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Driver in Hall County, Georgia motorcycle fatality charged with vehicular homicide, DUI

hester.jpgWalton County Sheriff’s Deputy Lieutenant Darren Hester was killed early Saturday evening, September 24, in North Hall County. Hester, 46, and his wife Jamie Jones Hester were riding their motorcycle south on Cleveland Highway when a truck turning into a gas station parking lot collided with them, according to a dispatcher at the Georgia State Patrol post in Gainesville.

The crash occurred at approximately 6.10 p.m. near the intersection of Hilltop Circle and Highway 129 about a block from Lake Lanier. Emergency dispatch received the call at 6:11 p.m.

According to a spokesperson at the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, Hester died at the scene while his wife remains in critical condition at Atlanta Medical Center where she was transported by helicopter.

Hester served as a uniform patrol officer at the sheriff’s office and was the night shift supervisor. He had been with the department for some 26 years.

“He was a lieutenant working as a shift supervisor, which is one of the hardest jobs at the sheriff’s office,” Sheriff Joe Chapman said.

The driver of the vehicle, Robert Champine, 59, was arrested and faces several felony charges relating to the motorcycle crash, including vehicular homicide for the victim’s wrongful death.

Georgia State Patrol spokesman Gordy Wright said that Champine turned into the path of the Lt. Hester. Champine was arrested and taken to the Hall County jail and booked.

“The driver of the 2000 Chevrolet 3500 truck that turned into the path of the motorcycle was being driven by Robert Champine, age 59, from Gainesville,” Wright said. “He was arrested and has been charged with first degree vehicular homicide, driving under the influence, failure to yield while turning left, serious injury by vehicle and felony possession of marijuana.”

Wright said more than an ounce of marijuana was found in the vehicle, making the possession of it a felony.

“It has not been weighed yet but is more than an ounce and less than a kilo,” Wright said.

The motorcycle fatality brings to five the number of Walton County residents killed in motor vehicle wrecks this month.

At the beginning of this year, the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety (GOHS) announced the ninety-day roll-out of the Thunder Taskforce in January 2011, a specialized traffic enforcement unit designed to help Georgia cities combat their abnormally high occurrences of traffic crashes, injuries and fatalities on local high-traffic corridors. The goal of the Thunder Taskforce goal in Gainesville and Hall County was the interception of high-risk drivers before they became involved in serious crashes, said Director Harris Blackwood of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

According to GOHS crash data, Hall County reported 20 traffic deaths by August 2010. That exceeds the fatality count of the previous year by five. This data instigated Gainesville and Hall County law officials to team with the GOHS for Taskforce traffic enforcement.

The Thunder strategy assigned concentrated patrols to state routes, rural roads and interstate highways on alternating schedules during the 90-day crackdown. Additionally, Taskforce officers implemented random seat belt and sobriety checkpoints and speed patrols, collected the results and documented their progress.

As a supporter and Advisory Board Member of MADD, I advocate that drivers do not mix alcohol or drugs with driving. MADD statistics indicate that about 27% of Georgia’s fatal traffic accidents in recent years involved drunk drivers.

Georgia laws (and juries) do not look kindly on drivers shown to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Legal liability (fault for the accident) is generally easier to prove in cases of intoxicated drivers, particularly if the driver was charged with a DUI. That means victims should be offered a larger settlement, and if they must go to court to enforce their rights, victims are entitled to ask for punitive damages.

Punitive damages are special payments, not available in every case, intended to punish severe wrongdoing. Normally, under Georgia law, punitive damages are capped at $250,000, but where alcohol is involved, punitive damages can be unlimited. Of course, victims are also entitled to claim all of the same damages that other Georgia accident victims may claim, including their medical bills, repair costs and other costs of the accident as well as compensation for pain, suffering and any permanent disability or scarring.

Our condolences go out to the Hester family and the Walton County Sheriff’s Department.