Lawsuits filed in addiction recovery van crash that killed 7 in Gwinnett

Last year's fiery crash on I-85 in Gwinnett County killed seven people and injured several others.

Credit: File photo

Combined ShapeCaption
Last year's fiery crash on I-85 in Gwinnett County killed seven people and injured several others.

Credit: File photo

Victims’ families, survivors suing over I-85 wreck in 2021

A series of lawsuits have been filed in the deaths of seven women who were killed last year when their addiction recovery van overturned on I-85 in Gwinnett County and burst into flames.

Family members of the women killed and some of the surviving victims are suing the group home where they lived, the maker of the van and their housemate, who was driving 15 others to a recovery meeting when the crash occurred April 24, 2021.

The women killed were Normisha Monroe, 38, of Roswell; Alishia Carroll, 34, of Columbus; Kristie Whitfield, 44, of Mount Airy; Ashleigh Paris, 26, of Kennesaw; Tina Rice, 53, of Atlanta; and Rose Patrick, 34, of Ellabell. A seventh victim, 48-year-old Heidi Lesley of Duluth, died of her injuries two weeks later, according to police.

They were members of a Gwinnett-based addiction recovery program called We Are Living Proof and working to turn their lives around, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

ExploreGwinnett van crash victims remembered for their challenges, triumphs

Monroe, who was known affectionately as “MiMi,” had been sober for nearly two years, her sister said. She was a cheerleader for other women in the recovery community and always encouraged them to keep going.

“I was ashamed and broken and an alcoholic 3 years ago,” Monroe wrote in a Facebook post just five days before her death. “Look at me now. It’s by God’s grace. Mama, I did it.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Clockwise from top left: Normisha Monroe, Alishia Carroll, Rose Patrick and Ashleigh Paris were among seven people killed last year when their van crashed in Gwinnett County.

Credit: Contributed

Clockwise from top left: Normisha Monroe, Alishia Carroll, Rose Patrick and Ashleigh Paris were among seven people killed last year when their van crashed in Gwinnett County.

Credit: Contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Clockwise from top left: Normisha Monroe, Alishia Carroll, Rose Patrick and Ashleigh Paris were among seven people killed last year when their van crashed in Gwinnett County.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Monica Elizabeth Manire, a member of the program, was behind the wheel of the group’s 2002 Dodge van when she lost control at the I-985 split, officials said. Police said an abrupt lane change caused the van to topple over on the interstate before sliding into a guardrail and bursting into flames.

“Investigators believe that Manire made a reckless change of lanes from I-85 to I-985 which caused the van she was driving to flip on its side,” Gwinnett police said at the time.

ExploreDriver of addiction recovery van charged in deadly crash on I-85

Manire, who is among the defendants listed in the lawsuits, was charged with seven counts of vehicular homicide, reckless driving, improper lane change and serious injury by vehicle. She bonded out of jail in September, but her felony charges are punishable by up to 15 years in prison, the AJC reported previously.

Combined ShapeCaption
Monica Manire

Credit: Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department

Monica Manire

Credit: Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department

Combined ShapeCaption
Monica Manire

Credit: Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department

Credit: Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department

The lawsuits contend the Dodge 15-passenger van was prone to rollover crashes, and that the vehicle’s “dangerous and unstable design” was the primary factor in the deadly wreck. Those named as defendants include Chrysler and its parent company, the group home, a Peachtree Corners Pep Boys and a Lawrenceville tire shop, according to the filings.

The AJC has reached out to the automaker and its parent company, Stellantis, for comment.

Attorney Chris Glover, who represents several families of those killed or injured that day, called the van’s design “tragically unstable” and noted that particular model was discontinued after the 2003 production year.

“The tragic van accident was the result of a perfect storm of events, all of which could have been avoided, and the lives and injuries spared, had certain precautions been in place,” Glover said. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and others have warned for years against using these vehicles because of their dangerous propensity to lose control and roll over ... yet nothing was done to protect the many lives impacted by this dangerous design.”

He said he worked his first case involving large passenger vans nearly two decades ago, and that the dangers associated with the vehicles is well-known.

The NHTSA cautioned that “these cumbersome vehicles can pose a safety risk to inexperienced van drivers and other road users,” and that drivers should “never allow more than 15 people” to ride in the van.

Several drivers stopped at the scene and scrambled to save the women from the burning vehicle that afternoon.

Combined ShapeCaption
Several drivers who saw the burning van on I-85 tried to rescue the passengers.

Credit: Georgia Department of Transportation

Several drivers who saw the burning van on I-85 tried to rescue the passengers.

Credit: Georgia Department of Transportation

Combined ShapeCaption
Several drivers who saw the burning van on I-85 tried to rescue the passengers.

Credit: Georgia Department of Transportation

Credit: Georgia Department of Transportation

“There’s somebody trapped in there and it’s on fire and there’s all kind of people trying to get them out,” one caller told a 911 dispatcher from the scene. “It’s fully engulfed.”

The lawsuits allege a “dangerous and defective fuel system” contributed to the blaze.

ExploreWitnesses, families grappling with loss after fiery I-85 van crash

Had the vehicle not burst into flames, everyone would have survived, the families’ attorneys contend.

“If a vehicle takes a quarter-roll and falls over on its side, the people in it should be able to get out alive and walk away,” said attorney Kyle Wallace, who represents three survivors and the families of two women killed. “Instead, almost immediately, they’re trapped in a fiery inferno.”

Wallace said he thinks all 16 women would have died had it not been for the other drivers who scrambled to save them.

Tamika Gooden, Monroe’s sister, said she was proud of her for seeking recovery and turning her life around. Gooden said “MiMi” never got her license because she was terrified of dying in a car wreck. She hopes the lawsuit will help save lives.

“I still think about her every day,” she said. “My sister was the life of the party. She brought joy to everything and she’s greatly missed.”

Randy Craft, the general manager of We Are Living Proof, said the tragedy was a major blow to those battling addiction in his program. No one had died of an overdose in the program’s six-year history, he said. Then seven women were killed in a single crash.

Combined ShapeCaption
Family and friends of Normisha “MiMi” Monroe gathered in Lawrenceville last year to celebrate the life of the 38-year-old, and other women, who died when their recovery van overturned and caught on fire.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Family and friends of Normisha “MiMi” Monroe gathered in Lawrenceville last year to celebrate the life of the 38-year-old, and other women, who died when their recovery van overturned and caught on fire.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
Family and friends of Normisha “MiMi” Monroe gathered in Lawrenceville last year to celebrate the life of the 38-year-old, and other women, who died when their recovery van overturned and caught on fire.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

“It was a tragic loss for the families involved and for our company as a whole,” he told the AJC. “Being in a recovery program where people are trying to re-create their lives, this is definitely something that shook us up.”

Craft said Rice was a volunteer at the recovery center who normally drove the van. Rice, who was among those killed, had driven for years and was familiar with the vehicle, he said.

For some reason, Craft said, Rice handed her keys to Manire on that Saturday afternoon “without any approval.”

Michael Taylor, Rice’s son, said he still doesn’t know why his mother wasn’t behind the wheel.

He described her as a loving parent and grandmother of four who never hesitated to help anyone in need. He went to see his mom at work that afternoon, just two hours before she was killed.

“She was very much part of who I am,” Taylor said. “If you needed her, she was there. She would literally give you the shirt off her back.”

— Please return to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for updates.