Judge dismisses Holliday suit in Forest Hill Road case

mstucka@macon.comOctober 22, 2013 

Bulldozers could rumble down Forest Hill Road in just over a month.

Lindsay “Doc” Holliday’s lawsuit against a widening of the road crumbled in court Tuesday, when Bibb County Superior Court Judge Edgar Ennis ruled that Holliday had no way left to win his case. Holliday claimed the state was pursuing unsafe designs for the road.

Holliday went into court this week without an attorney because he and the CAUTION Macon road advocacy group ran out of money. He called himself as a witness first, but his other two witnesses undermined his legal case.

Court proceedings began Monday, but the case was over Tuesday afternoon after just three and a half hours of opening statements and testimony.

Ennis asked attorneys for the Georgia Department of Transportation to draft a proposed order that could lift an injunction against road construction after 35 days. That would give Holliday enough time to file a notice of appeal and seek another injunction from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Ennis said.

Though a jury was selected Tuesday, it never made a decision.

Holliday told The Telegraph he doesn’t know what he’ll do with the case.

“I’ll talk to my friends and neighbors and I’ll decide where to go from here. We’ve got almost 35 days to decide,” he said.

Russell McMurry, Georgia’s chief engineer, said the GDOT will talk to the contractor that bid $8.4 million for the widening work and determine when construction could begin -- and whether any costs will be assessed against the state.

“We’ve been to court here today. We’ll be able to move this project forward,” said McMurry, who’d planned to spend the entire week in court.

The planned widening of Forest Hill Road would build a center turn lane between Northside Drive and Wimbish Road. The lawsuit did not address a planned four-lane widening between Wimbish Road and Vineville Avenue.

The trial got off to a rocky start for Holliday. He was interrupted during his opening statements three times. Twice the state’s attorneys forced him to steer his opening statement around limitations of his evidence, while the judge redirected Holliday another time on his own.

Holliday said the state incorrectly picked outmoded, unsafe designs for a widening of Forest Hill Road, adding that he could point to better designs.

“When you know how to do something better, why not do it better?” Holliday asked jurors in his opening statement.

He kept running into objections and limitations on his evidence. His witnesses hurt his case, such as when he called Todd Long, a former state transportation planning director who is now a deputy transportation commissioner.

Holliday asked Long if he would feel comfortable walking on the sidewalks of the state’s design. Long replied without hesitation, “Absolutely.” Holliday searched for a response or follow-up question.

Later, Holliday asked, “This is a neighborhood, putting traffic through it at 45 mph. ... Does that seem reasonable or logical?” Long said it did.

Holliday’s other witness was Van Etheridge, a professional engineer who has led Bibb County’s road improvement program. That, too, backfired, as Etheridge testified that the road would be safer because the center turn lane would prevent many rear-end collisions.

“In my 50 years of building roads, I think this is about as nice a road as you can build,” Etheridge testified under cross-examination. “It’s going to be a nice project.”

Without legal help, Holliday often needed guidance from the judge on how to proceed. He sat alone while seven people working for the state gathered in a clump to debate which potential jurors to strike from the jury pool.

Macon attorneys M. Devlin Cooper and John Draughon Sr. raised frequent objections to Holliday’s efforts to describe the widening’s public opposition, or to suggest that he represented anyone other than himself.

Some potential jurors said the Forest Hill Road widenings had been delayed long enough, and safety was at stake. One of them seemed to wonder why the entire jury pool didn’t know of the issues.

“I don’t know how you can live in Macon and not hear about it,” she said. She also was not picked as a juror.

In the end, that didn’t matter.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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