HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The Horry County Solicitor's Office has decided it will charge the driver involved in the deadly crash that killed Jada Bennett in March.
Horry County Assistant Solicitor Jimmy Richardson says his team was working to figure out if there was enough evidence to charge the driver with a crime, and hoped to make a decision by Thanksgiving.
Now they've come to a decision, and will be charging the man with vehicular homicide, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The Carolina Forest Chronicle reports that an Horry County attorney has also filed a civil lawsuit against the Florida truck driver, seeking actual and punitive damages and legal costs.
After months of investigating, the South Carolina Highway Patrol determined cell phone use and speed contributed to the crash.
The crash occurred on March 31 on Highway 501, just in front of the Tanger Outlets, when a tractor trailer rear-ended the SUV her father was driving.
Several other passengers, including the driver of the tractor trailer were transported to a local hospital for treatment after the crash that shut down northbound Highway 501 for several hours that Saturday afternoon.
The Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team studied the scene using forensic mapping, audio and video recordings, photographs and a mechanical examination of the tractor-trailer.
They discovered that the tractor-trailer's driver was operating a cell phone at the time the crash occurred. They also report that while the vehicle was in proper working condition, engine control data indicated the "last hard brake speed of 39 to 48 miles per hour."
The report estimates he was driving 50 miles per hour in the center lane of Highway 501. Though it wasn't driving over the speed limit, the driver was traveling too fast for conditions.
Both of the other vehicles were driving 40 miles per hour.
Richardson said because the semi driver was actually driving below the speed limit, the case for a criminal charge may hinge on whether that driver was using the cell phone during or immediately prior to the accident.
"It all gets back to timing," Richardson says. "What time was the actual wreck, [and] what time was the last [phone] call terminated? Was he on the phone during the crash?"
Bennett's mother, Mirriam Bennett, says she is upset no one had been charged with a crime for her daughters death.
"I just have a terrible anger inside me," Bennett says. "The only thing I'm asking is justice for [Jada]."
In an exclusive interview with WMBF News, Bennett said she is disappointed with the criminal justice system; a system she feels has failed her family.
"I'm just expecting from the people who are taking care of this to [enforce] consequences for what happened," Bennett said. "Why is this taking so long?"
Bennett says the loss of Jada has had a tremendous impact on her entire family.
"I don't have that same happiness," Bennett says. "It would be tough if my kids weren't being so strong...we are trying to keep together."
The Bennett family's attorney, Florence-based attorney Brad Hewett, says the family filed a civil suit against Hartt Transportation, the company listed as the semi driver's employer, in US District Court in Florence. Hewett says they are hopeful the Horry County Solicitor's Office will press criminal charges, but will pursue the civil case whether criminal charges are filed or not.
"We feel strongly [Hartt Transportation] has liability here," Hewett says. "We feel like we have a good case."
The Bennett family's civil suit was filed in August, and Hewett says Hartt responded to the suit on November 5th. No hearing date has been set for that case.
The funeral service for Jada Bennett was held at Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in North Myrtle Beach in April.
A spokesperson for the family, Gloria Milton, said the family is trying to deal with the grief a day at a time, but they are overwhelmed by the support of the community.
"They are distraught, heartbroken, heart is heavy, broken. That's the only word I can say is just broken," explains Milton.
Multiple businesses held fund raisers to help the family with medical and funeral expenses. Longtime family friend, Randolph Walker said he was stunned to learn of Jada's death.
Walker said, "I knew her father who was very much a father to those kids and he loved them very dearly."
Walker said he is one of many supporting the family right now.
"It was more of a collection. We feel that anything can help. Everybody could use a hand so that's what I did today," he adds.
Priscilla Cotter said she has known the family for years and worked with Jada Bennett's mother. She said it is not the first time tragedy has struck.
"It's been very hard for her. She had already lost one child already two years ago and was not over that. So this is going to be really difficult for her and she's going to need lots of support," Cotter explains.