Hasty Pope partner Jonathan Pope said the defense maintained throughout the litigation that his client suffered no injuries, only to agree at the beginning of trial that the woman was hurt in the wreck.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, this is some brilliant trial strategy, you’ve really caught me off guard,’” said Pope.
“But the law says you’re not allowed to introduce evidence to contradict your own binding admission,” he said. “I got up and said, ‘Why are we here? The defense denied any injury whatsoever up to now.’”
Pope credited defense attorney Kristie Fitzgerald of State Farm Insurance’s in-house counsel, Lynn Leonard & Associates, with doing a good job with the case she had.
“I give her credit,” said Pope. “This was a very serious case, but relatively routine for a motor vehicle case. I had asked for $2.5 million to $3 million in damages.
Fitzgerald did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The accident occurred in 2014 in Alpharetta when Donna Harry was turning at a stoplight. A Chevy TrailBlazer driven by Marica Matasic ran the light and hit Harry’s Honda Odyssey, knocking it into another vehicle.
Pope said Matasic admitted she hit Harry’s car doing about 45 mph, and there was evidence she was using her cellphone just before the wreck.
Harry, then 49, was “banged up” initially, but then started losing strength in her dominant left hand, Pope said. Her doctors determined she had an injury to her ulnar nerve, which runs from the neck to the hand.
She underwent surgery but continues to have pain radiating into her fingers, and is unable to fully use her hand, Pope said.
Harry sued Matasic in Gwinnett County State Court in 2016.
The initial investigation indicated there was $250,000 in coverage through State Farm, and Pope made a time-limited Holt demand for the policy limits.
“State Farm did not formally respond, then stopped responding at all,” said Pope. “We couldn’t get them on the phone.”
Further inquiries revealed additional coverage of more than $1 million between Harry and Matasic’s policies, Pope said.
“After the policy discovery, they asked to go to mediation,” said Pope. “By then we were all feeling a little pushed. They offered $40,000 at mediation, and we pretty much felt we were going to have to try the case.”
State Farm offered to settle for $400,000 shortly before trial was set to start in March before Gwinnett County State Court Chief Judge Pamela South, Pope said.
“We just felt like she wasn’t able to use her hand, she can’t put on jewelry or comb her hair. These are permanent, life-changing injuries,” he said, and the offer was denied.
The only expert testimony was from Harry’s health providers, Pope said. The defense did not call any witnesses.
The jury awarded $1.2 million after three days of trial.
Pope then made an oral motion for damages under O.C.G.A. S ection 9-11-68(e), which provides for a separate hearing to determine if “frivolous claims or defense were asserted” by the opposing party.
During a second “minitrial,” Pope said he explained to the jury that “if they had just admitted Ms. Harry was injured from the beginning, it would have made this whole process easier.”
Pope said he and Hasty Pope colleague Dustin Davies produced evidence of their fee agreement, hours worked and expenses, and the jury came back the following morning to award $506,000 in damages.
Pope said he did not speak to the jurors at any length.
“They were all pretty much ready to get out of there,” he said.