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Lawsuit settled in traffic fatality at UA crosswalk

Details of agreement closed by Jaime Adame | May 14, 2021 at 3:30 a.m.
Andrea Torres

FAYETTEVILLE -- A settlement agreement has been reached to end the driver negligence lawsuit filed after the death of University of Arkansas, Fayetteville student Andrea Torres, according to a joint motion to dismiss the case filed Wednesday.

Torres, an 18-year-old architecture student from Clarksville, died in Feb. 2019 after being hit by a car while walking in a campus crosswalk.

UA police cited the driver, then 17, with using a cellphone and failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

In response to the lawsuit, filed by a special administrator for the Torres estate, the driver, Reagan Garner, had denied using her cellphone while driving, according to court documents.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed in the court documents filed Wednesday.

Matt Lindsay, an attorney representing the party filing the lawsuit, in an email said terms of the settlement were confidential.

"The family of Andrea felt that the final settlement terms were in the best interest of their family," Lindsay said, adding that the settlement agreement came about after the parties went through a mediation process.

"While the Torres family will never fully recover from the loss of Andrea, they are hopeful her death has shed light on the dangers of distracted driving so other families will not have to undergo such a traumatic loss," Lindsay said.

Along with Garner, the lawsuit had named as defendants her mother, Dania Raynette Garner Austin, and father, James Hydrick Garner.

Neither of the attorneys for Garner and her father, Don Taylor or William Clark, responded Thursday to an email seeking comment. An attorney for Garner's mother, Jerry Lovelace, also did not respond to an email seeking for comment.

"The parties have reached a compromise, resolution and settlement of all issues between them," states the court document filed Wednesday. "The defendants deny any fault with regard to this matter."

A jury trial had been scheduled for next week in Washington County Circuit Court.

Separate from the civil lawsuit, no public court record exists of Garner's juvenile court hearing after the crash. Garner was not publicly identified before the filing of the civil lawsuit.

Washington County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett has cited the confidentiality requirement in the state's juvenile code in declining to comment on juvenile proceedings.

Court filings related to the lawsuit touched on the juvenile hearing, however.

A state Court of Appeals opinion issued to settle a dispute over the juvenile hearing's transcript noted that Garner "eventually pleaded guilty to the juvenile-delinquency charge that stemmed from the accident."

The appeals court opinion -- which referred to Torres by name but the driver only by the initials "R.G." -- did not state the charge, however. The opinion, released Wednesday, stated that the transcript was sought for purposes of the lawsuit, and that it was of a hearing that took place June 10, 2019.

Photos posted to Facebook by Dania Garner Austin later in 2019 showed her daughter Reagan as a student and sorority member at the Fayetteville campus. A UA spokesman in fall 2019 confirmed that Garner was attending UA based on her full name and birthdate.

Judge Stacey Zimmerman in 2019 declined to comment to the Democrat-Gazette about Garner's juvenile hearing, citing rules for judges related to confidentiality in juvenile cases and that prohibit comment on why they issued a ruling.

The appeals court opinion about the transcript stated that "the lower court did not err when it released the transcripts of R.G.'s juvenile-delinquency hearing" to the special administrator for the Torres estate and also the mother of Torres.

Lindsay said the appeals court ruling "had no impact on the resolution" of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit had alleged that Garner broke traffic laws related to cellphone use while driving, including Arkansas Code Annotated 27-51-1504, which prohibits drivers from reading or writing texts or social media posts.

The collision took place at 2:52 p.m. on Feb. 2, 2019 as Torres walked west from the Garland Avenue Center to cross North Garland Avenue, according to a police report.

Court records from the civil lawsuit include portions and excerpts from a deposition. Garner was asked whether it's true that she looked at her cellphone while driving.

Garner answered, according to an excerpt included in court documents: "Not with intentions to get on it. It was just down in my cup holder and lit up with a notification."

Asked later in the deposition if she looked at her phone "prior to this incident," Garner replied: "But not with intent to be playing on my phone, to - it was literally a split second. If I wanted to change the temperature on my dials, it would have been the exact same thing."

Police after investigating couldn't conclude if excessive speed was a factor in the collision, according to the case report, which noted the posted speed limit of 25 mph.

Mark Rushing, a UA spokesman, said assessing pedestrian safety takes place "continuously" and that new electronic signs have been added along North Garland Avenue since the fatal collision.

"In addition to the extensive safety features already in place for this segment of roadway, including markings, signage and lights, after careful consideration, it was determined that safety could be even further enhanced by adding radar speed displays (also known as driver feedback signs) designed to slow down traffic by alerting drivers of their speed," Rushing said in an email. "Two of these devices were installed (one Northbound and one Southbound) in early October 2019."


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