News and Tribune

July 29, 2013

Sellersburg fire department ordered to pay $225,000 in wrongful-death suit

Jury rules in favor of deceased woman's estate

By GARY POPP
gary.popp@newsandtribune.com

SELLERSBURG —

The Sellersburg Volunteer Fire Department will pay $225,000 to the estate of a woman killed in a 2009 vehicle collision with an ambulance, following a verdict reached in a civil trial Friday.

Opal Couch, 75, Jeffersonville, was killed after a SVFD ambulance “doing business as” a Clark County EMS ambulance struck the side of her Lincoln passenger car about 2 p.m. July 4, at an intersection on Lewis and Clark Parkway near Bob Evans restaurant.

The SVFD was represented during the 4-day trial by attorney Rodney Scott, New Albany, who said he expects to appeal the jury’s decision.

“I am deeply disappointed with the jurors’ verdict,” Scott said. “It is a wrongful-death case, and these are always tough verdicts.”

He said there was no doubt that the driver of the ambulance, Travis Herthel, who testifed during the trial, had been operating the ambulance with its lights and sirens activated, although the complaint stated that was not the case.

There was also evidence that Couch was using a cell phone at the time of the collision.

“She was definitely using the cell phone,” Scott said.

Herthel testified that as he was approaching the intersection, he saw Couch’s vehicle at a stop partially in the intersection in a perpendicular direction of travel.

He said that he intended on driving around the stopped vehicle, but as the ambulance entered the intersection, Couch’s vehicle had continued to complete its left turn.

It is believed Herthel was driving nearly 60 mph prior to and at the time of impact.

While the estate is being administered by Jeffersonville attorney Charles Guilfoyle, the trial was handled by the law firm Reynolds, Horne & Survant, Macon, Ga., where Couch is originally from.

Michael Horner handled the trial’s proceedings, but attorney Carl Reynolds was reached by phone hours after the verdict was reached.

Reynolds explained the $225,000 was the amount the jurors found to be justifiable compensation to Couch’s husband, Lamar Couch, for the “love and affection” lost as a result of his wife’s death, before he passed away nearly four months later.

The damages, if an appeal does not reverse the verdict, will be paid to Couch’s estate.

Reynolds explained that the damages had a cap of $300,000, and added, “We are very pleased with the verdict.”

He also said a verdict like the one reached in the trial can do much more to make sure EMT drivers are safely responding to emergencies than virtually any action taken by lawmakers.

“I hope it [the verdict] is something everyone in the community will benefit from,” Reynolds said.

He said it was the evidence and testimonies that resulted in the verdict, not the work of his firm’s attorneys or any shortcomings of the defense counsel.

In regard to Herthel and the SVFD, Reynolds said, “I’m sure they hated this as much as anyone in the world and are very sorry what happened to the [Couch] family.”

The trial was heard in Judge Jerry Jacobi’s Clark County Circuit Court No. 2.

Reynolds also took a moment to say the people of Clark County are lucky to have such a hard-working judge in Jacobi, and his entire court staff.

SFVD Boyce Adams said the entire situation was unfortunate and that there are no winners. He said he will have to wait and see until the after the appeal process and communication with the department’s insurance company before determining how the SVFD will be affected.

The defense has nearly 30 days from the time the verdict was reached to file for an appeal.