Georgia jury returns verdict over 500 times the cost of actual damages.
Daily Report | November 28, 2016 | Greg Land
A young lawyer who joined the state bar in 2013 and was trying his second case as lead counsel scored a $7 million victory for his client, a dialysis patient who was being ferried to a treatment session in 2012 when the van she was riding in was involved in a wreck. The jury was slated to hear arguments regarding the appropriateness of punitive damages but a highlow agreement reached during trial capped the defendants’ liability at $2 million, mooting any need for further litigation, said plaintiffs lawyer Christopher Breault of Athens’ Breault Law Firm, who was assisted by fellow Athens solo Warren Abel. Defense attorneys G. Randall Moody and Elizabeth Rose of Drew Eckl & Farnham, and Clayton Adams and Anderson Robinson of Columbus’ Brown & Adams did not respond to requests for comment. The early-morning accident happened when a Dodge Ram pickup truck belonging to a Columbus doughnut shop pulled out of a Piggly Wiggly parking lot on River Road in front of a Dodge van carrying the plaintiff, Joyce Bigmall. The collision knocked the van over and left Bigmall, now 62, with multiple injuries including four broken ribs.
Bigmall was treated for trauma at Columbus Medical Center, then spent several weeks at a rehabilitation center. The pickup’s driver, Perry Solomon, was charged with failure to yield. Breault said Bigmall had been diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease several years earlier, and the disease complicated her ability to heal. “She had a hard time walking after the wreck,” said Breault.
“She was also having trouble breathing, and that developed into pneumonia.” Solomon was also seriously injured and was trapped in the driver’s seat with an open fracture to his forearm. In 2013, Columbus solo Mark Jones filed suit on Bigmall’s behalf in Muscogee County State Court, naming Golden Doughnuts and Solomon as defendants. In 2015, he associated Breault into the case, and Breault handled the case going forward. He said that two mediations failed to resolve the dispute.
The complaint included counts for negligent entrustment, hiring, retention and supervision but, before Breault became involved, Judge Ben Richardson dismissed those claims. Breault’s investigation revealed that Solomon had two prior DUI and two open container arrests on his record, and had been involved in prior accidents. It also emerged that Solomon had told hospital staffers that he drank 12 to 18 beers a day. Ruling on Breault’s motion to set aside, Richardson vacated his earlier dismissal and the negligent hiring and other counts were restored to the complaint, along with counts for punitive damages against both defendants. During a one-week trial, Breault introduced testimony from the emergency medical technicians who tended to Solomon on the morning of the wreck, both of whom said they thought he was intoxicated. Breault elicited testimony from University of Georgia College of Pharmacy professor Randall Tackett, who said that if Solomon had drunk an 18-pack the evening before, his blood alcohol content would have been .08-legally drunk-at the time of 6:15 a.m. wreck. During closing arguments, Breault said he asked for $4 million in general damages and $49,000 for medical expenses.
The jury took roughly five hours to award $7,049,732. Breault said conversation with the jurors indicated that they had been angered by what they considered misleading testimony by a defense witness. Breault, who dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and graduated last in his class at the University of Georgia School of Law, said the trial was his second as lead attorney; the first, a false imprisonment trial last year, ended with a $150,000 verdict for his client.