It’s been more than two and a half years since a car driven by Traci Collins was hit by a train in Lithonia and she is still suffering from the effects of it.
Collins, who at the time was a 21-year-old college student, has a cognitive brain disability that affects her concentration and reasoning issues in addition too residual effects from having a broken neck, back and pelvis, said defense attorney Catherine Gibson McCauley.
According to the lawsuit filed in November, as Collins drove over the train tracks at the intersection of Main Street and Swift Street in Lithonia on Nov. 20, 2008, a CSX train slammed into her vehicle. Because of her injuries she had to be airlifted to Grady Memorial Hospital.
Collins was unconscious for 36 hours and hospitalized for two months.
At the time of the accident, which occurred at 11 p.m., a DeKalb County police officer “was directly behind [the] plaintiff and saw her slowly proceeding into the intersection and did nothing to warn [the] plaintiff of the oncoming train or warn the train to proceed slowly,” the lawsuit states.
The traffic light system at the location was “defective in that the system did not properly protect drivers from the danger of passing trains sufficiently,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit claims CSX failed to use proper safety precautions and properly warn drivers of oncoming trains. The city of Lithonia failed to “ensure that all traffic signals and devices were properly working, and that any and all impediments to [the] plaintiff’s line of vision regarding the oncoming train were properly maintained.”
DeKalb County was named in the lawsuit, which states the county “installed and maintains the traffic system and directional signals and shrubberies.”
The state of Georgia was named because it is in charge of designing and implementing train crossings in the state.
According to the lawsuit, at the time of the accident the train crossing did not have a crossing arm to warn drivers of an oncoming train.
The lawsuit claims that DeKalb County and the state’s Department of Transportation “had prior knowledge of two deaths and several accidents at this intersection involving a train.”
Each of the four defendants was sued for $2 million. CSX, DeKalb County and the state Georgia have all filed motions to dismiss.
Because Lithonia did not answer the claims in a timely fashion, a judge granted a judgment against the plaintiff in March and ruled that a hearing be held to allow Collins to prove her damages.
In court on June 8, Lithonia city attorney Winston Denmark argued that Lithonia did not answer the claim because the lawsuit was not properly served to the city of Lithonia. The lawsuit was physically delivered by a DeKalb County Sheriff’s deputy to former city clerk Missye Varner, who was fired by the Lithonia City Council in connection to the lawsuit.
“The mayor herself was not served,” Denmark argued. “Missye Varner was not authorized to accept service.”
Since the lawsuit was not properly served, the city was not required to answer the lawsuit, Denmark said.
“I knew nothing about this lawsuit until I got information about the default,” Denmark said.
James Dearing, an attorney for Collins, said the “mayor is a part-time official; we don’t know every moment she is going to be there.
“If the mayor is not there, who do you serve?” Dearing said. “If not Missye Varner, then whom?”
Dearing said Varner showed the lawsuit to Peterson who instructed Varner to place the complaint in the box of the city attorney, Dearing said.
“Something happened and the answer was not filed,” Dearing said. Confusion in an office is not a reason for the order of default to be reversed, he added.
“This is a city that conducts business on a daily basis,” Dearing said. “This is not a mom-and-pop situation where you can’t find people.”
Judge Eleanor Ross, who said she has concerns about whether the city of Lithonia was properly served, is expected to rule on the motion to reverse the default judgment within two weeks.