A Fulton County jury delivered a post-apportioned award of $3.2 million to the family of a disabled veteran who was strangled to death when his motorized wheelchair went through a railing on his apartment patio, pinning him by the throat.
The jury verdict comes a year after the apartment complex’s primary insurer settled for its policy limit of $1 million, setting the stage for the just-concluded trial in which the plaintiffs sought additional damages from the complex’s excess coverage carrier.
Lead plaintiffs attorney Thomas Reynolds said the most the defense offered to settle the case pretrial was $250,000, which rose to $1 million while the jury was deliberating.
“We turned them down,” said Reynolds, who handled the case with Reynolds Law Group colleague Isaac Tekie and Jeremy Abernathy of Marietta’s Abernathy Ditzel.
The defendants are represented by Robert Shannon Jr., David Younker and Ciera Locklair of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell’s just-opened Atlanta office.
Shannon noted that the initial verdict for $4.6 million was reduced by 30 percent of liability apportioned to the deceased, Antoine Hendrix, and said the prior $1 million settlement will be subtracted, making for an award of roughly $2.2 million.
Shannon also said his team had moved for a directed verdict on several issues and that Superior Court Judge John Goger had taken them under advisement.
“I renewed those motions after the verdict came in, and we’re contemplating filing other motions,” he said.
Shannon said he thought the case could have settled, if the plaintiffs’ demands had been more reasonable.
“I think their lowest demand was $12 million,” he said.
The case was mediated before former Fulton State Court Judge Susan Forsling with Miles Mediation & Arbitration, but the discussions “just fell apart,” Shannon said.
The accident happened in 2014 when Hendrix, 37, rolled his wheelchair onto the patio of his ground floor unit at the Hickory Falls Apartments in Villa Rica.
The patio was enclosed by two horizontal railings connected to vertical uprights, and Hendrix bumped into the lower rail, which gave way; he continued to roll and was strapped by the top rail, which did not.
The front wheels went over the lip of the patio, pinning Hendrix’s neck to the upper rail by his weight and that of the wheelchair, suffocating him.
Another resident saw Hendrix trapped and called 911, but rescuers were unable to revive him, and he died at the scene.
Hendrix was a divorced father of three who lived alone in the apartment.
A 2016 lawsuit on behalf of Hendrix’s mother and estate executor, Katrina Dobbs, his children and their guardians named defendants including Hickory Falls Apartments and the company that bought the complex after the accident, Carter-Haston Real Estate Services.
Other defendants included the city of Villa Rica, Carroll County and its development arm and several construction companies; they were dismissed without prejudice during the litigation, leaving only Hickory Falls and Carter-Haston to face the litigation.
Before suing, Reynolds had demanded Hickory Falls’ policy limits and received no initial response, he said.
In May 2017, Hickory Falls’ primary carrier paid its $1 million policy limit to get out of the case, and the plaintiffs’ team continued to litigate, seeking $25 million in excess coverage carried by Chubb Insurance.
According to Reynolds and court filings, Hendrix had complained about a loose railing that had been shoddily repaired, and he said other railings at the complex were also poorly maintained.
According to the defense portion of the pretrial order, Hendrix had a long medical and mental health history and had been rendered quadriplegic in a fall in 2007, when he was in the service.
At the time of his death, the defense account argued, Hendrix had ingested large and potentially lethal amounts of Coricidin, an over-the-counter cold remedy he “had repeatedly abused in the past.”
Hendrix, it said, likely lost consciousness and drove his wheelchair through the railing and was thus at fault for his own death.
During a five-day trial, Reynolds said his experts included psychologist and addiction specialist Todd Antin, director of Behavioral Health at DeKalb Medical Center.
Among those the defense called was neurologist and toxicology specialist Laura Tormoehlen from Indianapolis, he said.
Shannon said the approaching July 4 holiday placed additional pressure on the parties, the court and jurors, with Goger turning down some panelists who begged to be excused because they had made plans but hadn’t yet booked flights or accommodations.
“That made it difficult,” he said; “I think both sides tried to move the case faster than we wanted to.”
At closing, Reynolds said he asked for “four or five times our economic damages” of $4 million to $8 million, or $40 million.
Shannon asked for a straight defense verdict, Reynolds said.
After about six hours of deliberations over two days, on July 3 the jury returned a verdict awarding $4,608,749, and apportioning 70 percent of the liability to Carter-Haston, 30 percent to Hendrix and none to Hickory Falls Apartments.
After apportionment, the total award for Hendrix was $3,226,124.
Reynolds said that, in posttrial conversation, jurors “said they didn’t understand that they were allowed to consider noneconomic damages, and there was some debate about that when they went back.”
Shannon said he also spoke to several of the panelists, including one who said the case “might have turned out differently if they’d had more time.”