Lawsuit filed against woman accused in crash that killed Rock Hill mother

The widower of a Rock Hill mother killed in a February crash that shut down one of the city’s busiest roads for hours wants the woman accused of hitting her while drunken driving to pay.

Just how much will be left up to a jury, should the wrongful death lawsuit make it to trial.

Kristen Knight, 22, died Feb.10 after S.C. Highway Patrol troopers say Cassie Cunningham, 36, rammed into the back of her Kia Rio with a GMC Yukon while Knight waited at a stoplight on Celanese Road. The crash, authorities said, forced Knight’s car into the path of an oncoming Toyota Camry and closed several lanes of Celanese Road (S.C. 161) during rush hour on a Monday afternoon.

Knight was taken to Piedmont Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead in the emergency room. She left behind two children, Gracelynn, 5, and Carson, 3.

Cunningham, a mother of two, was arrested and charged with felony driving under the influence in which death results after troopers said her blood alcohol level was measured at .20. She faces a maximum 25 years in prison and $25,100 fine, and remains jailed at the York County Detention Center without bond.

On Thursday, the York County grand jury will decide if they will indict Cunningham on her felony DUI charges, said Deputy 16th Circuit Solicitor Willy Thompson. Cunningham’s lawyer, Rock Hill attorney Jim Boyd, declined to comment.

Filing as the personal representative of his late wife's estate, Tommy Knight alleges in the lawsuit that Cunningham failed to use caution when she ran into the back of Kristen Knight’s car, causing her “great pain, suffering and death as a result of the collision and impact.”

Cunningham was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the lawsuit states, and she failed to apply brakes to avoid the crash.

Tommy Knight seeks payment for both the crash that killed his wife and the “conscious pain and suffering” she endured.

Cunningham’s lawyer, Michael Coulter of Greenville, denies those allegations, arguing in court documents that paying punitive damages –money awarded to a plaintiff as a means of punishing the defendant – would violate her due process rights because standards for determining whether she intentionally caused the accident are vague.

Efforts to reach Coulter on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

York attorney Dan D’Agostino, Knight’s lawyer, said he is still gathering information about the crash and exchanging evidence with Cunningham’s lawyers for trial preparation.

Because Tommy Knight has demanded a jury trial, jurors will decide how much money he and his children will receive if they rule in his favor.

Tommy Knight could not be reached on Wednesday.

‘She was radiant’

When Kristen Knight died in February, Donna Aaron lost her best friend. Her “miracle baby” with the “most beautiful electric blue eyes” was “snuffed out by a drunk driver.”

Kristen was an “easygoing, always-smiling” stay-at-home mom who lived with her mother and stepfather until about seven months before her death, Aaron said. After she moved away from her parents, Kristen still took her children to her parents’ home each day on the Catawba Indian Reservation.

Three weeks before the crash, Kristen “turned that corner” in her life with plans to return to school and obtain her high school diploma. She started taking her children back to church.

“She was radiant,” Aaron said. “She had her life together.”

On Feb. 10, Kristen – who did not like driving, her mother said – was on her way home from a job interview. Aaron said Cunningham traveled more than 90 mph when she hit her daughter, smashing into Knight’s car and leaving her with injuries so severe that authorities could not determine what killed the mother of two.

Cunningham and Knight knew each other, Aaron said, because Cunningham’s mother owns the day care where Aaron used to work.

After her death, Kristen Knight’s family and friends created an online petition seeking signatures to convince lawmakers to mandate and hand down stricter sentences against drunken drivers who are repeat offenders, and ensure maximum penalties for drivers found guilty of driving while intoxicated.

By Wednesday, the petition garnered 659 supporters but still needed 341 to reach its goal of 1,000.

State Department of Motor Vehicles records obtained by The Herald in February showed that Cunningham was charged with driving under the influence in 2008 after police said she swerved on Mount Holly Road while drunk. Her driver’s license was suspended and she enrolled in an alcohol and drug safety program to receive a provisional driver’s license.

In May 2013, Cunningham ran into the back of a Minnesota man’s 2009 Ford with her Yukon while they were waiting at a stoplight at the intersection of Celanese and India Hook roads, records show. The light was still red when Cunningham hit the gas and collided with the man’s car. No serious injuries were reported.

Preserving records

Though Cunningham has not been convicted in Kristen Knight’s death, it’s not premature for Tommy Knight to file the wrongful death claim, a means of preserving records from the criminal case that his lawyer can use in the civil litigation, said Christopher McCool, an attorney with the Joye Law Firm in North Charleston.

Lawyers might subpoena for any kind of black box or event data recorder from the cars involved in the crash to give jurors an idea of how much pain and suffering Kristen Knight endured before she died, he said.

Though the cases are in separate courts, the outcome of Cunningham’s criminal case might affect the wrongful death claim, McCool said.

“You might not get a conviction in the criminal matter, but that doesn’t preclude you from pursuing whether there was intoxication in the civil case” because the burdens of proof differ, he said.

Donna Aaron is not involved in Tommy Knight’s lawsuit against Cunningham. She seeks joint custody of her grandchildren, stressing that Kristen made it clear that should she die, she wanted her husband and mother to share custody of her children. While she feels Cunningham needs counseling and medical help, she too wants the suspect to pay.

“My daughter didn’t have to die,” Aaron said. “Cassie still had a clear choice to make.”