Lida Lawson and her three children were on the first leg of their trip to visit relatives in Cincinnati early on the morning of Aug. 1, 1982, when Lawson pulled off the road to check directions.
The family from Bowie was sitting in its Chevrolet Citation on the median strip beween the Capital Beltway and the northbound exit to I-95 when the car was struck from behind by a car driven by Cheryle Roxanne White, a Beltsville waitress who, according to blood tests, had been drinking heavily.
Lida Lawson, now 47, and her son, Gerald Jr., now 19, escaped severe injury. But Colleen Lawson, 11, was killed instantly, her head wedged between the front seat and the door. Jacqueline Lawson, 7, who had been sharing the back seat with her older sister, died four days later at Childrens Hospital.
Yesterday, Lida Lawson and her husband, Gerald, won an $8.1 million jury verdict in their suit against White, an amount that their lawyer believes is the largest verdict in Maryland in a wrongful death case.
The damage award is more symbolic than real. White's insurance company had offered to settle for $40,000, the maximum amount provided in her policy, according to Gerald Lawson.
The Lawsons said they do not expect to receive much more than the $40,000.
But he said he and his wife filed the suit to "send a message to people who drink and drive as to what the consequences can be" and to persuade politicians and judges to punish drunk driving more severely.
"It would have been much easier perhaps for all concerned if I had just accepted the settlement," Lawson, 50, a federal government employe, said after the verdict yesterday.
But, he said, "I didn't want to devalue my girls . . . If I can induce some change in the law, it will be a memorial to the girls."
The Lawsons, who blame the breakup of their marriage on the accident, said they did not think White, who was convicted of manslaughter but served less than half of a four-year sentence, was adequately punished.
"She absolutely destroyed us, and she's allowed out there to walk around," Lida Lawson said. "They were part of me, and that part is dead."
"When the accident first occurred I would try to eat something and realize that my children liked that, or we would go to a restaurant and I realized they were with me all the time and I just couldn't eat," she said. "I want it brought out that a drunken driver did this and caused this pain and they cause pain to people daily and their sentences are so lax."
"I've seen a lot of grisly sights . . . and it's never bothered me, but to see a child like that, it just tears you up inside," said Maryland State Police Officer Ronald E. Bevans, who investigated the accident and testified at the trial.
White, who began sobbing uncontrollably during Gerald Lawson's testimony Thursday, could not be reached for comment.