Crime

Family awarded $16 million in wrongful-death suit against Southlake firm

Sam Graham, 37, of Hamilton was killed Aug. 24, 2013 by a drunk driver near Hamilton, and members of his family suffered various injuries. A Tarrant County jury awarded his family $16 million in a lawsuit against the Southlake company that owns the healthcare center where the driver worked.
Sam Graham, 37, of Hamilton was killed Aug. 24, 2013 by a drunk driver near Hamilton, and members of his family suffered various injuries. A Tarrant County jury awarded his family $16 million in a lawsuit against the Southlake company that owns the healthcare center where the driver worked. Courtesy

A Hamilton family has been awarded more than $16 million in a lawsuit against a Southlake nursing home company accused of allowing a worker to drive home drunk, causing a wreck that killed a father and injured three family members in Coryell County in 2013.

A Tarrant County jury gave $16.7 million to the family of Sam Graham, including $5 million in punitive damages, in a wrongful-death lawsuit against Southlake-based Senior Living Properties and employee Alisa Prueitt.

Graham, 37, was killed in the crash on Aug. 24, 2013, on Texas 36 between Hamilton and Gatesville. Prueitt, 43, of Gatesville, the driver of the other vehicle, had been sent home from her job at Hamilton Healthcare Center, which is owned by Senior Living Properties. Hamilton is about 100 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

The case was tried in Fort Worth because the company is based in Tarrant County.

Jurors reached their decision Feb. 4 in the 67th District Court, finding that Senior Living Properties was negligent for not firing Prueitt months before the wreck — when she had previously shown up for work intoxicated — and for letting her drive home drunk the day of the crash.

“This was never about money,” said Sharla Graham, Sam Graham’s wife, in a telephone interview. “It was about getting answers. It was about right is right and wrong is wrong. I didn’t want my husband’s life swept under a rug.”

The jury deliberated about five hours and determined that the fault was 65 percent Senior Living’s and 35 percent Prueitt’s.

“The jury’s verdict sends the message to Senior Living Properties, LLC and hopefully others that companies who have the privilege of doing business in our communities must also accept their responsibilities to protect the public’s safety,” Laura Brown of Waco, the lead attorney for the family, said in an email.

“It would have been a very simple thing to prevent this employee from driving. Instead, Senior Living Properties … chose to disregard its policies and its basic obligations to protect the public because they didn’t pay their nurse aides well, they were understaffed and they wanted to have this employee return to work another day.”

Lee Cameron of Dallas, the lead attorney for Senior Living Properties, could not be reached for comment.

Prueitt is in prison after being sentenced to 18 years for intoxication manslaughter and 10 years for intoxication assault. Her blood-alcohol level was about 0.40 at the time of the wreck, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. A driver is considered intoxicated at 0.08.

Court documents gave this account of the case:

Senior Living, which owns 34 Texas nursing homes, operated Hamilton Healthcare Center and hired Prueitt in 2012 as a certified nurse’s aide. Company policy requires testing of an employee suspected of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs and termination of an employee who is under the influence while on duty.

In May 2013, Prueitt was intoxicated at work, unable to walk without falling and unable to drive home. A nurse on duty notified the nursing director for Senior Living. Prueitt was driven home to Gatesville by another nurse’s aide.

In July 2013, another aide notified a nurse that Prueitt was drunk.

The company did not test or fire Prueitt in either incident.

Prueitt reported to work intoxicated again on Aug. 24, 2013. A charge nurse and a weekend nurse decided to send her home. She wasn’t tested, though a Senior Living official was notified.

Prueitt drove more than 20 miles before she crashed into Graham’s vehicle, killing Sam Graham and injuring his wife and two children. Sharla Graham suffered fractured cervical and thoracic vertebrae. Austyn Graham, who was 7 at the time, had a compound fracture of her scapula and facial trauma. Andrew Graham, 10, suffered lacerations.

Nursing supervisors told authorities that Prueitt was sent home because she was “unfocused.”

But Prueitt had left a voice mail with a friend saying she was dismissed from work because someone reported that she had been drinking. After the wreck, Prueitt also told a nurse at a hospital that she had been sent home from work because she was drunk.

“It is very simple,” Brown said. “An employee who is too drunk to work is too drunk to drive. According to Texas law, if a company sends an employee home from work because the employee is intoxicated, the company must take reasonable steps to prevent the intoxicated employee from causing an unreasonable risk of harm to the public — such as drive the employee home; call a cab; call a family member; call the police if necessary.”

Sam Graham was a physical therapy assistant, coached youth sports teams and was a youth pastor at Living Waters Worship Center in Hamilton.

“Hopefully, this will make companies take responsibility,” Sharla Graham said. “But no one really wins in something like this. Our family has to live my husband’s death every day.”

Domingo Ramirez Jr., 817-390-7763

Twitter: @mingoramirezjr

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