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Jan 21, 2005

Student's traffic death garners $3M verdict

Featuring: Robert T. Cunningham and David S. Cain Jr.

By GARY McELROY 
Staff Reporter 

A 77-year-old driver, who'd been on the road for 30 of the previous 39 hours, fell asleep and caused an accident three years ago that killed a teenage girl, argued attorneys for the girl's family, blaming the driver's employer for paying him by the mile. 

Jurors who heard the case before Mobile County Circuit Judge Charles Graddick deliberated about six hours before awarding the family of Melissa Allison Sproles $3 million.

Sproles, 18, was killed Feb. 7, 2002. The car driven by the fatigued senior citizen caused her to swerve off the road, then slide beneath an 18-wheeler in the southbound lanes of Inter state 65 near Stockton, according to court records. 

Her family sued Rudolph Rolison, now 79, and his employer, Birmingham-based Bradford Health Services. 

Bradford is a for-profit health care company with facilities throughout Alabama and elsewhere specializing in treatment of drug and alcohol abusers. According to court records, Rolison served as a kind of chauffeur for company clients, ferrying them around to various facilities. 

At the time of the accident, according to plaintiffs' lawyers from the Mobile firm of Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder and Brown, Bradford paid Rolison by the mile without limiting the number of hours he could work. Rolison had driven nearly 1,000 miles in the period just before the accident. 

Sproles was on her way to classes at the University of South Alabama in Mobile that morning. She was coming down an entrance ramp off Alabama 225 near Stockton in Baldwin County to get onto I-65. 

As Sproles attempted to merge with traffic, Rolison swerved toward her, witnesses said. She tried to avoid him, went onto the grassy shoulder, lost control of her car, then lurched back onto the highway and beneath the 18-wheeler. 

The Sproleses' attorneys argued in the trial last week that Rolison fell asleep at the wheel and drifted toward Sproles' merging vehicle. Rolison was alone at the time of the crash. 

Though the accident occurred in Baldwin County, the suit was filed in Mobile County because Rolison is from Eight Mile. 

One of the Sproleses' attorneys, David Cain, said this week that traffic officials believe a fatigued driver is just as dangerous as a driver impaired by alcohol. 

"It's a growing concern in the area of public safety," Cain said. 

On the witness stand, Rolison acknowledged he was at the scene of the crash that day but told jurors he saw someone else veer toward Sproles. 

In court, Bradford's chief financial officer, Bernard Stephens, variously described the drivers his company employs to transport patients as "volunteers" or "independent contractors" and denied responsibility for controlling their driving schedules. 

He acknowledged that his company has not established guidelines for regulating its drivers, including rules about taking time off for rest. 

The Sproleses' lawyers suggested to jurors in closing arguments that Bradford's right to make money came with the responsibility of doing so safely. 

Fatigue and irresponsibility caused the crash that killed Sproles, the attorneys told ju rors. 

Bradford, the lawyers argued, denied responsibility for Rolison, yet benefited from the money he made the company through the transports. 

One of the defense attorneys in the case, Mobile lawyer Ed Bowron, said his team will appeal the verdict but declined to comment on how the case played out in court. 

"We regret the tragic loss of life that was the basis of this case, and we respect the jury process," Bowron said, "but we believe there are substantial issues that warrant further review."

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