A woman who claimed to have incurred more than $300,000 in medical bills after a truck backed into her car walked out of a DeKalb County courtroom with nothing after defense testimony showed that she swapped out the scarcely damaged car before police arrived with another that had been wrecked years earlier.
Adding to her credibility problems was testimony from her doctors that she’d been complaining about back pain for years even though she said in depositions that she’d never been in a wreck or suffered any injuries, said defense lawyer G. Lee Welborn of Marietta’s Downey & Cleveland.
“This started off as a plaintiffs attorney’s dream case,” said Welborn.
“You’ve got clear liability after a box truck backed into a pregnant woman’s car, the driver for a corporate defendant left the scene before police arrived, the woman loses her baby and has two back surgeries and $330,000 in medical bills plus pain and suffering,” said Welborn.
“The only problem was that a previously wrecked car showed up on the scene and she said she’d been driving it at the time,” he said.
The troubled case lasted nearly 11 years and involved multiple plaintiffs lawyers before it got to trial.
Atlanta solo Jackie Patterson, who came aboard a few weeks before trial, conceded that jurors likely didn’t believe that plaintiff Nicole Mathis’ injuries were the result of the collision as she claimed.
“She’d had several lawyers before me and was basically pleading for help,” said Patterson.
Paraphrasing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, in which King rhetorically asked why he felt called to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Patterson said he felt obligated to take the case.
“I realized the question was not ‘If I help her, what will happen to me?’ but ‘If I don’t help her, what will happen to her?’” Patterson said.
Patterson said he didn’t foresee any post-trial motions or appeal “because I no longer represent her. My role ended with the jury verdict.”
The case began in 2011 when Mathis, then 30, was leaving work at Swift Transportation and was behind a box truck in a driveway.
An 18-wheeler was trying to enter the driveway, and the box truck driver backed up to make room and struck Mathis’ car.
The box truck driver, Mickey Mitchell, got out and spoke to Mathis, who said she was not injured and did not want to call the police because her car had suffered no damage.
“My driver said, ‘I know there’s no damage and you’re saying you don’t need the police, but here’s my name and number anyway,’” said Welborn. “Then he left the scene.”
At some point Mathis’ sister arrived in another car.
“She didn’t remember what kind but she said it was orange. She was very adamant about that,” said Welborn.
A police officer did arrive, and Mathis told him she had been driving a gold Mercury Sable, which had obviously suffered some damage from a collision.
Unfortunately for Mathis, a co-worker also leaving at the same time stopped to see if she was OK, and clearly remembered that she was driving a white Chevrolet Impala.
“He was certain because she parked next to him every day,” said Welborn.
He also heard Mathis say she didn’t want the police called because she was uninjured, Welborn said.
During discovery, Mathis testified that she’d never been in a car accident before and had never undergone surgery.
In fact, said Welborn, Mathis had been in two accidents, including one in 2001 after which her doctor “for some reason recorded in his notes that she’d been in a Mercury Sable.”
Mathis was expecting a baby, and shortly after the incident she miscarried, Welborn said.
Mathis originally sued Mitchell’s employer, JCS Enterprises, in Spalding County then refiled in DeKalb County in 2015.
In 2016, Mathis’ prior counsel filed a statutory offer of settlement demanding $750,000. Welborn offered $1,000 to resolve the case.
Superior Court Judge Asha Jackson denied Patterson’s request for a continuance last month, and also nixed a motion to withdraw he filed five days before trial.
During a four-day trial, Welborn said he presented testimony from an orthopedic surgeon who had treated Mathis for lower back pain after the 2001 wreck and a chiropractor she had seen, and from a family friend who testified that Mathis had ongoing back problems.
Jackson did not allow evidence about the miscarriage to come in after her OB/GYN deposed that the accident had nothing to with it, Welborn said.
Mathis maintained throughout that she had been driving the Sable and didn’t recall the earlier accidents, he said.
Her sister wasn’t much help either, giving varying accounts of when she arrived at the scene and who was present, Welborn said.
In closing, Welborn said Patterson asked for $600,000 in damages.
After four days of trial the jury took about three hours to find for the defense, he said.
Mathis and Patterson left promptly, Welborn said, but the jury met with him as a group to discuss the case.
“Believe it or not, they actually carefully considered the medical evidence notwithstanding the falsehoods she had testified to from the witness stand,” he said.
“I have to say Jackie Patterson handled that sticky situation as well as it could be handled, ethically and professionally,” Welborn said. “He argued the parts of the case that he could, but did not try to argue everything claimed by his client.”
Patterson was similarly complimentary.
“I thought Lee Welborn was extremely skillful and very prepared,” he said. “I knew I was fighting an uphill battle, but I felt like she deserved her day in court.”