The widow of a man who was killed after he was hit by a city of Belmont employee who was hauling utility poles has settled a lawsuit against the city for $2.7 million, her attorneys report.
Ben Chesson, David Allen, Tracy Tomlin, and Anna Majestro of Nelson Mullins in Charlotte report that the victim, Eddie Pullen, was driving his truck in Belmont in October 2015. The city employee, Jacob Kanburoblu, was hauling the large wooden poles in a city-owned truck when he took a right turn.
The poles were hanging almost 20 feet off of the truck’s bed and swung into Pullen’s lane of traffic. They went through Pullen’s truck and into his chest, neck, head, and face. His truck then rolled uncontrolled down the road, crossing through oncoming traffic, jumping the curb and crashing into a tree. Pullen died at the scene.
Pullen’s death subsequently unveiled what Chesson called a “really weird” situation. The poles were destined for a bike lane that was under construction, but it turned out that construction of bike trail hadn’t been approved by the city. Instead, Doug Huffstetler, a Belmont police officer who’d been taken off patrol duty and placed on community outreach, had started building the bike trail on city property and on city time.
“While this did not serve any legitimate police function, it did serve Huffstetler’s own interest as ‘an avid mountain biker,’” Chesson said.
At first, the police department had given Huffstetler permission to work on the trail, but in 2014 his superiors ordered him to stop work on the project.
“They took away his Belmont truck,” Chesson said. “They took away his keys to the Belmont maintenance shed. They instructed him to return all of his tools. Huffstetler’s bike path switched from a Belmont Police community project to a personal pet project for Huffstetler. From that moment forward, Belmont had absolutely no role in designing or constructing Huffstetler’s bike path. There is not a shred of evidence that Huffstetler had authority from anyone at Belmont to work on the bike trail from 2014 through the wreck.”
Despite the orders, Huffstetler continued to use city resources to build the trail, Chesson said, including the truck involved in the wreck and its driver. On that morning, Huffstetler had gone to the city’s public works department to ask to borrow a truck “one last time” to haul the poles. A public works supervisor instructed his subordinate, Kanburoblu, to help Huffstetler. They loaded the poles and set off, with Huffstetler following Kanburoblu. The crash happened shortly thereafter.
Chesson said that the truck was designed to carry brush, not long wooden utility poles, and Kanburoblu would later say that he learned more about driving a truck from his deposition than he had from the city.
The city of Belmont didn’t dispute the facts of the wreck and admitted the driver was in the course and scope of his employment, Chesson said, but initially denied the city or Kanburoblu had been negligent.
Pat Flanagan of Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog in Charlotte represented the City of Belmont. He declined to comment on the settlement.
A separate lawsuit is pending against Huffstetler.
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw
SETTLEMENT REPORT — MOTOR VEHICLE CRASH
Injuries alleged: Death
Case name: Estate of Eddie Pullen v. City of Belmont and Doug Huffstetler
Court: Gaston County Superior Court
Case No.: 17-CVS-3786
Judge: Robert Ervin
Date of settlement: Aug. 14, 2019
Insurance Carrier: Interlocal Risk Financing Fund of North Carolina
Attorney for plaintiff: Ben Chesson, David Allen, Tracy Tomlin, and Anna Majestro of Nelson Mullins
Attorneys for defendant: Pat Flanagan of Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog in Charlotte