Ozark, Missouri – A jury in Christian County has ordered James River Church to pay $22.5 million in damages following a 2019 incident that left a man injured on the church’s campus. Cooper Heishman, a student at James River College, was struck by a car while walking at night along a public access road near the church. The plaintiff argued that the church, which police confirmed owned the roadway, was negligent in failing to provide a sidewalk or adequate lighting.
The lawsuit claimed that Heishman, who was 19 at the time, sustained severe and permanent injuries to various parts of his body including his brain, head, lungs, sternum, right tibia, and right heel. During the seven-day trial overseen by Judge Jessica Kruse, a panel of jurors deliberated for approximately three hours before reaching a verdict on January 31.
According to court records, the jury assigned 85% responsibility to James River Church for the incident, with Heishman being deemed 15% at fault. As a result, Heishman was awarded $19.25 million in damages. It is worth noting that he had also previously settled for $100,000 in another civil suit against the 18-year-old female driver who struck him.
The car accident occurred as Heishman and another student, Zachary Reimer, were making their way back to the nearby Embassy Apartments from the church at around 9:50 p.m. They were hit by a 2003 Chrysler Town and Country Minivan, with Heishman sustaining more serious injuries compared to Reimer.
James River Church had a policy in place that allowed female students to drive from the church to the Embassy Apartments, citing limited parking near the apartments as the reason for requiring male students to walk. However, following the crash, the church reportedly discontinued this policy and made improvements such as adding lighting and a sidewalk.
The substantial damages awarded by the jury reflect their assessment of James River Church’s degree of responsibility for the accident. This verdict serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining safe conditions for pedestrians, especially in areas commonly used by students or congregation members. It remains to be seen how the church will respond to the judgment and whether any changes or improvements will be implemented moving forward.