Family of man killed in van crash sues church

The family of a man killed when a church van he was riding in careened off an Illinois highway has filed a $5 million lawsuit against the church, alleging that it is responsible for his death.

Andrew James Canada, 53, and four other members of the Victory Outreach Church died as a result of the incident.

"The family wants the church to be good Christians and do the right thing and give them some closure," said Jimmy A. Bell, the family's attorney.

The wrongful-death suit, which was filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court last week, alleges three counts of negligence.

The driver of the van, who was returning with the group from a church event in California, had a suspended license. Because of that, church officials Gerry A. Bell and Melinda Bell, who are also named as defendants in the case, should never have let him make the trip, the lawsuit alleges.

"It is unconscionable that the church could allow a person who did not have a valid driver's license to get behind the wheel of a 15-passenger van going across country to a church function," Jimmy Bell, the attorney, said in an interview.

Gerry Bell declined to comment Saturday. Melinda Bell could not be reached. 

While the lawsuit describes the two as pastors of the church, its website names two other people. Attempts to reach officials from the church were unsuccessful.

Victory Outreach is an evangelical organization founded in California in the 1960s which has affiliated churches across the United States and in other countries. The group involved in the accident were members of a congregation based in East Baltimore in the 500 block of N. Chester St.

They had traveled to the organization's annual conference in Ontario, Calif., in May 2013 and were driving back home, according to the lawsuit.

The 11-person group made the trip in a 2002 Dodge van driven by Malcolm Purnell and had been traveling straight through from California by the time they reached Vandalia, Ill., the lawsuit says. The two cities are more than a day's drive apart.

Around 9:45 a.m., the van was heading east on I-70 when it went off the roadway to the left before Purnell veered back across both eastbound lanes and went off the road on the other side, according to the suit. After that, he lost control, according to the court papers.

"The long white van veered out of control before buckling, shattering its windows, flipping four times and ejecting nine of its 11 passengers along a grass-lined interstate in Illinois," Jimmy Bell wrote in the complaint.

The local coroner pronounced the five men dead at the scene. In addition to Canada, they were identified as Emerson Baldwin, 54; Antonie Mitchell, 42; Mark William, 52; and Thomas Coleman, 29.

Six other people were treated at local hospitals.

In an interview with police, Purnell admitted to being tired, but said he could not remember if he had nodded off before the crash or what else might have caused it, according to the suit.

While Purnell's driving is blamed in the complaint for Canada's death, he is not named as a defendant. He could not be reached Saturday.

Jimmy Bell said he believes his suit is the first filed as a result of the incident.

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