A $101 million wrongful death judgment against a Pitt County man who killed his girlfriend in a police standoff tops the 1999 Lawyers Weekly survey of large verdicts and settlements.
The uncontested award to the victim’s family which stood at more than a half-billion dollars before the mandatory cap on punitives kicked in leads a list of 31 recoveries of $1 million or more.
Joining that verdict were three high-profile employment cases. One was the state’s largest race-based job discrimination award. Another resulted in the biggest Coman verdict to date. In the worker’s comp arena, a quadriplegic window-washer recovered more than $2 million. That was on top of his confidential Woodson settlement.
And in a blast from the past, a long-running bankruptcy case that produced the third-highest verdict in 1993 did it again on the latest list, generating a $6.49 million award for abuse of process.
The Lawyers Weekly list also included the standard bread-and-butter categories:
Twelve counties and two federal districts are represented in the rankings which cover cases reported to Lawyers Weekly since the last survey in August.
Moving the publication date to February cut the reporting period in half. That makes the large number of million-plus recoveries all the more remarkable. The 31 awards exceeded the 12-month totals for many years.
That continues an upward trend seen in the past few surveys, which saw 41 million-plus recoveries reported in 1998 and 37 in 1997.
Sending A Message
Before it was cut from $525 million to $101 million, the award in Coburn v. Carter may have been the largest individual wrongful death verdict in the world, according to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Peter Romary of Greenville.
In 1996, the defendant in Coburn took a former girlfriend hostage and then kept her shackled to a bed in a trailer near Louisburg during a 28-day standoff with police.
“Basically, he informed law enforcement officers that he was going to let her go,” said Romary. “And then he killed her.”
After the murder, the defendant was spared the death penalty through a plea bargain. According to Romary, the defendant was publicity hungry, telling newspaper reporters that God had spared him so that he could “spread his message.”
Those interviews, and information that the defendant planned to write a book, prompted the victim’s family to seek a civil judgment against any possible assets.
“Our basic premise was what would it be worth to a reasonable individual to be imprisoned in a trailer and tortured for a month, and then killed,” said Romary. “I never asked for a dollar amount from the jury. I simply asked them to do justice and ‘send a message’ that made it clear how much we disapprove of this kind of conduct.”
The size and circumstances of the resulting verdict aroused media interest across the nation and overseas, including a interview on the BBC for Romary, himself a native of Leeds, England.
The uncontested verdict also caused some grumbling in the legal community about grandstanding, given the fact it far exceeded the defendant’s assets.
That view missed the point, according to Romary, who handled the case pro bono.
“I never took this case to achieve fame,” he said. “Rather, I took it because I was and still am one of the supervising attorneys for our local domestic violence shelter, and that’s how the case came to me.
“Like the OJ Simpson lawsuit, we hoped Anitra’s case would do more than simply obtain damages,” he said. “We hoped to focus attention on the issue of domestic violence and the plight of victims.
“I also hoped that by taking this case I could encourage more lawyers to take pro bono cases,” Romary said. “If the publicity a large verdict may bring will get one more lawyer involved in volunteering to obtain domestic violence protective orders, or suing a criminal, or in other ways assisting those who need help, then it was worthwhile.”
The Coburn case is not the only time Romary has recovered civil damages for domestic violence. In another award on the list, he got a $1.2 million consent judgment against a husband who assaulted his wife and then ran at her with his car several times.
The judgment included cash and a large property settlement, according to Romary.
“The recovery was far more substantial than what she would have gotten through equitable distribution,” he said.
On the employment front, a Durham jury’s $2 million award in Smith v. Nello L. Teer Company may be the largest job discrimination verdict in the state based on race, according to Durham attorney Stewart Fisher, who represented the plaintiff, along with Caitlyn Fulghum.
Their client, an African-American construction worker, was fired immediately after showing the ropes to his white replacement. Jurors heard evidence that company supervisors used racial epithets and planned to replace black employees with whites and Hispanics which they did.
The verdict under Title VII and 42 U.S.C. Sect. 1981 includes $1.8 million in punitive damages, as well as $20,000 in back pay and $180,000 in compensatories.
Punitives weren’t allowed in another job action on the list, but that didn’t prevent the plaintiff in Lorbacher v. Housing Authority of City of Raleigh from bringing home the largest verdict yet on a Coman claim.
In Lorbacher, the housing authority’s assistant director of development was fired just six days after testifying about gas leaks at a project where two residents died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
His attorneys, Marvin Schiller of Raleigh and William Moore Jr. of Gastonia, persuaded jurors that was a wrongful discharge in violation of public policy under Coman v. Thomas Manufacturing Co., 325 N.C. 172, 381 S.E.2d 445 (1989).
The award for $1.3 million compensated the 19-year employee for past and future earnings, as well as lost retirement income.
“I’m not aware of any larger jury verdicts out there in a Coman case,” said Schiller.
Also on the survey was a workers’ compensation claim that resulted in one of the largest comp settlements in state history.
A window-washer who fell after a supervisor refused to give him safety lines received $2.28 million in workers’ comp, on top of an undisclosed amount for his Woodson claim the only Woodson claim to survive appellate scrutiny.
Raleigh attorneys Thomas White III, Daniel B. Titsworth and John McCabe handled the plaintiff’s case in Arroyo v. Scottie’s Professional Window Cleaning, Inc.
The third highest verdict on the survey came from a case familiar to bankruptcy practitioners, New Horizon of NY v. Robert Jacobs et al, a company that was created to receive money from a settlement including an exclusive option to buy certain promissory notes claimed the defendants manipulated the legal system to avoid paying up.
The company, represented by Durham attorneys Charles Holton, Laura Luger and Pamela Wachter, won a $6.49 million judgment.
“The defendants were able to keep up legal challenges to the purchase just long enough to sabotage the financing needed to close on the option contract, which eventually expired,” said Holton.
“We called it several different things interference with contract, abuse of process, malicious prosecution but the bottom line was that it just maliciously sabotaged our client’s benefits under the bankruptcy plan.”
At press time, federal Judge Earl Britt still had under advisement a claim for treble damages for unfair and deceptive practices, Holton said.
Auto negligence accounted for 11 cases on the survey, including a $9 million settlement for a 26-year-old woman who was struck broadside by a truck in Mecklenburg County. She suffered a severe closed head injury and was left blind in one eye.
Although liability was undisputed, the parties hotly contested the victim’s life expectancy, and her resulting medical needs. Charlotte attorneys Rick Anderson and William Benjamin Smith handled the case.
The next largest auto negligence recovery came from Wake County, a $4.64 million verdict in Vincent v. Piedmont Recovery Services, Inc. The plaintiff was driving her mother to the hospital for open heart surgery when she was rear-ended by another motorist.
That collision was minor, but when the plaintiff got out to check for damage, she was run over by a tow truck. She suffered severe head injuries, a stroke, and partial paralysis. Raleigh attorneys David Kirby and Bill Bystrynski represented the plaintiff.
The top medmal recovery was a $2.8 confidential settlement in a childbirth case handled by Chapel Hill attorney Martin Rosenberg.
According to the plaintiffs, their child was blinded due to a premature delivery when the mother’s membranes ruptured. A proper series of ultrasound exams would have warned the obstetrician of the risk of a preterm rupture, the plaintiffs claimed.
In the second largest medmal case, a child was born without a nose and mentally retarded because a psychiatric hospital gave his depressed mother a “Category X” drug a medication that should not be given to pregnant women.
The woman told the hospital that she hadn’t had a period in four months when she was admitted. However, no pregnancy tests were performed before she was given the prohibited medication for sleeplessness.
The defendants argued that recent studies have questioned the link between the Category X drug and birth defects.
The plaintiff’s confidential $2.15 million settlement was handled by Raleigh attorneys Mark Holt and Bill Bystrynski. The case is still pending against a remaining defendant.