Family wants a jury trial in civil suit against Couch

Posted Thursday, Mar. 27, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Thirteen-year-old Lucas McConnell still goes for regular counseling, nine months after he was injured in one of the wrecks caused by a drunken teenage driver on June 15 on a dark road in southern Tarrant County.

Four people were killed that night, and 12 were hurt. Lucas was riding in a pickup with one of the people killed — the Rev. Brian Jennings, Lucas’ godfather and his father’s best friend.

“I know everyone always says that things happen for a reason,” Lucas said Wednesday at a news conference at a lawyer’s office in Burleson. “I don’t really see a reason yet.

“I know I’d like to, and I know other people around me would like to. I just hope we’ll be able to find the reason for all this.”

The McConnell family called the news conference to announce that they will not accept a settlement in their suit against the parents of Ethan Couch, the 16-year-old who has admitted responsibility for the crash.

They want a jury trial, said Kevin McConnell, Lucas’ father.

Suits filed by other families whose relatives were either killed or injured have been settled, pending approval by a court.

But the McConnells’ believe there has been a total lack of accountability by anyone in the Couch family, Kevin McConnell said.

“The horrific tragedy that happened that night of June 15 was not an accident,” Kevin McConnell said. “It was the culmination of a series of bad decisions, destructive decisions and destructive actions on the part of Fred and Tonya and Ethan Couch and the management of Cleburne Sheet Metal in the days, weeks and months and even years leading up to that night.”

In December, Ethan Couch was sentenced to 10 years on probation. State district Judge Jean Boyd ordered him to enter a locked-down addiction treatment facility and not to drive or use alcohol or drugs for 10 years. She ordered his parents, Fred and Tonya Couch, to pay for his treatment.

A jury trial in civil court is the only way the McConnells feel they can get at the truth of what happened that night and hold the Couch family accountable, said Todd Clement, the lawyer representing the McConnells.

Civil trials more open

After the judge imposed the sentence on Ethan Couch, “Lucas sobbed all the way home and asked his family, ‘How can he kill all these people and not get in trouble?’ ” Clement said.

During Couch’s trial, psychologist Dick Miller had testified that Ethan Couch was a victim of “affluenza,” which was described as a mental state of reckless or irresponsible behavior brought on by wealth and the behavior of his parents.

The Couch family has not been made to pay a sufficient financial sum and has not been cured of “affluenza,” according to Clement.

Clement said he will take a deposition from Miller and from the people involved in the wreck. He said he also expects that information gathered during the civil case will be more available to the public than information was in the juvenile case. The juvenile criminal justice system is more private than the civil system, and the aggrieved parties have a right to ask for a jury trial, Clement said.

“That’s the beauty of the civil system,” Clement said.

Not ready to forgive

Kevin McConnell said Jennings was the most important and influential person in his son’s life who was not a relative.

According to the family’s suit, Lucas and a friend, Isaiah McLaughlin, were riding with Jennings when he stopped about 11:45 p.m. June 15 to help a motorist with a disabled SUV in the 1500 block of Burleson Retta Road.

The Ford F350 pickup driven by Ethan Couch clipped the SUV and struck several people. The pickup hit Jennings’ vehicle with the boys inside. The pickup flipped, and Lucas ended up at Cook Children’s Medical Center with glass in his head and pain in his back.

Jennings, Breanna Mitchell, 24, and Hollie Boyles, 52, and Shelby Boyles, 21, a mother and daughter who came from their nearby home to help, were killed.

“Defendant … was operating the vehicle in a reckless and negligent manner, in that he was driving at a high rate of speed and he was driving while intoxicated,” the lawsuit said.

The suit also says that the teenager disregarded a restriction on his driver’s license that required that a passenger 21 or older ride in the front passenger’s seat.

The suit accuses Fred and Tonya Couch of allowing their son to drive even though they knew of his driving restrictions and states that the boy had a prior conviction of possessing alcohol as a minor.

The suits filed against Couch; his parents, Fred and Tonya Couch; and the family’s company, Cleburne Metal Works, were consolidated in January and transferred to 96th state District Court, presided over by Judge R.H. Wallace.

Randy Nelson, the attorney representing the Couch family, did not return a phone call seeking comment after the McConnells’ news conference.

Clement said Lucas goes for counseling every other week.

According to a statement handed out before the news conference, Lucas McConnell said he was not ready to forgive Ethan Couch for the damage he caused.

“While I think we should do our best at forgiving, I believe that if this situation is not handled with severity, you won’t take it seriously,” he said. “I want you to know that you destroyed three families and severely impacted many lives.”

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752 Twitter: @mitchmitchel3

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