A long, lost relative of one of the victims in the drunken driving case, involving "affluenza" teen, Ethan Couch, was in court Friday. The relative is settling a lawsuit with the family of victim Brian Jennings, the Burleson youth pastor killed in the crash. (Published Friday, Mar 21, 2014)
The family of a youth pastor killed by a drunk driver returned to court on Friday, to resolve what amounted to a family matter before a judge.
Ethan Couch is serving 10-years probation after he plowed his pick-up into a group of people last summer near Burleson, killing four. The case grabbed headlines when his defense team used the term "affluenza" to explain couch's lack of judgment because he grew up in a wealthy family and had little parenting.
Brian Jennings, a Burleson youth pastor, Breanna Mitchell, who's car had broken down on the side of the road, and Hollie and Shelby Boyles, a mother and daughter who lived where Mitchell's car broke down, were all killed.
There have been as many as seven lawsuits filed against Ethan Couch, his parents and his father's business, which owned the truck he was driving. At least two of those lawsuits have been settled and a third has also reached an agreement.
For the Jennings family, their suit is also very close to being settled, but first they had to go through another day of emotional testimony.
"Shocked, disappointed, very painful for them," said Shaunna Jennings' attorney, Greg Coontz.
Friday's hearing was to resolve a claim made by Brian's estranged father, John Paul Jennings. John Paul was seeking five-percent of the settlement deal, according to his testimony on Friday.
He only learned of the suit and settlement after attorneys went to get his permission to waive any claim against the Couch family as Brian Jennings' family concludes it's case.
JP Jennings said in court that he was Brian's father and had become emotionally and physically impacted upon learning of his death. He said while he wasn't the best father, he would have been there for his son if he ever needed anything.
But testimony by Jennings, Shaunna Jennings, Janet Henson, Brian's mother, and Kevin McConnell, Brian's best friend, showed that JP Jennings had only seen his son twice in the last 27 years. He saw him in a play in high school and went to his wedding 20 years ago.
"I thought it was offensive and very disappointing to bring that claim," Coontz said.
Henson, while named in the lawsuit, is not taking any money. JP Jennings said he'd use the money to fix up his living arrangement in order to start a relationship with his grand children. During testimony he could not name his grandchildren, let alone their birthdates. It was also revealed that Jennings owed more than $65,000 in child support he never paid Henson.
Judge R. H. Wallace quickly ruled against the claim, saying JP Jennings would receive none of the settlement money.
The process will now lead to a resolution in the coming weeks, with the Jennings' receiving the settlement as early as a month from now. Though the money will hardly bring Brian back or end the emotional pain of the last ten months.
"As you can see from Shaunna testifying, or if you did, it's still very emotional still, very upsetting," Coontz said. "I think it's one step for them to be able to finish and not move forward but start to heal even."
All of the settlements in the suits against the Couch's are confidential. But many asked for more than $1 million in damages.
In court, Coontz told the judge that due to the Couch family assets the settlements weren't as much as the families felt they deserved in this case. He would not discuss that issue after the hearing was over with assembled news media.
The family of Breanna Mitchell had their settlement finalized on March 13, according to court documents. The family of Hollie and Shelby Boyles had their settlement finalized on February 26.
And on March 14 the family of Isaiah McLaughlin, who was injured while sitting in Brian Jennings' truck when Couch hit that vehicle, dropped their suit. Instead of the Couch family paying the McLaughlins, court documents show the family's liability insurer will pay the family $37,540.55.
The documents also show that McLaughlin will receive future payments too. Starting July 2019, McLaughlin will receive twice-annual payments of $6635.72. And at age 25, in 2015, he will receive a lump sum of $10,000. The payout and payments total more than $113,000.
At least three other cases, all involving minors, are still pending based on court records.