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City sued in fatal high-speed crash; suit says signal needed on N.C. 49

By Gary L. Wright
gwright@charlotteobserver.com

The families of three people killed in a wreck have sued the city of Charlotte and Crescent Resources, accusing them of negligence for not installing a traffic light where the high-speed crash along N.C. 49 occurred two years ago.

The lawsuit alleges that the city and Crescent Resources, the developer of a community along the highway in southwest Mecklenburg County, created a dangerous intersection and failed to install a traffic light.

Carlene Atkinson and Tyler Stasko have both been charged with three counts of second-degree murder in connection with the April 2009 wreck that killed a woman, her toddler and a teenager.

Atkinson, 46, of Lake Wylie, and Stasko, 22, of Matthews, are out on bond. They have pleaded not guilty. Their trial has been set for December.

Police say Atkinson and Stasko were racing at speeds of up to 100 mph on N.C. 49 when Stasko's Mitsubishi Eclipse collided with a Mercedes entering the highway from the RiverPointe community.

Killed in the Mercedes were 45-year-old Winthrop University professor Cynthia Furr and her 2-year-old daughter, McAllister. A passenger in Stasko's car, 13-year-old Hunter Holt, also died.

The city and Crescent have denied being negligent. They say Atkinson and Stasko were negligent and responsible for the accident and fatal injuries. They also accused Furr of being careless and negligent in operating her vehicle.

"She failed to keep a proper lookout in her direction of travel," Crescent's attorney claimed in one document. "She entered the intersection at Highway 49 and Palisades Parkway at a time when two vehicles were racing on Highway 49 toward the ... intersection."

The city's attorneys also say N.C. 49 is a state highway and that the intersection where the wreck occurred is outside city limits. The N.C. Department of Transportation, the city's attorneys argued, is responsible for the maintenance and repair of state highways.

For years, residents in the area said the increase in homes and traffic along N.C. 49 demanded a signal at RiverPointe Drive. In the spring of 2008, Charlotte transportation officials agreed, and asked Crescent to pay the cost.

But the developer balked. The city, despite the safety concerns, didn't install a temporary signal. Instead, the two sides spent months arguing over whether the traffic light was justified, according to emails released by the city at the Observer's request.

Even after Crescent and the city agreed to install the signal, several more months passed as Crescent put off its commitment to pay multiple times, blaming broken land deals and the sour economy.

After the fatal wreck, Crescent turned over the money - $219,718. The city installed a temporary signal while a permanent one was being designed.

The lawsuit against the city and Crescent was filed by Steven Price, Cynthia Furr's husband and the father of McAllister, and Daniel and Lisa Holt, the parents of Hunter.

The lawsuit claims the city was aware of the danger of the intersection but took no steps to install a traffic light without first seeking payment from Crescent.

RiverPointe residents repeatedly complained to the Department of Transportation, the city, Crescent and elected officials about the need for a traffic light, according to the lawsuit.

The city and Crescent were repeatedly reminded, the lawsuit says, that drivers exiting RiverPointe Drive and turning east onto the highway had to cross multiple lanes of traffic before reaching the first eastbound lane of travel.

The city, the lawsuit says, could have designed and installed a temporary signal for about $40,000 in less than 90 days.

Just three weeks before the fatal accident, the president of the RiverPointe homeowners association emailed the city, "beseeching" it to install a traffic light, the lawsuit alleges.

"There have been quite a number of accidents in this intersection, ambulances, fire trucks and police to the rescue - thankfully - no fatalities yet, but this seems inevitable without a light," the email warned.

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