published Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Varnell settles claim arising from patrol car wreck

  • photo
    Varnell Police Officer James Smith was driving this cruiser when he crashed into Leon Thurman's car March 5. Thurman was at least the sixth Georgian killed in recent years in a crash involving a law enforcement vehicle. Contributed Photo by Michael Thurman

Varnell, Ga., and the family of a 70-year-old man who died when an on-duty Varnell police officer smashed his patrol car into the man's vehicle have reached a settlement.

In a joint statement issued Tuesday, the two sides declined to specify the exact amount paid through the city's insurance.

But, Robert Smalley, of Dalton, Ga., attorney for the family of victim Leon Thurman, called the settlement "substantial."

The family was asking for $750,000 in a wrongful death case claiming that Officer James Smith, who since has resigned from the police force, was traveling at more than 90 mph -- more than twice the speed limit -- when he crashed into Thurman's car about 1:30 a.m. on March 12. Smith, who was driving on Cleveland Highway in Dalton, wasn't on a call and his blue lights weren't on, records show.

Thurman, a retired farmer, was delivering copies of the Dalton Daily Citizen at the time of the crash.

Smith and Thurman were friends, and the men would visit occasionally in the early morning when Thurman was delivering papers, a job he held for 15 years.

Smith cited emotional trauma when he submitted his resignation letter after the crash, Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant told the Times Free Press in early May.

In the statement released Tuesday, Virginia Thurman, Leon Thurman's widow, said, "What I really wish is just to turn back the clock to before the accident. But I am glad not to have this court case anymore."

Varnell Mayor Dan Peeples said in the statement that the city regrets the family's loss, and he hopes the resolution of the case brings some closure for the Thurmans and for Smith.

Melissa Trammel, Thurman's daughter, said in the statement, "If nothing else, hopefully this case has brought some attention to the need for all emergency personnel to drive cautiously, in keeping with their training, even in the middle of the night. We can't bring Daddy back, but hopefully, this won't happen again."

District Attorney Bert Poston of the Conasauga Judicial Circuit of Georgia, which serves Whitfield and Murray counties, is reviewing a report of the crash done by the Georgia State Patrol to determine whether criminal charges should be brought against Smith.

"We're looking at the report now and considering what charges might be appropriate," Poston said Tuesday. "We have just only had the report for about a week. It's about three inches thick."

A grand jury may review the case, he said.

The report isn't public, and Poston declined to discuss details of the case, such as the report's account of the speed at which Smith was driving, a figure that has never been released.

"In any court case, the prosecutor is not supposed to talk about the facts of the case until the case is resolved," he said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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