A Hinds County Circuit Court jury returned a $3.6 million verdict Friday in a premises liability case. Judge Winston Kidd was the trial judge.

 

The Plaintiffs were Benny Ohazurike, Esther Ohazurike, and Darlington Ohazurike (6 year old son). Plaintiff’s counsel were Ashley Ogden and former Chief Justice Jim Smith.

 

 

The Defendants were Parham Pointe South (owner), Ballard Realty Company (management company), and K. Wayne Rice & Associates (owner). Defense counsel were: (1)     Jamie Travis with Page Kruger & Holland in Flowood (attorney for Parham Pointe South and K. Wayne Rice & Associates); and (2)  Benny “Mac” May with Dunbar Monroe in Ridgeland (attorney for Ballard Realty and Crystal Bridges-Corcoran).

 

Case Facts According to Plaintiffs

 

Plaintiff Benny Ohazurike is a creator and designer of board games.  In 2001 Benny and his wife Esther moved into Parham Apartments on Ridgewood Road.  Plaintiff’s apartment had a leaky roof and developed mold and mildew inside the apartment.  Plaintiffs asked management to fix the maintenance problems inside their apartment, including the leaky roof and the mold and mildew inside their apartment and to clean their carpet.  Management refused to perform any maintenance or repairs on their apartment. 

 

 In mid 2007 a pipe in the Plaintiffs’ bathroom began to leak.  For at least 6 weeks Benny begged the manager and the maintenance staff to fix the leak.  They told Benny they would fix the leak and never did.  In May 2007 Benny and Esther went to the grocery store.  When the family came back to their apartment they discovered the leaking pipe in the bathroom had burst and flooded the majority of the apartment.  Benny had been keeping blueprints for his board games on the floor in the apartment bedroom while he worked on them.  Benny also had blueprints and partial game designs stored in the closet.  The flooding from the burst pipe destroying 19 of Benny’s game designs and blueprints.

 

 Management did not stop the water spewing from the pipe until several hours after it was discovered and reported by the Plaintiff.  After the flood, management continuously refused to replace the carpet in the apartment, make any other repairs or move the family into a vacant apartment.  Because of the flood the carpet began to mildew and mold spread throughout the apartment.  Plaintiff’s 3 year old son, Darlington, developed a skin condition and a cough.  Benny and Esther also developed coughs and became ill from the mold.  Darlington’s skin is permanently dotted and scarred as a result of the skin condition he developed.  Plaintiffs sued Defendants alleging failure to provide maintenance and repairs both before and after the flood, their failure to clean the mold in their apartment, and failure to replace the mildewed carpet which caused their Plaintiffs’ illnesses.

 

 At trial several former employees of Parham testified that management and the owners intentionally ignored the Plaintiff’s requests for repairs and maintenance and threw away his maintenance requests.   The employees testified that Benny annoyed management because he asked for repairs and because he acted as an informal security guard and maintenance man and would constantly complain about the lack of maintenance on the property, the crime on the property, and employees not doing their jobs. 

 

There was testimony that management denied maintenance to the Plaintiffs in order to force them out and rent the apartment for a higher price.  There was testimony that certain members of management and maintenance would randomly turn off the air conditioner to the Plaintiffs’ apartment to force them to move.  One employee, a housekeeper, testified that management forced her to sign false criminal affidavits against Benny alleging that he had threatened her with a gun.  The employee testified that when she refused to go to court and pursue the false charges, management fired her.

 

The defendants’ witnesses who were all former managers and regional supervisors testified that the plaintiffs were several months behind on rent and that no flood occurred. The defendants testified that just because the rent was late they could not deny maintenance service to tenants. The defense argued that the value of the plaintiffs’ injuries was zero and that the plaintiffs’ damaged games had no value. The plaintiff countered by showing a pattern at the property of no one being able to determine who owed rent because of the problems with managers taking cash and money orders and not applying the rent to the correct tenants. The plaintiff also showed that while he had fallen behind on rent in the past he had always paid up making his rent current and paid.

 

The Verdict

 

The jury awarded the Plaintiffs the following amounts:

 

Benny –  $2,502,208.00, Ester- $500,253.00,  Darlington – $601,251.00.

 

The total amount awarded to the Plaintiffs was $3,603,712.00.

 

My Take

 

The damages verdict sounds really high for those injuries. It will be interesting to see what happens if the case goes up on appeal.

 

This is Ashley Ogden’s sixth seven figure verdict reported on this blog in a little over a year. That is impressive by any measure and places Ogden at the top of the heap of Mississippi plaintiff lawyers. That stature tends to make people a target and it will be interesting to see how Ogden handles the attention.

 

This verdict will lead to more chatter that I have been hearing as Ogden compiled these verdicts. First, some Jackson lawyers believe that the senior litigation partners at many Jackson defense firms are afraid to try a case against Ogden in Hinds County. Their argument is that senior partners step in and try cases that they think that they will win, but let the lawyers who worked up the case try it when they think they will lose.  This is not my theory—but I’ve heard it several times. 

 

Second, this verdict will lead to more talk around town about the irony of Chief Justice Smith working for Ogden. The perception among lawyers on both sides was that the Supreme Court would not affirm a plaintiff’s verdict when Smith was the Chief Justice. The fact that Smith went into a plaintiff practice after losing his election to Justice Kitchens is ironic. But it also suggests that the man who led the Court did not share the view that plaintiffs could not get—and keep—a verdict in Mississippi. It will be interesting to see what happens when the Supreme Court rules on the appeals of these cases that Smith worked on with Ogden.