at the time of the crash. The Georgia State Patrol is still doing a reconstruction of the crash, and asserts that the relative speeds will not be released until the investigation is finished.
Mr. Thurman's family is not satisfied at least with the initial police report, they told reporters at Chattanooga Times Free Press. His son, Michael Thurman, said when you see the crash photos of the charred, crumpled Neon, "there's no way he wasn't speeding,referring to Officer Smith. Parts of the Neon melted in the resulting fire and skid marks were easily visible.
Conasauga District Attorney Bert Poston told reporters that he could not comment on whether criminal charges would be filed against Officer Smith, depending on the conclusions from the investigation. Authorities say administrative leave is standard for an officer involved in a fatal Georgia car crash.
Whether or not criminal charges are filed, the Thurman family may have options to sue. The standard of proof in civil cases is significantly lower than in criminal cases where guilt is determined "beyond a reasonable doubt. Georgia law has provisions to recover from the responsible party in a car accident, including non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.
In this case, with a tragic death, Georgia's wrongful death laws may allow the surviving members of the family to obtain compensation to help with the financial burden of the loss of a loved one.
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