June 14, 2018 10:34:39 AM
The Mississippi Department of Public Safety has paid $500,000 to the Oktibbeha County Circuit Court to be given to the victims of a fatal May 2017 accident involving a highway patrolman and a former Mississippi State University athlete.
Mississippi 16th Circuit Judge Lee Coleman ordered the department to pay the amount in the case of Tanequa Alexander v. Mississippi Department of Public Safety v. Noel A. Collier and the estate of Kaelin G. Kersh.
The litigation was spawned from an early morning car accident on May 7, 2017. The crash happened shortly before 1:30 a.m. at the intersection of Mayhew Road and Highway 182. The car in which Kersh was a passenger, a 2002 Toyota Corolla, was hit while attempting to turn onto the road by an eastbound Mississippi Highway Patrol cruiser.
Kyle Lee, the MHP trooper who collided with the Corolla, was responding to another call of a car that left the road. Kersh was the only fatality. Alexander and Collier were hospitalized after the crash.
Kersh's death came shortly after she graduated from MSU with a degree in Kinesiology, on May 5. She was a track and field athlete for the university.
She was 22.
In an agreed final judgment, Coleman ordered MDPS to pay $500,000 -- the maximum recovery allowed against a governmental entity under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act.
Oktibbeha County Circuit Court received the money from the Mississippi Tort Claims Board on June 6, according to court documents.
Attorneys representing Alexander, who was a passenger in the front seat of the Corolla, filed a lawsuit against MDPS after the crash. The suit sought $500,000, to be split across the three claimants -- Alexander, Collier and the Kersh estate. Collier was driving the Corolla at the time of the incident.
The lawsuit claimed Lee, who did not have any emergency lights on and was driving faster than the speed limit, acted recklessly leading up to the crash.
Trent Walker, a Jackson attorney representing the Kersh estate, said the litigation has taken a step forward with the judgment and ends the part of the case against MDPS. However, he said the case isn't over. Now, the court will hold the money until it's determined how it will be split.
"The state bowed out and tendered to the tort limit," Walker said. "Now the next step will be to figure out who gets how much.
"We're going to try to come to an agreement," he continued. "In the event that we're unable to come to an agreement, we will go all the way through the judicial process."
Gwendolyn Baptist-Rucker, an attorney representing Alexander, declined to comment extensively on the matter. However, she indicated that she did not feel the total would be enough.
"None of the persons injured will be made whole because of that limitation to $500,000," she said.
MDPS spokesman Warren Strain did not respond to calls for comment. The Dispatch could not reach an attorney representing Collier.
The Kaelin Kersh Act
Kersh's death shook the state and spawned a piece of litigation that, spearheaded by District 38 Rep. Gary Chism, was signed into law in early April.
The act will take effect on July 1.
House Bill 1022, or the "Kaelin Kersh Act" requires emergency responders to turn on flashing lights when going more than 30 miles per hour faster than the speed limit.
There's dispute as to how fast Lee was going when the fatal crash occurred. Walker previously told The Dispatch the official accident report claimed Lee was traveling 68 miles per hour in a 45 mile per hour zone. However, Walker said he has evidence, in the form of dash camera footage from Lee's patrol car, showing the officer was going 100 miles per hour at the time of the crash.
Chism, speaking to The Dispatch, said nothing can bring Kersh back, but he hopes the new law can prevent accidents like the one that killed Kersh, where Lee did not have any flashing lights on.
"This was a tragedy that I think could have been prevented if they had some kind of flashing lights," Chism said. "I have spoken with the parents. There are no words you can express to ever bring the daughter back, but maybe this Kaelin Kersh Act will save some other mother and daddy from having to get that knock on the door at 2 o'clock in the morning."
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