Crime & Courts

Secrecy surrounds $10.5 million settlement involving 3 deaths, Lexington drug clinic

Cooper Gunnells Jr. was 16 when he burned to death.
Cooper Gunnells Jr. was 16 when he burned to death. PROVIDED PHOTOGRAPH

A West Columbia drug-treatment center and its chain owner have paid $10.5 million to settle two lawsuits alleging that one of its patients, under the influence of drugs, killed three people in a 2015 auto accident.

The confidential settlement means the case won’t go to trial. Also, the public never will hear details of the allegations or the company’s responses.

To get the money, the plaintiffs and their lawyers signed confidentiality agreements, promising not to talk about the case. However, the settlement and the payments to the plaintiffs and their lawyers are public record at the Lexington County clerk of court’s office.

Mark Moore, an attorney for Colonial Management, declined to comment on the settlement Wednesday, citing “provisions of the confidentially agreement.”

The $10.5 million settlement “nearly exhausts the available insurance coverage” of Colonial Management Group, an Orlando, Fla.,-based national drug-treatment chain that operates the Columbia Metro Treatment Center in West Columbia, according to the settlement document.

In those documents, the company — which now operates clinics under the name New Season — admitted no fault. The plaintiffs also agreed it was possible that they could have lost the case had it gone to trial, according to settlement documents.

The lawsuit, filed in late 2016, alleged Columbia Metro Treatment Center irresponsibly prescribed methadone — a synthetic narcotic used in treating drug addicts — to a drug addict-patient who mixed it with other drugs and drove off in his car on Nov. 20, 2015.

Shortly afterward, that patient, 62-year-old Roy Moore of Leesville, was traveling west on U.S. 378, outside Lexington, when his Chevrolet Silverado veered into eastbound traffic, striking two vehicles and, then, plowing head-on into an SUV.

The crash killed Moore and three passengers in the SUV — Harry Gunnells, 73, and his wife, Barbara, 74, both of Saluda; and their grandson, Cooper Gunnells, 16, of Greenwood.

Their estates sued the drug-treatment center and its owner.

The two elder Gunnells were killed instantly, but Cooper Gunnells, who suffered from spina bifida, was pinned in the wreckage and was “burned by the flames and suffocated by the smoke,” according to one of the lawsuits.

Drug addicts go to the Columbia Metro Treatment Center to get regular doses of methadone, which reduces their craving for opioids, including OxyContin, according to the lawsuits and the company’s internet site.

Although Moore had been a patient for five years, the clinic “never made any effort to ‘detox’ Mr. Moore or wean him from his use of the addictive substances for which he initially sought treatment,” the lawsuits alleged. The suits also alleged the treatment center brought in $1.2 million a year, “selling methadone to addicts.”

Seven days before the fatal crash, Moore tested positive at Columbia Metro for methadone, amphetamines, Xanax and OxyContin, according to the suit.

After the crash, the State Law Enforcement Division found Moore had been “under the influence” of methadone, Xanax and Adderall, the suits alleged. Methadone and Xanax can cause sleepiness. Adderall can cause seizures.

Moore, a working man with a family, became addicted to pain-killing drugs after injuring his back, his cousin, attorney Jake Moore, told The State. “Everything was fine until his back was so horribly injured,” Jake Moore said.

The settlement documents also detail payments to lawyers for representing the Gunnells’ estates.

One attorney, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, received a $1.9 million payout from the settlement. Two others — Mark Tinsley of Allendale and Williams Kemp of Bamberg — split $1.6 million.

“Our clients are satisfied with the settlement and relieved to have this process over,” Harpootlian said Wednesday, declining further comment.

Under its new name, New Season operates more than 70 addiction-treatment centers in 22 states. It is “a leading provider of specialized quality care for Opioid Use Disorder,” according to its Internet site.