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Family of hit-and-run victim preparing wrongful death suit

6:42 PM, Jun 7, 2012   |    comments
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Video: Newsmaker: Hit and run grand jury

  • Chasity Thornell
  • Nelson Soto Sr.
  • Curtis Scott Harper 2012 mugshot taken after hit-and-run charges.

A week after a Northwest Knoxville hit-and-run crash killed three people, the suspect is now facing charges and a civil lawsuit is in the works.

Curtis Harper, 22, of Franklin, is charged with three counts of vehicular homicide with intoxication, three counts of vehicular homicide due to reckless conduct, one count of tampering with evidence, one count of reckless endangerment, one count of leaving the scene of an accident, one count of driving under the influence, and one count of driving under the influence - second offense.

The charges stem from the fatal hit-and-run crash on Washington Pike in the early morning hours of May 30.

Nelson Soto, 45, and Chasity Thornell, 24, were killed in the crash, along with Thornell's unborn daughter.

Now, the family is working with an attorney on filing a wrongful death lawsuit to benefit Thornell's surviving daughter, Ava Sophia, who turns two years old in August.

"She was expecting to have a sibling, and now she's lost her sister and her mother, so there has to be some consideration for her future well-being, and anything recovered will go for her use and benefit," said Gary Dawson, the attorney representing the family.

Dawson said his team has been working to gather evidence and interview witnesses just as the police have. However, he adds that is has been difficult to find some of those witnesses, saying they've gone "underground."

That's just one reason he was supportive of the authorities' decision to hold off on an arrest in favor of taking the case to the grand jury.

"If there had been a premature arrest, I think, historically, people will clam up and they don't speak as freely," Dawson said. "I know that the KPD has had a lot of boots on the ground, they've done a phenomenal job of going out and gathering evidence that may have been difficult to obtain otherwise, and I applaud them in their efforts of not bending to the public outcry to do things hastily. They've taken their time and they've done it correctly."

Dawson said there is no exact timeline for when he will file the wrongful death lawsuit, but it must happen within a year because of the statute of limitations. 

He adds that, if and when the family of Nelson Soto decides to file a similar suit, that case will likely be linked with his. The family has hired Greg Isaacs.

And when it comes to the financial damages, it's not just Curtis Harper who could be at risk. Because the Ford Explorer Harper is charged with driving on the night of the crash is still registered to his parents, they could be held liable, too.

"Certainly by having the vehicle title in their names, they have put themselves under consideration for liability," Dawson said.

As of Thursday evening, Harper was being held in the Knox Count Detention Facility on $300,000 bond. His first court appearance is set for June 18.

One Knoxville attorney says the charges Harper is now facing could present some challenges for his defense attorney, James Price, of Nashville.

"It's a big mountain for the defendant to climb," said Dennis Francis, who also is an Inside Tennessee panelist for 10News. 

Francis is quick to point out, however, that the prosecution bears the burden of proof in the case.

When it comes to that, the indictment seems to indicate prosecutors are hoping for one of two outcomes. If they are unable to prove Harper was under the influence, which is needed for the vehicular homicide with intoxication charges for the three victims, those may be dropped in favor of the vehicular homicide due to reckless conduct charges. 

Francis also points out that, in the state of Tennessee, a breathalyzer or blood alcohol test is not needed for a conviction on driving under the influence charges.

Also, if Harper does not take the stand, Francis says the previous DUI conviction can not be brought up in court.

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