Widow awarded $2 million in wrongful death suit against Gwinnett

A Gwinnett County jury on Thursday awarded $2 million to the widow of a 52-year-old Snellville man who was killed when a county police officer in a speeding patrol car slammed into his vehicle.

The verdict followed three days of testimony about the Dec. 15, 2006, wreck that resulted in Willie Allen Sargent Jr.’s death.

Sargent was trying to turn left into Uncle Woody’s Party Place on U.S. 78 in Snellville when Gwinnett County Police Officer James Stoudenmire’s patrol car collided with his vehicle. At the time, the officer was responding as backup to a suspicious person call in Snellville, traveling between 78 and 80 mph with no emergency flashing lights or sirens, according to the lawsuit.

Attorneys Terry Jackson and Gary Cooper, who represented Sargent's widow, said the death was a tragedy for all involved. Sargent, an electrician who was meeting up with a buddy to hang out that night, was only one to 1 1/2 seconds away from being off the roadway when the impact occurred, Jackson said.

"That is all the time he needed, and this wreck never happens," Jackson said in an emailed statement.

Stoudenmire was reprimanded and suspended after the wreck.

Then, three years after the wreck, Stoudenmire was arrested on a drunken driving charge while he was off duty. The Police Department allowed him to resign in lieu of termination.

“The county employee’s conduct in this case was not good, and the jury said so with its verdict,” Jackson said.

Attorney Michael O'Quinn, who defended the county, said he will appeal. The jury never got to hear that Sargent's blood alcohol level was 0.192 -- more than twice the legal limit of .08 -- because State Court Judge Carla Brown ruled last week that the evidence could not be admitted during the civil trial.

"It's a hard lick to take when you feel like not everything was out there for the jury to consider," O'Quinn said.

O'Quinn said he will also appeal the judge's pretrial ruling regarding the cap on verdicts. He had argued that Georgia law at the time of the accident put a $100,000 cap on verdicts against counties based upon the concept of sovereign immunity, which shields governments from liability.

O'Quinn said Gwinnett is not insured. The county has an auto-liabilty fund to pay lawsuits. The county, however, won't have to pay Sargent's widow until the appeal is settled.

Faustina Sargent was not available for comment Thursday. The widow told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that she struggles with feelings of loss every day.

"I don't believe there is such thing as closure," Sargent said. "You have to try hard to put it behind you and move on."