Parents of W.Va. woman killed in police chase crash settle suit

September 02, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A Berkeley County couple whose daughter was killed by a drunken driver being chased by West Virginia State Police settled a claim Tuesday against the parent company of a television crew that accompanied police.

Wrongful death claims against a Bunker Hill bar also were settled, according to Berkeley County Circuit Court records.

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The settlement amount is confidential, but the attorney for Amanda Smailes' parents, John and Cynthia Smailes, said the claim is "very substantial."

The settlement also pledges that actions will be taken as requested by the parents of Amanda Smailes, killed Nov. 24 when her car was struck by a drunken driver leading police on a high-speed pursuit, said attorney Larry Schultz.

While they agreed to pay, none of the parties admitted guilt in Smailes' death, said Schultz, who said that's common in wrongful death suits.


Producers for "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol" were filming from Trooper Kevin Plumer's cruiser during the chase.

The two producers, Peter Schmidt and Jim Porter, the production company, Leap Off Productions Inc., Wayne Lepoff, and the company for which the show was produced, New World Entertainment, were named in the civil lawsuit.

New World Entertainment is owned by Fox Television, which bought the company after the accident.

The suit also named Robert Lee Sparkman Jr., who led police on the chase, Trooper Kevin Plumer, the West Virginia Department of Public Safety and Piggie's Place, the bar that served Sparkman alcoholic drinks.

Claims against Plumer and the state police were dismissed in March in a $775,000 settlement.

Sparkman was convicted of driving under the influence with reckless disregard for others and sentenced to from one to 10 years in prison.

A civil trial on the wrongful death claim against him is set for Oct. 6.

The case was taken to mediation so Piggie's Place and the companies and people associated with the television show could be required to do more than pay money, John Smailes said in a telephone interview Tuesday night.

"If the parties do commit themselves to everything they said they would, then at least the things that happened that night won't happen again," said Smailes, who said the terms of the agreements prevented him from spelling out the defendants' pledges.

He said they plan to use the money to support causes and organizations for positive actions on behalf of their daughter.

Fox Television inherited the lawsuit when it acquired New World Entertainment in January 1997, two months after the accident, said Fox Television attorney Mary Anne Harrison.

"What happened to these people, there's nothing anybody can say but what an absolute, unmitigated tragedy. But it was not Fox," Harrison said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

Even so, she said she questions whether the presence of the show's producers had anything to do with Plumer's actions based on his testimony in the criminal case.

"The idea that he was reacting or doing anything but trying to get that driver was not substantiated," Harrison said.

Amanda Smailes, 21, a nursing student at Shepherd College, was on her way home from work at the Wal-Mart in Martinsburg when Sparkman struck her 1989 Ford Escort, sending it off the road and into a utility pole, according to court records.

The police chase with Sparkman began at about 1 a.m. when Plumer tried to pull over a suspected drunken driver near Inwood, according to court records.

Sparkman was heading north on U.S. 11 when his car went out of control at the W.Va. 45 intersection and struck Plumer's cruiser before fleeing south on U.S. 11, according to court records.

After smashing into Smailes' car, Sparkman struck a boulder and overturned. He had only minor injuries.

As of July 1, 1997, the penalty for driving under the influence resulting in death was increased to a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Referred to as the "Smailes bill," it was a direct result of her death.

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