Mississippi Litigation Review & Commentary

Mississippi Litigation Review & Commentary

Comments on the Latest Developments in Mississippi Civil Litigation

For Mississippi native son and attorney Philip Thomas, blogging about law, politics and topical issues in the state extends a conversation he’s been... More

How Many Lawyer Ranking Services Do We Need?

Posted in General

When I started practicing, when it came to lawyer ratings there was pretty much Martindale-Hubbell and nothing else. Perhaps there were other services at the time. But Martindale-Hubbell ratings were a big deal compared to anything else.

In the last twenty years Martindale-Hubbell’s prominence decreased significantly. Most lawyers no longer feel it necessary to buy a listing in Martindale-Hubbell’s directory. Many lawyers ended their relationship with the company with a bad taste in their mouth due to questionable billing and contract renewal practices.

With the internet, many other similar type outfits have sprung up. Now days lawyers get bombarded with attorney rating/ ranking sites. They include:

Most–if not all–of these services have one thing in common: they are trying to sell something to lawyers. The less direct will list or rank a lawyer without money exchanging hands and merely try to sell something in connection with the lawyer showing off his/her “prestigious” ranking.

Others are more overt and require a large payment or hundreds of dollars in annual dues to be included in the organization’s listing. 

The interesting question is how much does all this stuff matter? A lawyer could spend a lot of money related to these organizations. What would the return of investment be?

I don’t have the answer. Like many (if not most) lawyers, I struggle with this question every time I get an invitation or solicitation.

Bar Tribunal Eviscerates Jury Verdict Against Mississippi Attorneys

Posted in Mississippi Supreme Court

In 2010 I posted about a jury verdict for fraud against McComb lawyers Thomas Brock and William Guy. Here is the post and a related post about a ruling on a motion for attorney’s fees in the case.

From my 2010 post:

The trial involved the claims in two cases. Here are the Amended Complaints in the Turner case and the Harried case. Ill. Central sued the lawyers and their clients, but the clients obtained a defense verdict at trial.

The Complaints alleged that the individual defendants were plaintiffs in the big Cosey Jefferson County asbestos case that was filed in 1995 in which there was a massive plaintiff verdict around ten years ago. It was one of the verdicts that led to tort reform in Mississippi.

The defendants sued Ill. Central in 2001 in Jefferson County asserting an FELA claim related to exposure to asbestos. The defendants failed to disclose to Ill. Central that they were plaintiffs in theCosey case and settled their claims with Ill. Central for $90,000 and $120,000 respectively. The individual defendants testified that the lawyers (Guy and Brock) were aware of their prior asbestos claims in Cosey.

Ill. Central sued the lawyers and their clients for fraud. I believe that the verdict was for the $90,000 and $120,000 previously paid by Ill. Central, but a judgment is not on file yet, so I am not sure.

After the verdict, the Mississippi Bar brought disciplinary charges against Brock and Guy. On October 16, 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out the charges. From the Court’s hand down list:

The Mississippi Bar v. Thomas W. Brock; Consolidated with 2010-BD-01859-SCT The Mississippi Bar v. William S. Guy; Disposition: Respondents’ Motion to Dismiss Complaints is granted. This Court hereby accepts and adopts the recommendations of the Special Tribunal with respect to this case. Adopting said recommendations, this Court finds that the clear-and-convincing evidence standard required for imposition of disciplinary action against attorneys in Mississippi has not been met in this case. The complaints filed against Thomas W. Brock and William S. Guy by the Mississippi Bar are dismissed. Costs of this action shall be assessed to the Mississippi Bar. Waller, C.J., for the Court. Order entered.

In reaching its decision, the Court adopted the Complaint Tribunal’s Findings of Fact and Recommendations. The findings state in part:

…there is in fact not clear and convincing evidence that either Attorney Brock or Attorney Guy had actual knowledge of the subject prior asbestos lawsuit or diagnosis, or otherwise committed actual fraud.

In a footnote the Tribunal further states:

Indeed, upon the Tribunal’s careful consideration of all such evidence, there is no credible or otherwise persuasive evidence that either such attorney actually committed fraud.

Based on the Tribunal’s findings, the Bar even joined the motion to dismiss the complaints, stating that:

disbarment of, or other disciplinary action against, either of the two respondents is inappropriate under the circumstances.

Here is the Bar’s Joinder to Motion to Dismiss Complaints.

My Take:

It’s not easy to write a blog post when you can’t stop singing to yourself: “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live long day.” Thank god I don’t remember any other lines of that song.

It’s hard to read this as meaning anything other than the jury got it wrong. Just another reminder that jury trials are crap shoots.

What ever happened to the days when mass tort lawyers drank together, golfed together, “played” together and made sure that in the end, everyone got paid?

$4.5 Million Verdict in Hinds County Product Liability Case

Posted in Hinds County Circuit Court, Verdicts in Mississippi

A few weeks ago a Hinds County jury rendered a verdict of $4,568,116 in Walls v. Williams-Pyro, Inc.

The trial involved a fire suppression device that attached underneath stove vent hoods. The device activates when flames from a stove top fire trigger a fuse on the device that causes a pyrotechnic explosion and fire suppressant shot from the device downward to extinguish the fire.

The plaintiff suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns when a device released suppressant in sufficient force to splash grease and fire onto plaintiff.

Plaintiff alleged both failure to warn and a design defect. Plaintiff claimed that defendant was aware of the defects, but did nothing to remedy them. Plaintiff also alleged that there was no warning on the device.

Here is the Jury Verdict Form. The jury rendered a verdict of $568,116 in economic damages, $3 million in non-economic damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

The jury apportioned 75% fault to the manufacturer Williams-Pyro and 25% to Arbor Park Apartments.

Here is the Final Judgment. The total judgment was $3,676,087. The judgment does not mention the apparently applicable non-economic damages cap of $1 million.

Allen Smith of Ridgeland and Rocky Wilkins and Ben Wilson of Jackson represented the plaintiff. Win Gault and Brian Hannula with Forman Perry in Jackson represented the defendant.

Judge Winston Kidd presided in the case.

$2.5 Million Verdict in Asbestos Drilling Mud Case, But only 10% Fault to Defendant

Posted in Verdicts in Mississippi

It’s pretty borderline whether I have enough information to post about this verdict, but what the heck.

There was an asbestos drilling mud trial over the last couple of weeks before Circuit Judge Lamar Pickard in Jefferson County. The trial resulted in a $2.5 million verdict, but only 10% of the fault was apportioned to the Defendant Union Carbide. This will presumably lead to a judgment of $250,000.

It’s also my understanding that Judge Pickard denied Plaintiff’s request for a punitive instruction.

Patrick Malouf, Alan Hossley and Dennis Sweet represented the Plaintiff. Forman Perry (not sure who), Robert Johnson and another unknown out-of-state lawyer represented Union Carbide.

My Take:

Hard to tell who won that one. Sounds kind of like a tie.

The Plaintiff might not be excited about a $250,000 verdict in a case with high expenses due to expert witnesses. But it beats a complete loss.

For the Defendant, its $250,000 plus defense costs, which are typically large for that kind of case.

It would be interesting to know if there were any pre-trial settlement negotiations and how the verdict compares to settlement ranges.

October Miss. Jury Verdict Reporter Preview

Posted in Verdicts in Mississippi

Here is a preview of the verdicts detailed in the September issue of the Mississippi Jury Verdict Reporter:

  • $500,000 verdict- Hinds County slip-and-fall case discussed here (9/10/14);
  • $200,000 verdict (but plaintiff 50% fault)- Tunica County pedestrian-vehicle accident outside casino;
  • $150,000 verdict- Jackson federal court employment due process case (8/20/14);
  • $30,000 verdict- Harrison County uninsured motorist car wreck case (9/12/14);
  • defense verdict- Lafayette County medical malpractice case alleging OB-gyn negligence (8/6/14);
  • defense verdict- Madison County alienation of affection case (9/4/14); and
  • defense verdict- Jackson County insurance agent negligence case (3/21/14).

My Take:

A defense verdict in an alienation of affection trial? I didn’t know that was possible.

Shannon Ragland’s description of the case is worth the yearly subscription for the MJVR. One excerpt: “he suggested that his relationship with Denise was not a hot and ongoing affair, but instead just an occasional fling and not Denise’s only one at that.”

Congratulations on your big win! By the way, you’re fired.

Posted in General

The ABA Journal headline told the story:

Litigation success brings layoffs for 17 attorneys at law firm representing Halliburton

Yep. One of the sad facts of Defense law: you can work yourself out of a job. 

From the article about Godwin Lewis’ layoff of 23 firm employees:

When you are handling major litigation, as we typically do at Godwin Lewis, someday that litigation is going to be over and adjustments will be made,” said Donald Godwin, who serves as chairman and CEO. “We kept people here as long as we could … but as those needs subsided, we needed to make adjustments.” 

He said the firm had opted to hire the litigation team rather than bring in contract workers so those hired could receive full benefits. Although Godwin Lewis, which has 45 lawyers in three Texas offices, is still representing Halliburton, the firm simply didn’t need as many attorneys after the Deepwater Horizon litigation slowed down. 

It had to let some lawyers go even though they were “A-team quality,” Godwin told the legal publication, adding: “It was a tough day for all of those people involved. It was a tough day for all of us.

My Take:

I tip my hat to Mr. Godwin for speaking the truth. That’s just the way it works.

If you’re working on just one case and that case ends, you might be out of a job. At a minimum, the revenue stream from that case is over. That’s probably not good news for the firm’s bottom line.

Settling a huge case can be scary for a defense lawyer. Even if it was a great result, the reward is less work and revenue.

On the plaintiff/ contingency-fee side, there are also mixed emotions. But they are different: relief that the case is over, but often doubt about whether the best outcome was obtained.

$600,000 Verdict Against City of Jackson in Retaliation Case

Posted in U.S. District Courts in Mississippi, Verdicts in Mississippi

A federal court jury in Jackson rendered a $600,000 verdict on October 2, 2014 in Hewitt v. City of Jackson. Here is the Clarion-Ledger article on the verdict. Here is the verdict form.

From the Clarion-Ledger article:

Don Hewitt, whose Advanced Technology Building Solutions group was looking to take on the two projects, this week was awarded $600,000 by a jury that found city officials serving under former mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. violated Hewitt’s free-speech rights by blocking his effort to convert the bank building into a development featuring a 120-room hotel, 33 apartments and 32,000 square feet of retail space. Those plans later were changed by Hewitt to place greater emphasis on multifamily housing. 

As those plans were taking shape in 2011, ATBS also partnered with a Texas company that year to bid on building the convention center hotel. That bid and a second one each were rejected, and the hotel has yet to be built. The lawsuit contended Johnson abruptly withdrew his conceptual support of the Deposit Guaranty redevelopment shortly after the hotel project bid.

Nick Norris and Louis Watson, Jr. of Jackson represented the plaintiff. Claire Barker and Gail Lowery represented the City.

District Judge Louis Guirola presided in the case.

$65,000 Verdict in Aberdeen Federal Court Retaliation, A.D.A. Trial

Posted in U.S. District Courts in Mississippi, Verdicts in Mississippi

On September 20, 2014 a federal court jury in Aberdeen rendered a $65,000 plaintiff’s verdict in Mitchell v. City of Tupelo. Here is the Verdict Form.

Here is WTVA’s article on the verdict. From the article:

A former bailiff [Latisha Mitchell] with the Tupelo Municipal Court has won a legal ruling against the city in U. S. District Court. 

A federal jury awarded Latisha Mitchell $65,000 after finding the city retaliated against her for filing a discrimination charge against the city after she was injured on the job. 

Mitchell received $35,000 in lost wages and $30,000 for anxiety in the jury verdict following a trial last week. 

The jury rejected a claim of disability discrimination….

She contends the city should have done more to change her duties after she [injured her back and neck while saving a 250-pound prisoner who was hanging himself]. 

The verdict allows Mitchell to file a motion for front pay and attorney’s fees.

Jim Waide and Rachel Pierce Waide of Waide & Associates in Tupelo represented the plaintiff. John Hill and Stephen Spencer with Mitchell McNutt & Sams in Tupelo represented the city.

Judge Sharion Aycock presided in  the case.

My Take:

The North Mississippi defense bar is in big trouble if Jim Waide ever decides to retire.

Miss. Supreme Court Reinstates $1.1 Million Jury Verdict

Posted in Mississippi Supreme Court

Last week in a 5-3 split, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed a trial court JNOV and reinstated a jury verdict of $1,161,000 in Cheeks v. Autozone, Inc. Here is the Court’s opinion.

Here is my 2012 post on the verdict. The original verdict was for $2,580,000 with 55% fault apportioned to the plaintiff.

From my 2012 post:

The plaintiff was hit by a car while walking on a sidewalk in front of an AutoZone store. Plaintiff sued the driver and AutoZone, which argued that it could not be held liable. Here is the trial court’s order denying AutoZone’s motion to dismiss.

It’s my understanding that the plaintiff had $300,000 in medical bills.

The plaintiff settled with the driver before trial.

Justice Randolph wrote the majority opinion joined by Justices Lamar, Kitchens, Chandler and King. The majority reasoned that the verdict was proper because the jury found that AutoZone created an unsafe condition that proximately caused or contributed to plaintiff’s injury.

Chief Justice Waller wrote a dissent joined by Justices Dickinson and Pierce. Justice Coleman did not participate. The dissent believed that the JNOV was proper because the injury was not foreseeable to AutoZone as a matter of law.

My Take:

This decision will get a lot of water cooler talk by Mississippi lawyers who pay attention. The decision is a major blow to defense lawyers and their clients who go to mediation and proclaim that the Mississippi Supreme Court is one-sided and a place where plaintiff verdicts go to die.

However, it’s not all good news for the plaintiffs. Some would argue that the dissent exhibits a willingness by the Court to substitute its opinion for that of the jury on a fact question (foreseeability, in this case).

Decisions like this create uncertainty for litigants. Uncertainty is good because it promotes settlements.

It’s my opinion that civil defendants who think they are guaranteed to win on appeal are extremely foolish. There are no guarantees in litigation. You can always lose.

An opinion like this is a wake-up call for people who don’t share my opinion.

$10.5 Million Jury Verdict in Retrial of Products Liability Case

Posted in Verdicts in Mississippi

I’m hearing reports of a $10.5 million jury verdict in Coahoma County on Friday in Applewhite v. Hyundai Motor America. The case was originally tried in 2008 with a $4.5 million plaintiff verdict.

In 2011 the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the trial court and remanded the case for a new trial. Here is the Court’s unanimous opinion. The basis for the reversal was plaintiff’s failure to timely supplement expert opinions.

The retrial was last week, with a $10.5 million plaintiff verdict. I do not have the breakdown of damages or know if they will be impacted by the caps. I’ve received little information on the verdict thus far.

Plaintiffs’ counsel included Dennis Sweet, Terris Harris, Ralph Chapman and Dan Czmanske.

My Take:

That’s a thing about appealing plaintiff verdicts. There is no guarantee of a better result on retrial.