A Georgia jury in the State Court of Cobb County awarded a man post-apportionment damages of $3.45 million with an additional $1.84 million in attorney’s fees for injuries he sustained after falling into an unguarded concrete pit beside a golf course clubhouse in Hiram, Georgia.
Insurance Company Rejects Lower Settlement Offers
The verdict came after the Defendant’s insurer rejected numerous offers to settle for less than the insurance policy limits. Plaintiff’s counsel, Joel Williams of Williams Elleby and Matthew Stoddard of The Stoddard Firm, said that multiple attempts to settle the case were made throughout the course of litigation, culminating with Plaintiff proposing a high-low agreement of $465,000 – $1.5 million after closing arguments (The high low agreement would have limited the Defendant’s exposure to $1.5 million [an amount within the insurance policy limits] if the verdict were for a higher amount but guaranteed the Plaintiff at least $465,000 if the verdict was for less). However, the Defendant’s insurance company declined all of Plaintiff’s offers to settle within its insured’s policy limits, forcing the case to trial and subsequent verdict.
The case was defended by Beth Bentley and Bill Casey of Swift, Currie, McGhee, & Hiers. Stoddard and Williams were complimentary of the professionalism displayed by Bentley and Casey. Williams’ stated, “Beth and Bill are excellent lawyers that did the best they could with a tough set of facts.”
Facts Leading to Fall from Unguarded Concrete Pit
The case initiated from an incident on February 6, 2021, when Plaintiff was invited to a country club in Hiram, GA to pick up his girlfriend who was the bar & grill manager at the club. The Plaintiff arrived at the bar and had some drinks while waiting for his girlfriend to finish her shift. As the bar was closing, Plaintiff’s manager/girlfriend asked him to go put some DJ equipment in his truck. The plaintiff walked outside and put the equipment in his truck. It was a cold and rainy night, so Plaintiff wanted to get back inside. He tried to re-enter the bar & grill, but the Defendant’s employees had locked all the doors and turned off all exterior lights. Plaintiff attempted to call his girlfriend to open the door.
When Plaintiff’s phone calls went unanswered, he decided to walk around the building and see if any other doors were unlocked. He made it around one side of the building when he fell nearly 12 feet from an unguarded retaining wall and into a concrete pit where he landed on his head, broke multiple bones, and sustained a brain injury. In this picture, emergency worker’s can be seen attending to the injured Plaintiff at the bottom of the dark and unguarded pit:
Plaintiff was rushed to the emergency room where he spent nearly a week in the hospital. Upon release, he began treating with an orthopedic surgeon who eventually recommended that he undergo a cervical fusion surgery. He had the procedure and recovered well. However, his life was forever changed by the seriousness of his permanent injuries. Plaintiff’s past medical bills at the time of trial were about $362,000.00.
Defendant Failed to Act on Warnings
Testimony revealed that approximately four months prior to the fall, the Defendant hired a landscaping company to remove bushes and trees that acted as a natural barrier around the edges of the concrete pit. The bushes can be seen in this photo (sorry, the picture quality is poor but it is the best picture available):
At the time of removal, the landscape company warned Defendant that the pit was dangerous and that they should install a fence to guard the pit. There was also evidence that the unguarded pit violated municipal safety codes previously adopted by the City of Hiram. In additional to violating safety codes, the evidence showed that the Defendant had another concrete pit on the opposite side of its building that was guarded by a metal railing as shown in this photograph:
Furthermore, one of Defendant’s employees testified that she observed children playing tag near the pit. Another employee testified that Defendant discussed concerns about a drunk person falling into the pit at a management meeting prior to the fall. The Defendant’s owner, testified that safety was the company’s number one priority and that the Defendant intended to place a fence along the pit due to safety concerns. Despite all this, a fence was not installed before Plaintiff’s fall because it remained on a to-do “list” while the company completed other projects during its “slow season.” Shockingly, some of those other projects included installing decorative split rail fencing around other areas of the golf course.
Stoddard and Williams said the Defense asserted a plethora of defenses. The defense argued that Plaintiff was a trespasser who never paid for his drinks (despite testimony from the club manager that he saw a tab with Plaintiff’s name on it); that Plaintiff was drunk at the time of the fall; that Plaintiff should have used his phone’s flashlight to see where he was going; that Plaintiff was not allowed on the part of the property where the fall occurred; that Plaintiff left a path and walked through the woods to reach the pit; and finally, that Plaintiff’s spinal injuries were degenerative and not caused by the fall.
Trial began on December 18, 2023, before Judge Jane Manning in the State Court of Cobb County. Plaintiff’s counsel relied on testimony from Plaintiff, his ex-girlfriend/bar manager, the landscaper, ex-company employees, and Plaintiff’s treating physicians. Defense counsel called two of the Defendant’s employees, along with a code expert, toxicology expert, and neurologist to dispute liability and causation.
In the lead up to trial and throughout, Plaintiff continued to make offers within Defendant’s policy limits to resolve the case. However, Defendants declined all of Plaintiff’s offers, never offering more than $585,000. After a four-day trial, the jury spent about five hours deliberating before returning a verdict for $4,600,000 in compensatory damages. The jury apportioned 25 percent of the fault to Plaintiff, reducing the total compensatory award to $3,450,000. The jury also found there was bad faith in the underlying transaction and awarded $1,840,000 in attorney’s fees pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 13-6-11. In awarding attorney’s fees, the jury found that the Defendant’s conduct demonstrated a conscious indifference to the consequences of its actions (i.e. failing to act on its admitted knowledge of the danger, its failure to heed warnings from its landscaping contractor, its failure to comply with code, and other things).
Stoddard and Williams agree that this is a very sad case involving serious life altering injuries and that this tragedy is made worse by the fact that the Defendant is now facing a judgment that exceeds its insurance limits due to its insurer’s refusal to accept multiple settlement offers within its insurance limits. Plaintiff’s counsel, Joel Williams, explained, “This is the perfect example of what happens when insurance companies refuse to protect their insureds. Insurance companies readily accept our premium payments but they often fall short when we need them to do what we pay them to do: Protect us, and our assets, when we face liability claims. Special interest groups love to blame lawyers for so-called “nuclear” or “excess” verdicts but the truth is that we would rarely see large jury verdicts if insurance companies would accept reasonable settlement offers and protect their insureds when they are given an opportunity to do so, as we did numerous times prior to the verdict in this case.”