AIKEN -- An Aiken County jury is showing signs of struggle over who to blame for a 4-year-old's death in a 1996 drunken driving accident.
The eight-man, four-woman jury returned late Friday, saying they were deadlocked in the wrongful death case despite seven hours of deliberations. Circuit Judge Costa Pleicones gave the panel a pep talk and asked them to return this morning to hammer out a verdict.
Troy Williams of Wagener is suing the South Carolina Department of Social Services, claiming their failure to properly investigate reports of alcohol use by Linda Tindal cost the life of his daughter, Brittany Tindal. Ms. Tindal, who had custody of Brittany and three other children, was intoxicated when she hit a school bus head on and killed herself and the four children.
During closing arguments Friday morning, attorneys for both sides placed the responsibility's for Brittany's death on different heads.
Plaintiff attorney Patrick Nance said the DSS office was more concerned with completing paperwork on time than fulfilling their legal duty to protect children. Caseworker Evelyn Perry failed to adequately investigate complaints filed by a local minister, a church member, a school guidance counselor and relatives of Ms. Tindal.
A proper investigation could have led the agency to petition a judge to remove the children from the home.
"The Village of Wagener was crying out for DSS to help four children, and those cries fell on deaf ears," Mr. Nance said.
The caseworker knew of the suspected alcohol abuse and child neglect for nearly a year before the accident but didn't find merit in the accusations until after the fatal deaths in December 1996.
Rev. David Bauknight, who first reported the suspected alcohol abuse in January 1996, testified this week that he got calls from DSS after the deaths, asking for more information. He told them they were "a day late and a dollar short." Mr. Nance capitalized on that statement in his closing argument.
"(Mrs. Perry) wasn't a day late and a dollar short. She was a year late and four children short," he said.
The plaintiff's attorney asked the jury to hold DSS accountable for its conscious failure to act.
Defense attorney Patrick Frawley told the jury he was proud to represent DSS, an agency who performed their duty "within the acceptable parameters." He said the blame lies more squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Williams, describing him as a careless parent who fathered Brittany by seducing and impregnating a 15-year-old he met at a teen-age club. Mr. Williams was 22 at the time.
"That's what kind of guy you have here," Mr. Frawley said, pointing to Mr. Williams.
On one occasion, Mr. Williams watched his daughter get in the car with Ms. Tindal while she was drunk and did nothing, Mr. Frawley said. Brittany was also allowed to live with Mr. Williams' father, S.W. Williams, a convicted felon known for selling drugs and moonshine from his Wagener home, Mr. Frawley said.
Mr. Williams did not care for his daughter, the defense attorney said.
"He never paid a nickel of child support until there was a court order," he said.
If the jury decided DSS acted negligently, Mr. Frawley asked the panel to return a verdict equal to the total amount of child support Mr. Williams paid over four years: $3,800.
Brittany died instantly when her grandmother, who highway officials say was legally drunk, veered across the center line in her 1977 Pontiac on Seveirn Road in Wagener and struck a school bus.
Also killed were Ms. Tindal, 41; two of Ms. Tindal's daughters, Nikki Tindal, 10, and Christine Tindal, 8; and her grandson, Justin "Bubba" Tindal, 3.
In court documents, filed in 1998, Mr. Williams said Brittany's mother, Tina Mauldin, gave custody of Brittany to Ms. Tindal shortly after the child was born.
Ms. Mauldin, who appeared as a witness, disagrees with the decision to sue DSS, calling the fatal collision a "freak accident" that wasn't supposed to happen. If the jury awards a verdict in favor of Mr. Williams, however, Ms. Mauldin will benefit because she is a personal representative of her daughter's estate. In the 1998 documents, Mr. Williams requested a jury trial and an award of $750,000 plus damages.