An Aiken County jury has awarded $2.9 million to the estate of a woman who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2009 after the driver of some heavy construction equipment ran a stop sign.
Sam English Grading Inc., which was doing work for Owens Corning when the accident happened, was ordered to pay $2.9 million to the estate of 35-year-old Christie Valenzuela, who was killed Aug. 7, 2009, on Redds Branch Road near the AGY fiberglass plant.
Valenzuela was a passenger on the 2001 Harley-Davidson driven by her husband, Michael. Michael Valenzuela was forced to take evasive action to avoid colliding with a 70,000 pound, 41-foot-long piece of construction equipment that was attempting to cross Redds Brach Road without stopping at a stop sign, according to Lisa McPherson, an attorney for Valenzuela’s estate.
Neither was wearing a helmet, according to previous news reports.
Testimony from several longtime residents of the community painted a picture of a dangerous condition created by the grading company when its equipment operators routinely – and with the permission of their boss, Chris English – chose to run the stop sign, McPherson said. The residents testified that they had seen the equipment cross the roadway without stopping, or even slowing down, on many occasions.
“This company was getting dirt from a landfill on one side of the road and taking it to build a landfill on the other side of the road to cover up the fiberglass debris,” McPherson said. “So, they would just go right across the road.”
One woman testified that she was nearly hit by the same piece of equipment just days before the deadly accident, McPherson said. Another woman testified that nothing changed after the wreck, and the large piece of equipment continued to run the stop sign.
Trey Cox, an attorney for Sam English Grading, did not return a message seeking comment.
An employee of Sam English Grading told the jury that, because the equipment was so big and heavy, running the stop sign at Redds Branch Road rather than stopping at it saved the company an estimated eight to 10 seconds on each of its 50 crossings per day, McPherson said. The jury found the company’s conduct to be reckless and willful, and disagreed with testimony of Chris English, who said the company did nothing wrong.
McPherson said she and Valenzuela’s family were satisfied with the outcome.
“Nothing can bring Christie back,” she said. “But, I think it gives them some closure, and hopefully this crossing is going to be made safer because of this trial so that nobody else gets hurt there.”
Valenzuela was an employee at J.D. Lever Elementary School. Her family set up a small memorial at the intersection where she was killed.
Teddy Kulmala covers the SRS and Courts beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.