York County Sheriff’s Office reaches settlement in wrongful death lawsuit

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJune 18, 2013 

— The York County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to pay $90,000 to the family of a pedestrian struck and killed by a deputy’s patrol car to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.

The state Insurance Reserve Fund, which provides liability coverage for the state and local governments, will pay the settlement amount, as well as lawyer’s fees.

Anton Hornung Sr., 74, of York, died at 1 a.m. Feb. 21, 2010, after he was hit by a deputy’s car while walking in the northbound lanes of Heckle Boulevard near the Tyson Forest community.

On Dec. 27, 2010, Danny Hornung filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff’s office on behalf of his father’s estate, alleging that Deputy Clifton Conant was negligent when he failed to “maintain a proper lookout” for Anton Hornung on Heckle Boulevard.

The suit claims Conant didn’t apply his brakes in time and failed to take “evasive actions” to avoid hitting Hornung. The lawsuit claims that Conant was speeding, driving too fast for conditions and failed to properly maintain and inspect the vehicle before using it.

The suit sought damages in an amount that would have been decided by a jury had there been a civil trial.

Two months later, the sheriff’s office filed a response denying Danny Hornung’s allegations, claiming that Deputy Conant was not negligent nor responsible for the accident.

The sheriff’s office said Anton Hornung failed to look out for cars traveling on Heckle Boulevard before he walked into a part of the road where there was no intersection or crosswalk. Authorities in their response also asserted that Hornung wore dark clothing in a poorly lit area and walked into the middle of a travel lane.

After the accident, Deputy Conant, who was on duty at the time of the accident but had not been responding to an emergency call when he was driving his patrol car, was placed on administrative leave with pay. He returned to work two months later.

The 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office chose not to file charges, said Willy Thompson, deputy solicitor.

After reviewing the Highway Patrol’s accident report, Thompson drafted a letter stating that the accident happened in a dark section of Heckle Boulevard where there are no street lights.

About a minute before Conant drove through the area, another driver had to swerve on the road to avoid hitting a pedestrian he described as a “thin, older man wearing dark clothing” and standing in the right northbound lane of the road, Thompson said.

The driver later gave police a statement saying that the man he avoided hitting likely was Hornung.

The right lower beam headlight on Conant’s patrol car had gone out sometime during his shift that day, Thompson said.

Still, “Conant’s vehicle should have been easily seen and heard by Mr. Hornung on this straight stretch of road” because weather conditions were clear, Thompson wrote in the letter. “But (Hornung) would have been difficult to see.”

Conant told authorities he briefly glanced down at his computer screen before hitting Hornung. He drove between eight and 10 miles above the posted 40 mph speed limit, officials said.

“That factor does not give rise to the general sessions charge,” or recklessness on Conant’s part, Thompson wrote.

Circuit Court Judge John Hayes presided over the settlement a week before the case was scheduled to go before a jury.

According to the settlement document, the sheriff’s office’s insurance company, Capital City Insurance Co.., and the office’s liability carrier, QBE Claims Services, agreed to pay Anton Hornung’s family $90,000 in full.

About $2,500 of the settlement will be allocated to a survival action filed by Danny Hornung for damages his father would have suffered had he survived the crash. The remaining $87,500 covers the wrongful death action.

About $30,000 of the settlement will cover lawyer’s fees to the Solomon Law Group and Law Offices of Michael A. DeMayo for both civil actions, leaving about $57,000 to the family.

Natalie Armstrong, a Columbia lawyer with the Solomon Law Group that represented the Hornung family, said, “The case was settled; we went through the litigation process. The defense made an offer and my clients accepted.”

Efforts to reach Eugene Adams, the Spartanburg attorney who represented the York County Sheriff’s Office, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Settling the suit is no admission of wrongdoing, but a cost-effective solution, said Kris Jordan, attorney for the York County Sheriff’s Office.

“It was an unfortunate incident for everybody involved,” she said. “I’m glad we were able to reach” a resolution.

“If a reasonable settlement can be reached,” it saves the sheriff’s office and taxpayers from the expense of a trial and negates the need for a jury.

In cases like this one, jurors are responsible for determining “comparative negligence,” Jordan said. Had the case gone to trial, members of the jury would have heard how Conant and Anton Hornung each might be liable for the accident. Then, the jury would have to assign a percentage of blame on each party.

“You can’t predict the outcome,” she said. “They would have to balance that out.”

‘Papa Smurf’

Anton Hornung was born in Yugoslavia and raised in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He watched his siblings be slaughtered, said his son, Danny Hornung.

Anton Hornung survived and came to America as a teenager. He learned English by listening to the radio, Danny Hornung said. For three decades, he worked at a steel mill in Pennsylvania before he retired. He enjoyed warm weather and often traveled south to visit the beach.

When he moved to York County, he chose to wander the streets, but he was not homeless, his son said.

He was a generous Christian man who donated money to Bethel United Methodist Church’s men’s shelter, where he was nicknamed “Papa Smurf,” Danny Hornung said.

“He believed in God very much,” Danny Hornung said, adding that his father never drank alcohol or abused drugs.

Up north, he was called the “shell man,” his son said, because he often would return from trips to the beach with bags full of seashells.

Danny Hornung, a professional truck driver in Pennsylvania, said he felt that the York County Sheriff’s Office took his father’s death “lightly ... almost like the family dog hit by a car.”

After Hornung’s death, Sheriff Bruce Bryant and patrol captain visited one of Anton Hornung’s other sons who lives in York. They expressed their condolences and offered assistance, Kris Jordan said.

“I don’t think you can place an amount on the life of someone you love,” she said. “No amount is going to make you satisfied when you lose someone you love. There’s nothing in that settlement that accurately reflects our feelings or concerns about this incident.”

“It was tragic,” she added. “The loss of life is never taken lightly. I don’t think Deputy Conant took it lightly. I know the Sheriff didn’t take it lightly ... we did the best we could under the circumstances and tried to resolve it.”

Deputies are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of their vehicles, she said. After the accident, the sheriff’s office began storing spare light bulbs in district offices that deputies can use if their lights go out during their shifts.

Conant resigned from the sheriff’s office in April 2011.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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