Wrongful-death lawsuits filed against ex-astronaut in crash

James Halsell, Jr. (Courtesy: Tuscaloosa County Jail)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — The families of two girls who were killed in a DUI crash involving a former NASA astronaut in rural west Alabama have filed wrongful-death lawsuits in state and federal courts.

Authorities have said 11-year-old Niomi James and 13-year-old Jayla Parler were killed in a crash that left two others injured on June 6 in rural west Alabama. Former NASA space shuttle commander and pilot James Halsell, 59, has been charged with reckless murder in the crash and now faces wrongful-death lawsuits in Tuscaloosa County and in federal court.

Latrice Parler of San Antonio, Texas, who identifies herself in court documents as the girls' custodial parent, is suing in federal court, while injured passenger Pernell James has filed a lawsuit in Tuscaloosa County.

James told investigators he was driving about 65 mph on U.S. 82 when a car traveling "at a very high rate of speed" struck his Ford Fiesta from the rear, crushing the Ford and sending it tumbling across the road, according to court documents. The girls were ejected, state troopers said. Halsell, who told officers he was headed to his native Louisiana to pick up his son, was driving a rented Chrysler 200 car and said he thought he was on Interstate 20/59, not U.S. 82, at the time of the crash.

The officer who responded to the crash said in a sworn description of the wreck that Halsell appeared extremely intoxicated and tried taking the vehicle of a passer-by who stopped to offer help.

The one-time test pilot and retired Air Force colonel told officers he had drunk three glasses of wine and stayed at a hotel in Tuscaloosa, where investigators found an empty wine bottle and a package of sleeping pills, also empty. Halsell is free on $150,000 bond.

James's lawsuit accuses Halsell of wrongful death, negligence and also seeks compensation from the company Halsell rented the car from and its insurance provider. Parler's federal lawsuit accuses Halsell of reckless and negligent conduct and also seeks damages from unidentified parties that sold Halsell medication, alcoholic beverage. Both lawsuits request jury trials.

Attorney James Sturdivant, who is representing Halsell in the criminal case, declined to comment.

An online biography by NASA said Halsell's career with the space agency included five shuttle flights starting in 1994. He spent more than 1,250 hours in space, serving as commander on three shuttle missions and pilot on two others.

After the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, Halsell helped lead NASA's return-to-flight effort. He retired in 2006 and worked for at least two aerospace companies afterward, including ATK Launch Systems, Utah, according to his NASA biography.