A Fulton County jury awarded $1.9 million to a pedestrian struck by a car and pinned to a utility pole as he waited to cross Peachtree Road in Buckhead in November 2016.
Plaintiffs attorney Matthew Dwyer said the defense offered to settle the case for $700,000 earlier this year, and upped the offer to $1.1 million shortly before trial.
“We said we’d discuss something between that and our offer of $1.8 million, but they said, ‘Nope, we’re going for $1.1 million, and we won’t negotiate,’” said Dwyer, who tried the case with originating lawyer William Bird and Bird Law Group colleague Paul Hotchkiss.
Dwyer faulted the defendant’s insurer, State Farm, for what he said were “ridiculous” negotiations over a case involving a pedestrian with major injuries, but praised opposing counsel Hilliard Castilla and Matthew Hurst of Waldon Adelman Castilla Hiestand & Prout.
“Hilliard did wonders to keep this judgment down,” Dwyer said. “I really felt it was worth $3 million-plus. He was very effective.”
Castilla said he knew going in the case would be tricky.
“This was a case with injuries deemed serious by [the defendant’s] treating physician, so we knew they would be able to obtain a plaintiff’s verdict,” Castilla said. Given the high medical costs and injuries, “it was just a matter of what the jury thought the alleged injuries and pain and suffering were worth.”
“It was a highly contested case, and we do think there may be some grounds for an appeal. No decision on that has been made at this time,” he said.
A co-defendant driver who was cleared of liability—whom Dwyer said was not at fault but was named in the suit to avoid an “empty chair” at the defense table—was represented by Victoria Shaw of Marietta’s Downey & Cleveland.
“We are extremely pleased with the jury’s verdict,” said Shaw in an email. “We think they did the right thing by finding no fault on behalf of my client, Ms. Luong.”
According to Dwyer and court filings, Michael Votta, 66, was waiting to cross the street to Christ the King Cathedral when a northbound Toyota Rav4 driven by Jacob Goldberg crossed the southbound lanes as he turned into the Park Place condominiums.
“Goldberg almost made it,” Dwyer said, but a southbound Porsche driven by Phuong Luong clipped the rear of his car, spinning it and pinning Votta to a metal utility pole.
Votta suffered a fractured pelvis and fractures to his left tibia and fibula, along with lesser injuries.
Votta was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, where he underwent surgery. He was later taken to Emory University Hospital for two weeks of rehab. He was confined to a bed for several weeks more, and was unable to walk for more than three months after the accident.
Atlanta police cited Goldberg for failure to yield, but that evidence was excluded at trial, Dwyer said.
Bird said Votta, an old friend, contacted him for assistance, and Bird enlisted Dwyer. The pair have collaborated on each other’s cases for about 40 years.
Votta sued Goldberg and Luong in Fulton County State Court last year. Dwyer said they pushed to get the case on a trial calendar as soon as possible, but State Farm wanted to mediate.
During a mediation before Tom Harper of Bay Mediation & Arbitration, Dwyer said the insurer never came close to what his side was seeking. Finally, he said, Harper came up with what he thought was a reasonable figure.
“It was significantly less than what we ended up with at trial, but we basically said ‘yes’ and they said ‘no,’” he said.
Trial started before Judge Patsy Porter on May 7, and wrapped up two days later.
“It’s unbelievable to try a case that fast, and it’s a tribute to Judge Porter,” Dwyer said. “She issues very prompt rulings, and she hates to keep a jury waiting.”
According to the defense portion of the pretrial order, Goldberg’s counsel claimed Luong caused the accident by hitting his vehicle, while Luong’s defense was that Goldberg turned in front of her.
There were no outside experts, Dwyer said, and the bulk of the testimony was by Votta’s treating medical providers.
Dwyer said he suggested in closings that the jury award $3 million and, if the panel found any liability on Luong’s part, “we said maybe 3 or 4 percent in comparative fault.”
Late in the afternoon of May 9, the jury took about an hour and 15 minutes to find Goldberg 100 percent liable, Dwyer said. They awarded $1,918,033, including $1.3 million for general damages, $180,000 for Votta’s knee surgery and $438,033 in fees and expenses.
Dwyer said the jury came back around 7 p.m. He was unable to speak with the jurors since they immediately left to catch the last shuttle.