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Decatur’s insurance company pays $5 million to settle lawsuit related to pedestrian death

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Decatur’s insurance company pays $5 million to settle lawsuit related to pedestrian death

The intersection of North Candler and Commerce Drive. Image obtained via Google maps.

This story has been updated. 

Decatur, GA — The city of Decatur has settled a lawsuit filed by Louis and Cary Merlin for $5 million.

In 2019, the family of Judith Merlin filed the lawsuit against the city of Decatur, the Georgia Department of Transportation and engineering firm GCA claiming that obsolete traffic signals led to her death in 2018 while Merlin was using a city crosswalk.

“The city’s insurer settled the case against the City by agreeing to pay the $5 million insurance limits,” City Manager Andrea Arnold said. “No City funds were paid in the settlement. The City did not admit to any wrongdoing because the City had no fault in this accident. Ms. Merlin’s tragic death was caused solely by the driver who hit her in the crosswalk.”

The family estimated $15 million in losses as part of a pre-suit demand to the defendants, Decaturish previously reported.

Rob Snyder, the attorney for the family, said the city of Decatur was potentially facing a trial focusing on whether the city maintained a public nuisance at the intersection where a driver hit Merlin. The city opted to settle instead, Snyder said.

“What happened was the city sought summary judgment. They tried to get out of the case after we’d done discovery,” Snyder said. “The judge said we needed to have a trial on the question of whether Decatur had maintained a nuisance at the intersection that caused Mrs. Merlin’s death. After the judge entered that order, they sought leave to appeal and the court of appeals turned [them down].”

The insurer then offered to settle, Snyder said.

In February 2018, Judith Merlin was in the crosswalk crossing Commerce Drive, at the intersection with North Candler Street. Angeline Holcombe was exiting the Kroger parking lot in her vehicle and making a left turn onto Commerce Drive when she struck Merlin.

Holcombe was 84 at the time of the incident. She pleaded guilty to second degree homicide by vehicle, court records show. She was fined $1,344, ordered to perform 240 hours of community service, had her license suspended and received 12 months probation.

The suit alleged that Decatur had admitted its traffic and pedestrian signals are “out of date” and “obsolete.”

“A GDOT plan to replace the outdated and obsolete traffic signals in downtown Decatur, including the signals at the Intersection, has been promised since no later than 2006 but has never been implemented,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also alleged that within weeks of Merlin’s death, Decatur directed GCA to extend the crosswalk time for pedestrians to cross Commerce Drive, replace the traffic controller and add a “leading pedestrian interval,” also known as an LPI.

Additionally, following Merlin’s death, GDOT “acted to correct the danger to pedestrians in Downtown Decatur by planning and executing a light re-timing project for the entire downtown Decatur area,” the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, Decatur and GDOT could’ve prevented Merlin’s death “with minimal effort, time and expense.”

Snyder said during discovery, his firm obtained many pieces of evidence showing that the city knew of issues at that intersection long before the crash that caused Merlin’s death. The firm obtained more than 1,000 traffic tickets issued for failure to yield and reports of more than 100 crashes, 40 of them similar to the one involving Merlin.

“As we were in discovery, we learned Decatur had been talking about implementing LPI’s since 2010,” Snyder said. “So, our theory of the case was they should’ve done it before Judith Merlin was killed. The city’s expert admitted in his deposition an LPI would’ve saved Judy’s life.”

Snyder said the family is glad the case has been resolved.

“This was never about money for the family,” Snyder said. “They wanted to bring awareness of this issue and hold the city accountable for its role in Mrs. Merlin’s death. They’re satisfied with the resolution and happy the case against the city is over.”

Editor Dan Whisenhunt contributed to this article. 

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