Douglas Powell, left, Andrew Rogers, center, and Gilbert Deitch represented the family of a man who was killed during a holdup attempt in his Albany hotel room. (John Disney/Daily Report)
A Fulton County jury declared that the Motel 6 chain and its parent company must pay $5.1 million to the family of a man killed during a robbery attempt at an Albany motel nearly seven years ago, agreeing with the plaintiffs that the lack of adequate security at the hotel was in large part responsible for the slaying.
Brandon Todd, 27, of Newnan died after exchanging gunfire with one of two teenagers who accosted him in his room in November 2007. One of the two assailants, 17-year-old Jimmy Teemer, was armed and died at the scene. The second, Lyndon B. Johnson Jr., now 23, is serving a life sentence for the crime along with another man, Patrick Jackson, who was a guest at the hotel that night and was accused of providing Teemer with the gun.
The May 16 verdict set damages at $6 million, with liability allocated at 5 percent each to Johnson, Jackson and Teemer and 85 percent to Motel 6 and its parent company, Accor North America Inc.
The plaintiffs had offered to settle the case for $3 million before trial. Georgia’s offer of judgment statute provides that if a party declines an offer of settlement and the ultimate award is 125 percent or more of that offer, the prevailing party is entitled to seek attorney fees from the time of the offer. On Thursday, the plaintiffs’ attorneys—Andrew Rogers and Gilbert Deitch of Deitch & Rogers and Douglas Powell of Hinton & Powell—filed a motion asking the court to award $2,550,000, representing the 50 percent contingency fee they had with their clients, plus $75,000 in litigation expenses. According to the motion, the defense responded with an offer of $1.5 million, which the plaintiffs did not accept.
The Georgia Supreme Court is considering in another case what a plaintiff who has a contingency fee arrangement with his or her lawyer may recover under Georgia’s offer of judgment statute.
“One of the biggest challenges was that Brandon was not married and had no children, and I think it’s hard for a jury to be motivated to return a large damage award with no surviving dependents,” said Rogers, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney. “I think the jury understood what quality people our clients are, and what a quality person Brandon was.”
Rogers said the hotel property and surrounding area had been plagued by holdups in the months before the murder, including one three nights prior to Todd’s death in which Jackson was later identified as a participant, and another six weeks earlier in which Teemer was involved.
“They all lived in the neighborhood, and they were all known by the people who worked at the property,” Rogers said.
Lead defense lawyer Earl “Billy” Gunn had argued that the premises were safe enough that the manager had no concerns about living at the hotel and walking around it at night. Gunn questioned jurors’ apportionment of damages and the manner in which Fulton State Court Judge John Mather handled that issue.
“I can’t say I was completely surprised, given the jury instructions the court gave them,” said Gunn. “With all due respect to Judge Mather, he basically told the jury, ‘If you put the fault on this criminal, well, the plaintiffs won’t get anything.’ To place just 5 percent of the blame on the killer is crazy.”
Gunn said he and his cocounsel, fellow Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial partners Shannon Barrow and David Matthews, will be filing a motion for new trial. If that is denied, he said, “I hope we will see it through the appeals process.”
Todd was working for the Georgia Power Co. and had traveled to Albany to interview for a new position at Plant Mitchell when he booked a room at the Motel 6 just off Highway 19, Rogers said.
The exact circumstances of his death are still unclear. Gunn said that Jackson and his girlfriend were staying in the hotel when Teemer and Johnson came by and borrowed Jackson’s gun to go rob someone for money to buy marijuana.
Johnson, the surviving robber, “told police a couple of different scenarios, including that he knocked on the door to use the phone, which made no sense,” Rogers said.
What was clear was that Todd was armed with a Glock handgun and opened fire on Teemer, hitting him three times. Teemer got off one shot, hitting Todd in the chest and killing him.
In March 2009 Powell filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of Todd’s parents, Jeffrey Todd and Teresa Trapp, naming Accor, Motel 6, hotel manager Carolyn Pugh and Johnson as defendants. During the course of litigation, Trapp passed away and Brandon Todd’s sister, Nichole Leodler, stepped in as his estate administrator.
In late 2010, there was a failed mediation during which the highest defense offer was “maybe $100,000,” said Rogers, whose firm came aboard the following year.
The hotel defendants filed a notice that they intended to name Teemer and Jackson as at-fault nonparties under Georgia’s apportionment of liability statute. The plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment declaring the statute unconstitutional, which Mather granted in 2011.
The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the statute in deciding another case in July 2012, and in November of that year the Court of Appeals reversed Mather’s order.
Last December, the plaintiffs made the rejected offer to settle the case for $3 million.
Pugh, the manager, was dismissed with the plaintiffs’ consent.
“There was really no individual liability on her part,” Rogers said.
The case went to trial May 12, with the plaintiffs putting up 25 or 26 witnesses, Rogers said, many testifying by video deposition from Albany or Texas, where Accor is headquartered.
Key witnesses included Pugh, who had started as manager at the hotel in July 2007.
“Within a week or so, she realized there was no security on the property,” Rogers said. The company that had provided security for several hours on Friday and Saturday nights and into the early morning “just stopped showing up,” he said. Pugh said she asked her Texas superiors to provide six hours of security on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, but, citing budget concerns, they opted to provide security only on Fridays and Saturdays. Brandon Todd was killed on a Thursday night.
The jury also heard from other victims of robberies on the property and from several of the hotel defendants’ corporate officials, including Motel 6′s director of security, who testified that he had consulted with an Albany police lieutenant who advised that the three nights of security wasn’t necessary.
“He suggested that they had made this joint decision that this property only needed Friday and Saturday coverage,” said Rogers. The lieutenant, however, said he had “absolutely not” provided such advice and had only advised that he could provide off-duty officers for $21 an hour for whatever shifts the hotel requested, Rogers said.
During closing arguments, Rogers noted the defense had not put on any witnesses. Speaking of a possible dollar figure award, he told the jury that the decision not to provide security for Thursday nights had saved the hotel $126 a week. Multiplying that figure by the number of weeks since Brandon Todd’s death, then multiplying that figure by the “700 or so” Motel 6 properties in the country, Rogers silently wrote $29.8 million on a poster board.
Gunn responded that there had been no need to call any defense witnesses.
“They have not presented a single witness to say that something different should have been done … and that, if something different had been done, it would have made a difference.”
“A security officer can’t be in all places at one time,” said Gunn.
Brandon Todd died because his killers “made a conscious decision to do what they did,” he said.
After a one-week trial, Rogers said, the jury took about two hours to reach its verdict.
Rogers said his team did not speak at length with the jury, although some came over to hug their clients.
Gunn, however, said some of the panelists spoke to his colleagues afterward and told them three things helped shape their decision.
“One, they said it was a good thing that we didn’t try to put any of the blame on Brandon Todd,” Gunn said. “Two, they said there was absolutely no problem with us not putting up any witnesses because they heard from everybody they needed to. And three, they felt like we completely ignored the crime on the property. They also felt like our head of safety and security—who I thought was a fantastic witness—they thought he was little harsh, and not as sympathetic as he might have been.”
The case is Todd v. Accor North America, No. 2009EV006935.