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$5 million payment settles lawsuit

The State: $5 million payment settles lawsuit

Judge approves agreement in case that focuses attention on driving while using a cell phone

By JOHN MONK - jmonk@thestate.com

It may have been the most expensive cell phone call ever made in the history of South Carolina.

An insurance carrier will pay nearly $5 million to settle the case of a distracted driver who evidence alleged - among other things - was using a cell phone when she struck and killed two bicyclists in Lancaster County.

"It’s been a long time and a difficult time," said Sherri Hoskins, 52, of the death of her late husband, Thomas, at 49 in 2007.

"We are forever changed, and my kids are fatherless," she said.

Hoskins spoke Thursday afternoon outside a Columbia federal courtroom where, minutes before, U.S. Judge Joe Anderson had approved the nearly $5 million settlement. The exact amount was $4,999,900.

"A jury might have awarded you more, and it might have awarded you less," Anderson told Hoskins in a brief hearing in which he approved the settlement. "No one can say for certain."

In December, a Lancaster County judge approved a $2.5 million settlement in state civil court for the death of the other cyclist, Lee Anne Barry, 43.

Drivers’ cell phone use is a hot-button issue these days in South Carolina and across the country. Blocks away the day before, state lawmakers discussed banning motorists’ hand-held cell phone use. It is currently legal to drive while texting or talking on a hand-held cell phone in South Carolina.

How much of a role the use of a cell phone by driver Sharon King - whose Chrysler Pacifica killed the two bicyclists - played in the deaths promised to assume major prominence in the trial.

Lawyers for the cyclists’ estates said in pretrial hearings and in court filings that King was on a cell phone at the time of the crash. Among their evidence: cell phone records and a statement by the woman King had been talking with that she heard the impact of the crash on the open line.

"We believe the cell phone was the major cause of the crash," said one of Hoskins’ lawyers, Dick Harpootlian.

But defense lawyers were prepared to argue that, while King was distracted, she had laid the phone down on a seat and was preparing to operate the car radio at the time of the crash.

Court filings also indicate King had more than one dog in the car, which also could have distracted her.

"We believe the totality of the evidence would have cleared Ms. King of all exaggerated allegations, including cell phone usage," said defense lawyer Nicholas Gladd.

In agreeing to the settlement, "Ms. King admitted to an unfortunate distraction which, coupled with the unique combination of vehicles and bicycles together on the same highway, caused the accident," Gladd said.

In any case, what is beyond doubt, in the language of Thursday’s settlement, is that King was negligent.

The road she was driving on had little or no other traffic; she had a clear view of the road; the bicycles were well to the right and had the right of way; and the October weather was clear, according to court records.

Her negligence was so undeniable that two weeks ago, in a Lancaster County courtroom, she pleaded guilty to reckless driving in the deaths of Hoskins and Barry.

Had King demanded a jury trial in that case, the use of her cell phone would have been a major issue, said prosecutor Douglas Barfield from the state’s 6th Judicial Circuit.

Under Thursday’s settlement, Hoskins’ lawyers - Harpootlian, John Schmidt and Melissa Copeland - will receive $1.3 million. Sherri Hoskins will get $3.6 million.

The Pacifica was a company car, and it was the company’s insurance at issue.

Settlements in wrongful-death cases are public record and must be approved by a judge.