NEWS FROM THE LEGAL COMMUNITY:
A Bucks County judge has awarded $2.9 million to the family of a 14-year-old Bensalem girl who was killed in a 2004 hit-and-run crash.
Ashley Lynn Nickerson-Whalen, who was about to begin ninth grade at Bensalem High School, died after being struck while trying to cross Street Road about 10 p.m Aug. 19, 2004.
Police later arrested Kirk Tate, a 21-year-old Philadelphia man who was driving with a suspended license. Tests showed that Kirk was intoxicated at the time of the crash, but he wasn’t charged with DUI-related hit-and-run because investigators found that road condition and other factors, not his drunkenness, caused the crash.
Tate pleaded guilty in 2005 and was sentenced to three to six years in a state prison for the hit and run and DUI.
Prosecutors, at the time, said that a police investigation showed Tate was traveling at the posted speed limit of 45 mph before he hit Nickerson-Whalen, and that even a sober driver would have been unable to avoid the crash.
Nickerson-Whalen’s family disagreed.
“The bottom line was, once he pleaded guilty to DUI and leaving the scene, he was going to be found liable in a civil court,” said the family’s attorney, Carol Shelly of Mellon, Webster and Shelly in Doylestown.
Shelly said that Bucks County Judge Gary Gilman, who decided the case without a jury, made a point to say in court that the slain teen didn’t cause the accident.
“Judge Gilman made it clear on the record that Ashley did not do anything wrong,” she said.
Also named in the suit was Donald E. Williams, the owner of the car Tate was driving when he hit Nickerson-Whalen. Neither Tate nor Williams had car insurance.
Gilman awarded the plaintiffs $697,749.92 in wrongful death damages against both defendants; $1.5 million in survival action damages against both defendants; $600,000 in punitive damages against Tate; and $150,000 punitive damages against Williams.
Tate and Williams did not show up for trial or send a lawyer. Tate is still in prison.
Shelly said the teen’s family knows that getting the money from Tate and Williams may be difficult, but they plan to keep an eye on the men’s future assets.
“They will do what they have to do, within the law, to collect this award,” Shelly said.
Shelly said that she learned during the lawsuit investigation that Tate admitted to police that he had been involved in a hit-and-run crash in New Jersey a year before he hit Nickerson-Whalen, but had escaped prosecution.
“This man should have been in prison,” Shelly said. “He wasn’t, and Ashley paid with her life.”
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