Austin American-Statesman: Man sues over wreck near McKinney Falls

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Man sues over wreck near McKinney Falls

Austin American-Statesman/September 2, 1995

By Bob Banta

The husband of a woman killed in a collision with a van transporting a religious group near McKinney Falls State Park earlier this summer has sued the driver of the van, the City of Austin and Travis County.

The lawsuit stems from a July 16 accident at the intersection of McKinney Falls Parkway and Burleson Road. Police said a van driven by Jesse Wickenheiser, 18, ran a stop sign and struck a pickup driven by John Harris of Cedar Creek.

The collision killed Harris's wife, Rhonda, 45. It also resulted in the death of five teen-aged girls in the van who were members of a Christian evangelistic group called the Family. The religious group had been camping at McKinney Falls State Park. Five other persons were injured in the wreck, police said.

On Thursday, John Harris, 41, filed suit against Wickenheiser, alleging that Wickenheiser was negligent in running the stop sign and failing to control the speed of the van.

Harris also sued Louis Korkemas, a member of the religious group, who Harris said owned the van. The suit says the van had improper tires and inadequate brakes.

The City of Austin is cited in the suit, according to Harris, because it failed to keep the stop sign brightly painted so it could be seen.

Harris also is seeking damages from the county, saying it failed to keep high grass from partially obscuring the sign.

The suit asks a court to award damages to Harris for medical expenses, mental anguish and to compensate Rhonda Harris's two sons for the loss of their mother.

"John Harris and his family have been devastated by this collision, which could have been avoided by care and attention," said Leonard Gabbay, Harris's attorney.

Christie Richards, a spokeswoman for the Family of Houston, said Wickenheiser, who was injured in the collision, has been living in Houston for the past three weeks.

"He walks with a cane and is undergoing physical therapy," Richards said Friday.

Police said details of the accident will be presented to a Travis County grand jury to see whether criminal charges should be filed against Wickenheiser.

Richards said Friday that Wickenheiser has been discussing the accident case with Houston defense attorney Mike DeGeurin.

Valerie Davenport, a Houston lawyer representing the religious group, said Wickenheiser should not be blamed for the accident.

"We investigated the intersection, and our reaction is that the focus is on an innocent child. It is the city and county and surrounding landowners who are responsible," said Davenport.

Davenport said other accidents have occurred at the intersection, which she blamed on "high grass and insufficient road markings."

According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, six collisions occurred at the intersection last year. DPS said two of the accidents involved drivers disregarding the stop sign and three accidents occurred because drivers did not yield the right of way.