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Columbia bicyclist lawsuit settled hours before trial begins

The State: Columbia bicyclist lawsuit settled hours before trial begins

By JOHN MONK - jmonk@thestate.com

A civil lawsuit in federal court involving a defendant who killed two bicyclists while driving and allegedly talking on a cell phone has been settled hours before trial was supposed to start.

The lawsuit over the 2007 death of bicyclist Thomas Hoskins, 49, of Columbia was settled late Tuesday for an undisclosed amount, attorney Dick Harpootlian said Wednesday morning.

A separate lawsuit involving the death of Lee Anne Barry, 43, Hoskins’ riding colleague who was killed at the same time, was settled in December for $2.5 million in Lancaster County, according to court documents.

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The exact amount of the Hoskins’ settlement will become public in a few weeks when it is approved by Judge Joe Anderson in open court, Harpootlian said.

At stake in Hoskins’ wrongful death action was $55 million worth of insurance coverage carried by the employer of Sharon King, 36, who was driving a Chrysler Pacifica when it struck Hoskins and Barry in Lancaster County in 2007.

At the time of the incident, the bicyclists had the right of way and there was little other traffic on the road, according to court papers.

King was not working at the time of the incident, but the Chrysler Pacifica she was driving belonged to her employer, whose insurance was $55 million, according to pretrial court documents. Last week, King pleaded guilty in Lancaster

County criminal court to one count of reckless driving. She was fined the maximum — $200.

Eddie Laney, the Columbia lawyer who represented King, was not immediately available for comment.

On Monday, Laney filed a flurry of pretrial motions decrying a Sunday story about cell phones and driving in The State newspaper, saying the story had "infected" the jury. The story reported extensively on the King case, the Legislature’s taking up cell phone legislation this week, and the known dangers of cell phone use while driving. The story quoted state and local law enforcement officials as to the hazards of mixing cell phones and driving.

Because of the story, Laney sought a delay in the trial, according to his motions. The judge had not made a ruling.

Harpootlian, who handled the case with lawyers Melissa Copeland and John Schmidt of Columbia, said their clients hope the case will spur the legislature to take some action on people using cell phones and driving.

“This case stands for the proposition that electronic distractions while driving — whether it’s cell phones, iPods or whatever — are deadly distractions that can lead to terrible tragedies,” Harpootlian said.

Harpootlian also said that despite criticism leveled at trial lawyers and the big verdicts they can win, "this case shows how lawyers can be ahead of the legislature in defending the public and acting as a catalyst for change."

Hoskins and Barry, both experienced bicyclists who left children behind, were on a ride to raise public consciousness of traumatic brain injuries.