Chris Eakes is a careful man. He rarely exceeds the speed limit and doesn’t use lights and sirens unless absolutely necessary.
He stays in shape, likens fast food to bloodborne pathogens and can’t understand his generation’s preoccupation with pharmaceuticals. “We’ve gotten used to taking pills for every little thing,” says the Maury County (TN) paramedic. “Having the right attitude is much more important.”
Beginning Oct. 13, 2005, that belief would be tested.
Dianna Bowden was frantic. Her boyfriend had told her he’d move out if she wasn’t home in five minutes. It didn’t have to make sense to the 18-year-old from Alabama; she knew bad things would happen if she didn’t hurry back to Meridianville, just north of Huntsville. She slowed her ’96 Dodge Neon as she approached the intersection of West Limestone Road and Highway 231/431, then turned left, through a red light, into the path of a five-ton Ford E-350 ambulance driven by Eakes. The impact crushed the Neon’s driver side and broke Bowden’s neck. She was pulseless when Chris got to her.
“There wasn’t a mark on her,” says Eakes, who’d first extricated himself from his own mangled vehicle and checked on his two passengers. “I thought maybe we’d get her back.” He worked on Bowden diligently before conceding her injuries were fatal. Then he told local rescue personnel their medevac wouldn’t be needed.
Eakes was surprised when a helicopter landed a few minutes later. “I thought I canceled y’all,” he called out to the crew members approaching the scene.
“We’re not here for your patient,” the flight medic replied. “We’re here for you.”
“I’m fine,” Eakes insisted.
“Really? Look at your feet.”
They were backwards. The impact had snapped both ankles, pulverized both knees, broken his back and his sternum, and punctured a lung. He’d been too focused on patient care to feel any pain.
Surgery, rehab and six months in a wheelchair weren’t the worst parts of Chris’s ordeal. Almost a year after the accident, a grand jury indicted him on a vehicular manslaughter charge. While awaiting that trial, Eakes was sued by Bowden’s family for wrongful death. The jury awarded $3 million in damages, or $2 million more than Chris’s insurance covered. He lost everything—his house, his car, his savings. If you’re wondering why he wasn’t protected by his employer’s policy…well, so is Chris.
“After I got hurt, they terminated me for not being able to perform my duties. I never heard from them again,” he says.
Eakes’s misfortune is a matter of public record. You can look it up. Here’s a preview of what you’ll find:
After the crash, Alabama state troopers estimated the ambulance was traveling 81 mph in the 60 mph speed zone when it ran a signal light at the intersection and T-boned Bowden’s (car).
The troopers were off by 35 miles per hour. They had erroneously assumed a series of skid marks at the scene were made by Chris’s ambulance. Data downloaded from the vehicle’s on-board computer, ruled unreliable for the civil trial but accurate for the criminal case, showed the rig was moving at 46 miles per hour—14 mph below the speed limit. And it was Bowden, not Eakes, who had run the red light.
Those facts weren’t presented until the criminal trial, which concluded four months after the civil verdict. It took a Madison County jury only three hours to find Eakes not guilty. If the criminal case had been given priority over civil proceedings, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, it’s doubtful a wrongful death suit would have been filed.
“But the verdict did represent justice,” according to Joe Alton King, one of the Bowden family’s attorneys. “And hopefully it will prevent other drivers and employers from coming into Alabama not knowing the rules about safety and speed.”