Note: This story was last updated at 11 a.m. April 13.
CLINTON—Four lawsuits, including personal injury and wrongful death complaints, have been filed against Lee Cromwell, the Oak Ridge man convicted of vehicular homicide and aggravated assault in February after a fatal crash in a crowded parking lot at Midtown Community Center after fireworks on July 4, 2015. The four lawsuits seek up to about $7.5 million in damages. The amount could be larger because one of the lawsuits doesn’t specify a damage amount.
Three of the lawsuits have been settled or are pending settlement, attorney James Y. “Bo” Reed of Knoxville said in a hearing in Anderson County Circuit Court in Clinton on Wednesday morning. Reed represents Cromwell, 68, in the civil cases.
The terms of the settlements haven’t been publicly disclosed. One of the settlements, in the case of Janicia Henderson and four children, is listed in Anderson County Criminal Court Clerk records, but it remains under seal because there are juveniles involved.
A trial date has been scheduled for October 25 in the case that hasn’t been settled or where a settlement isn’t pending. That’s a civil complaint, a personal injury lawsuit, filed by Michael Eldridge and his wife Elizabeth Eldridge of Oak Ridge.
The other two civil complaints are settled or said to be pending settlement. One has been filed by Julia Robinson. It’s a personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit. Robinson’s husband James Robinson, 37, was fatally struck by Cromwell’s Dodge Ram pickup truck as Robinson tried to push his two young daughters to safety. The other, a personal injury lawsuit, has been filed by Jermaine Henderson.
Attorneys said the October 25 trial in the Eldridge case could be a one-day trial. It is possible, though, that a settlement could be reached before then.
The four lawsuits were filed between March and June of 2016.
Here is more information about the four lawsuits. Among other charges, the complaints allege Cromwell was negligently operating his pickup truck at the time of the crash. Besides wrongful death, the lawsuits cite bodily injuries to the plaintiffs as well as medical expenses, mental anguish, fear and fright, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life and capacity to earn.
Julia Robinson vs. Lee H. Cromwell—This is a wrongful death complaint filed over the death of James Robinson and a person injury lawsuit for Julia Robinson and her two juvenile daughters, Jaide Nicole Robinson and Jaclynn Marie Robinson.
The Robinsons, who live in Knoxville, had just finished watching fireworks from the trunk and hatch area of their GMC Envoy in the parking lot at Midtown Community Center at about 10:30 p.m. July 14, 2015, when Cromwell suddenly and negligently drove his Dodge Ram pickup truck toward them, according to the complaint.
In an act of heroism, James Robinson pushed Jaide Robinson out of the way of Cromwell’s pickup and was then struck, crushed, and killed by the truck, the complaint said. Jaide was injured from hitting the pavement after her father pushed her out of the way. Julia and Jaclynn weren’t hit by Cromwell’s pickup, but they were injured due to the crash between Cromwell’s truck and the Robinson’s SUV.
The lawsuit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages for the wrongful death of James Robinson. It also asks for $1 million in compensatory damages for Julia Robinson’s personal injuries and fear, fright, and mental anguish from having to witness the wrongful death of her husband. It also requests $500,000 each for the Robinson’s two daughters for their personal injuries and their fear, fright, and mental anguish from witnessing the wrongful death of their father.
The lawsuit was filed in Anderson County Circuit Court in Clinton on May 20, 2016, by Thomas S. Scott Jr. and Christopher T. Cain of Scott and Cain in Knoxville, and Donald A. Bosch of The Bosch Law Firm in Knoxville.
Michael and Elizabeth Eldridge vs. Lee Cromwell—This case has not been settled, and as of Wednesday morning, there was no settlement pending.
The civil complaint against Cromwell was filed March 23, 2016, by Bruce D. Fox and Michael C. Beehan of Fox and Farley in Clinton.
It said the Eldridges, both Oak Ridge residents, were sitting in the bed and on the tailgate of their pickup truck in the parking lot of the Midtown Community Center at about 10:38 p.m. after fireworks on July 4, 2015, when Cromwell suddenly and negligently drove his pickup truck into Michael Eldridge, injuring his leg as he sat on the tailgate. Michael Eldridge suffered serious, permanent bodily injuries and has had pain and medical expenses. The crash affected his ability to enjoy life and his ability to earn money, the complaint said. It said Elizabeth Eldridge was injured on her foot and leg, and she witnessed the injuries to her husband. She and Michael have both suffered from fear, fright, and mental anguish, the complaint said.
The lawsuit seeks up to $450,000 in compensatory damages for Michael Eldridge and up to $50,000 for Elizabeth Eldridge.
Cromwell filed what might be considered an answer to the civil complaint filed by the Eldridges, although he called it a “conditional acceptance of your offer to appear at your admiralty tribunal.” It was filed May 2, 2016, and addressed to the Eldridges, Fox, Judge Donald R. Elledge, Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk William T. Jones, and former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III.
In his “conditional acceptance,” Cromwell said he had promised a woman at the end of the parking lot that he would not block traffic after fireworks ended, and he would leave as soon as the show was over. He said he was aware of the small children and adults in the parking lot—many of them outside their vehicles to watch the fireworks—and he started to back up “very, very carefully for about 70-75 feet,” Cromwell said.
He was in control as he backed until, all at once, he heard a loud, shrill noise, Cromwell said.
“It sounded like spinning tires on wet pavement, and immediately I was shot backwards as a rocket that is propelled, and the truck seemed as though it was going backwards at full speed,” he said.
“I had no control of where the truck went,” Cromwell said. “I felt myself bouncing off of other vehicles, one after another, and all the while, I was trying to hit my brakes and get stopped.”
He said his truck finally stopped when it hit a vehicle, and he had both feet on the brakes.
It appears to be one of the few times that Cromwell has publicly shared his story of what happened the night of the crash, at least in court papers. Cromwell did not testify at his criminal trial. But he did also include a brief description of the crash in a pre-sentencing report.
In the “conditional acceptance,” Cromwell said he told Oak Ridge Police Department Officer Ben Higgins that his throttle stuck. But the stuck-throttle claim has been disputed in court hearings by several people, including Higgins, who cited witnesses.
“Several of them (witnesses) said they heard his engine revving up and down,” Higgins said during a preliminary hearing in Anderson County General Sessions Court on January 15, 2016. “If the throttle had been stuck, it would have been stuck at a consistent rpm, not up and down.”
Affidavits filed by Higgins in Anderson County General Sessions Court on July 22, 2015, said multiple witnesses told police that Cromwell stopped after striking the first vehicle, “looked around at the crowd that was telling him to stop, and then continued to reverse at a high rate of speed.”
Eldridge testified during the preliminary hearing that Cromwell hit a Ford Thunderbird while backing slowly through the parking lot after fireworks, stopped, continued backing slowly until he hit a van, stopped, and then “floored it” before hitting a group of cars in front of the Midtown Community Center, injuring people, including Eldridge and his wife, and killing Robinson. Eldridge gave similar testimony during the trial in February.
A mechanic has also testified that he found no evidence that Cromwell’s throttle had been stuck open or had any mechanical defect.
Janicia Henderson vs. Lee Harold Cromwell—This is a personal injury lawsuit filed on behalf of Janicia Henderson and four juvenile plaintiffs, Ja’Tallis and La’Rius Henderson, and Ja’Shalin and La’Miere Porter.
The complaint said Janicia Henderson, an Anderson County resident, and her children were preparing to leave the fireworks show and had gotten into a 2007 Honda CRV. But before Henderson could buckle the kids into their car seats, they “heard and felt a substantial and life-altering impact” when Cromwell’s pickup crashed violently into their CRV, the complaint said.
“The collision caused the children to fly around the vehicle and impact themselves on one another and inside the vehicle,” the complaint said. It said the collision also caused the CRV to crash into another vehicle.
“The plaintiffs were exposed to another victim of the defendant’s negligent and reckless conduct who had perished,” the complaint said. “Such has caused great psychological injuries to the plaintiffs, especially the minor plaintiffs.”
After the crash, Cromwell attempted to flee, the complaint said. It alleged he was negligent, careless, and reckless. He backed improperly and drove recklessly, carelessly, and erratically, the complaint said. Also, he was driving too fast for the conditions and failed to keep a proper lookout, according to the complaint.
It requested a judgement “in a fair amount to fully compensate” Henderson and the children in an amount to be determined by a jury of their peers.
The complaint was filed June 1, 2016, by Joshua J. Bond of Hodges, Doughty, and Carson in Knoxville.
Officials said this lawsuit has been settled, but it is under seal because there are children involved.
Jermaine Henderson vs. Lee Cromwell—This is one of the two cases reported to have been settled as of Wednesday morning, although the Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk does not yet have a record of the settlement.
Henderson, an Oak Ridge resident, was inside his vehicle at the time of the crash, and a vehicle hit by Cromwell struck Henderson’s vehicle. The complaint said Henderson has suffered serious bodily harm and pain, and he has had medical care and treatment, in addition to mental and emotional anguish.
The complaint was filed July 1, 2016, by Michael S. Bernard of Ogle, Elrod, and Baril in Knoxville. It seeks up to $30,000 in compensatory damages and punitive damages to be determined by a jury.
In answers to two of the complaints (Robinson and Eldridge), two insurance companies—Allstate Property and Casualty Insurance Company, and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company—cite uninsured/underinsured coverage limits for the plaintiffs of between $25,000 and $100,000 per person, and between $50,000 and $100,000 per accident, minus the amount of coverage that applies to Cromwell or his vehicle and minus any payments made through medical payments coverage.
Reed said Cromwell was insured through Auto-Owners Insurance.
Judge John D. McAfee of Tazewell has been appointed to hear the civil cases. Anderson County Circuit Court Judge Donald R. Elledge rescued himself after Cromwell filed a lien against him.
The fatal Midtown Community Center crash is one of the worst anyone can remember in Oak Ridge. Authorities said Cromwell’s license was suspended at the time of the crash. Cromwell has been indicted on a charge of driving with a suspended license, and that case is still pending in Anderson County Criminal Court.
Cromwell is facing separate charges in Nashville related to his alleged filing of fraudulent liens, including against Elledge. A court hearing in that case was scheduled for Thursday morning, April 13, in Davidson County Criminal Court.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See previous story on the three-day criminal trial in February 2017 here.
See previous story on the preliminary hearing in January 2016 here.
See previous story on the $137 million in liens filed by Cromwell against Elledge and other law enforcement officials, as well as the IRS and Social Security, here.
Do you appreciate this story or our work in general? If so, please consider a monthly subscription to Oak Ridge Today. See our Subscribe page here. Thank you for reading Oak Ridge Today.
Copyright 2017 Oak Ridge Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.