Jurors award families $17M for 2015 crash

LUMBERTON — A jury has awarded $17 million to the families of two Laurinburg workers after their vehicles were hit by a tractor-trailer near Maxton in 2015.

The estate of 64-year-old John Bonnabel, of Raeford, who was killed in the accident, was awarded $13 million.

Keith Pate, 44, of Laurinburg, who was left with permanent brain injuries, was awarded $4 million.

Pate and Bonnabel worked for Edward Wood Products in Laurinburg.

The Robeson County jury determined in both cases that the truck owner, Darling Ingredients Inc., doing business as Dar Pro Solutions, was negligent because of the actions of the driver, Wilbert Lemar Tillman of Polkton, according to Wade Byrd, a Fayetteville attorney who represented both families.

The crash was about three miles east of Maxton.

“We were very gratified with the jury’s decisions for two families who were devastated by the horrendous death of one man and a permanent brain injury to the other,” Byrd said in a statement.

Jurors determined in both cases that the truck owner, Darling Ingredients Inc., doing business as Dar Pro Solutions, was negligent because of the actions of the driver, Wilbert Lemar Tillman of Polkton, Byrd said.

On April 20, 2015, Bonnabel was driving his pickup behind Pate, who was operating a tractor truck without a trailer, that was having mechanical problems.

The vehicles, both with flashers on, were traveling 20 to 30 mph on a straight stretch of I-74. The weather was clear and there was more than mile of visibility, according to Byrd.

An 18-wheeler hauling grease crashed into the rear of Bonnabel’s truck at an estimated 69 mph. The pickup “launched from the highway and rolled several times down an embankment and into a tree,” the law office said. Bonnabel died from massive head injuries.

The tractor-trailer then hit Pate’s vehicle, knocking it 641 feet.

Tillman, the driver and acting agent of Dar Pro at the time of accident, was charged with failure to reduce speed and misdemeanor death by motor vehicle. He died of natural causes before the case could be prosecuted.

DAR PRO Solutions offers used cooking oil collection, grease trap maintenance and retail fat and bone collection and has offices throughout the country, according to a company website. It has an office in Marshville.

“The families are relieved and very grateful that justice was done,” Byrd said. “I’m gratified that the jury saw the truth and said so with their verdicts. This crash was incomprehensible.”