Big Verdicts Hard to Come By

Huntsville Times

Jan 9, 2002

Madison County juries have awarded $1 million or more in only eight cases in the past 20 years, said a local attorney who won two of those cases.

The most recent was June 27. The family of a 79-year-old Huntsville woman who was attacked by fire ants in 1999 sue the retirement center where she lived at the time, as well as its pest control company.

Lucille Devers’ family asked for $8 million in punitive and compensatory damages. The lawyers for Greystone Retirement Community and Terminix International had offered to settle the case out of court for $200,000 to $300,000.

After eight days of testimony, a jury deliberated for about eight hours before returning the verdict: Greystone and Terminix together should pay compensatory damages of $1.85 million, and each should pay $1/75 million in punitive damages. Total: $5.35 million.

Juror Catherine Fitch said the jury wanted to send a message that Madison County residents will not tolerate substandard care.

“These people are responsible for our elderly.” Fitch said, “and they need to do a better job of looking after them and think about it if it was their own family in there.”

But Huntsville juries have been slow about sending messages in cases against doctors, hospitals and others in the health care industry, said Huntsville attorney Allen Brinkley.

“This is only the third or fourth verdict against a health care provider in Huntsville,” he said. “But there have been approximately 20 verdicts in favor of defendants in cases alleging medical malpractice in Madison County over the past 20 years.

“People love their doctors.”

In one case, Brinkley recalled, a doctor was accused of leaving a pair of scissors in a patient during surgery. He was ordered to pay $20,000. In another case, a dentist was accused of pulling the wrong tooth in a 12-year-old girl. She was awarded $35,000.

Brinkley represented the plaintiffs in two of the cases that received the largest jury verdicts in Madison County, one for $8.25 million and another for $2.1 million.

Both verdicts were later reversed by the Alabama Supreme Court.

Jurors in Madison County hold lawyers to a high standard Brinkley said.

“There are a lot of engineers and scientists who sit on these juries, and they demand proof to a mathematical certainty,” he said.

Attorney Gary Conchin, who won a $2.5 million verdict against an apartment owner in 1989, said it’s more than a high standard; it’s an almost impossible burden of proof.

“I’ve tried wreck cases before where it’s just negligence that is the issue, and have jurors say that so-and-so didn’t intend to cause an injury,” he said. “Well, that is not the test. The judge can tell them what negligence is, and they just ignore it.”

Brinkley said he does not see the verdict in the fire-ant case as a trend. He expects business lobbying groups in Montgomery to try to stir up outrage about the case.

The defense has 30 days to request a review by Circuit Judge Jim Smith, who heard the case. He will have 90 days to determine whether the award is appropriate. After that, a review by the appeals court could take up to two years, Brinkley said.

Here’s a look at the seven other jury verdicts in Madison County for more than $1 million in the last two decades:

The largest verdict was for $8.2 million in 1992. Brian Stewart, 21, alleged he was poisoned by benzene when his bosses at ATEC, who were trained in the carcinogenic dangers of gasoline, sent him to work in gasoline-holding tanks for a year without proper protection. He developed terminal cancer as a result. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed the jury’s decision.

A jury awarded $3 million to the families of a Huntsville woman who was killed and another person who was severally injured by a drunk driver in the late 1980’s. The verdict was affirmed by the state Supreme Court in 1997.

The parents of infant Princes Jahandarfar, who was killed during an apartment fire on Cave Avenue in 1988, were awarded a $2.5 million verdict against the building’s owner. The infant burned to death in a building where there were no smoke alarms required by law. But the owner had eight alarms in his own home. The case was affirmed by the state Supreme Court.

Members of the Spragins family won a $2.1 million verdict against First Alabama Bank in 1983. The family alleged that bank officials mismanaged the family trust fund. Although the verdict was reversed by the Alabama Supreme Court, the family eventually recovered $1 million.

Christopher Kirby of Moulton was awarded $2.04 million by a jury in 1992. Kirby had sued his employer, Consolidated Construction Co. of Huntsville. He fell two stories though a skylight during construction of a building at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Kirby had severe head and back injuries as a result of the fall.

A jury awarded 20th Century Marketing Inc. $1.8 million in a commercial dispute with Lindy Manufacturing Corp. The verdict was affirmed by the state Supreme Court in 1997.

A jury awarded Bobby F. Johnson of Paint Rock $1 million in 1999 on the claim that his daughter, Misty Dawn Johnson, 17, died because of a misdiagnosis at Gurley Medical Clinic. She was treated for a stomach inflamation and sent home on Nov. 2, 1994. She died from appendicitis two days later. The case was not appealed.