Citing the convicted drivers' negligence, "immaturity and stupidity," a state judge awarded nearly $5.5 million Wednesday to the families of five Ascension Parish residents, including three young boys, killed in a fiery road-rage related crash on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge in 2011.
District Judge William Morvant found David Leger, 34, of Palmetto in St. Landry Parish, and Kelsye Hall, 27, of Baton Rouge, equally at fault for the wreck and the damages. The lawsuit was against Leger, Hall and their auto insurance carrier.
The March 13, 2011, crash on I-10 eastbound between the Highland Road and Bluff Road overpasses killed Effie Fontenot, 29, of Prairieville, and her sons -- Austin and Keagan Fontenot, 3 and 11, respectively, and 7-year-old Hunter Johnson.
Effie Fontenot's front seat passenger and coworker at Frank's Restaurant, Kimberly Stagg, 19, of Prairieville, also was killed.
"Just glad that it's over," Susan Fontenot, who lost her only daughter and three grandchildren in the crash, said outside Morvant's 19th Judicial District courtroom. "No acknowledgement (from Leger or Hall of their responsibility for the crash). They'll both have to learn. They're both at fault. I just pray one day God will open their eyes."
Stagg's mother, Karen Stagg, also said she was merely in search of an apology, not money.
"It's taken way too long to get through this. We just wanted accountability. That is really all we were after. Needless to say we didn't get it. We tried," she said.
Leger, who is serving an eight-year prison term, and Hall, who served less than a year in prison and is now on probation, both testified Tuesday at the trial of civil lawsuits filed against them by the victims' families, but neither took responsibility for the roles in the tragic crash. They blamed each other for the crash.
Leger's blood-alcohol concentration after the crash was 0.10 percent. A blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent is considered presumptive evidence of drunken driving in Louisiana for those 21 and older.
He was convicted in 2014 on five counts of vehicular homicide and sentenced in September. Hall was found guilty in 2013 on five counts of negligent homicide and was sentenced to two years behind bars.
Witnesses testified at the separate criminal trials of Leger and Hall, and at this week's civil trial, that Leger and Hall were engaged in a high-speed and reckless game of "cat and mouse," or road rage, on westbound I-10 when Leger lost control of his pickup and shot across the grassy median before slamming into Effie Fontenot's car on eastbound I-10. The car burst into flames.
"I don't know that I can envision a more painful way to die," Morvant said while stressing that he could not let emotions affect his ruling.
"There is absolutely no award that I can give ... that's going to change the facts of March 13, 2011. It's not going to bring your children back. It's not going to bring your grandchildren back," he added before awarding roughly $3.5 million to the Fontenot family and $1.9 million to the Stagg family. "Clearly there are no winners in this case."
The monetary award included funeral expenses as well as survival, wrongful death and punitive damages. The judge set the punitive damages at $100,000.
Morvant said he is of the opinion that Hall initiated the cat-and-mouse play on I-10 West and that both she and Leger escalated their dangerous driving.
"This didn't have to happen," he said.
Rob Marionneaux, who represents the Stagg family, said Morvant's ruling "validated the lives of the victims."
"I'm praying it gives closure to the Stagg and Fontenot families," he said.
Russell Beall, the Fontenot family's attorney, said the Fontenots sued to receive "a recognition of the value of their (lost loved ones') lives and what was taken from them."
In the trial's final testimony earlier Wednesday, two accident reconstruction experts reached different conclusions. Steve Werner testified for Leger that Hall was totally at fault for the fatal crash. Richard Fox testified for Hall that Leger was solely to blame.
Werner said Hall's alleged bumping of Leger's truck was the impetus for the ensuing fatal crash on the other side of the interstate. He also said alcohol didn't seem to be a factor in the incident, noting that Leger performed well in keeping the truck from flipping over after it was allegedly hit by Hall's sport utility vehicle.
Fox concluded that Leger lost control of his pickup after passing Hall on the right shoulder of the interstate. Fox said Leger clipped her SUV as he went around it, then over-corrected and lost control of his truck.
Leger's pregnant wife, Rebecca Leger, testified Wednesday that Hall appeared to be "toying" with them by tailgating them and flashing her headlights at times and hitting her brakes at other times when she was ahead of them. Hall also made angry gestures toward them, she said.
"She gave us the middle finger," Rebecca Leger said, explaining that her husband only once flashed his lights at Hall and honked his horn when Hall nearly clipped their truck while passing them.
Rebecca Leger, who was Leger's fiancee at the time of the crash and spent three weeks in the hospital after it, said it was Hall who forced them onto the shoulder of the interstate near Bayou Manchac, just east of the Highland Road exit.
"It seemed she wanted to continually engage," Leger's wife testified, with her husband sitting at the defense table in a red prison jumpsuit.
Just before David Leger lost control of his truck, Hall's SUV bumped the left rear of the truck from behind, causing it to jerk to the right, she said.
Rebecca Leger said she and her husband were at a small family gathering at Leger's brother's house in Geismar for several hours before the accident. She acknowledged that both of them fixed a rum and Coke drink at her Baton Rouge apartment before going to the function, and that they also took a bottle of rum in the truck.
"I felt comfortable with Dave driving," she said. "He wasn't driving erratically. He did not seem impaired to me.
David Leger's brother, Troy, said he did not serve alcohol at the gathering at his house and did not know there was rum in his brother's drink. Troy Leger also said his brother showed no signs of intoxication during the gathering or when he left.