A crime-plagued DeKalb County apartment complex paid more than $14.7 million to settle claims arising from the gang-related murder of a 17-year-old girl, an arrangement that comes after a trial judge struck its liability defenses for discovery abuse.
The settlement came in response to a third and final demand for the available insurance policy limits as the case was preparing for trial in June.
“We told them they were in a terrible position, bad-faith wise, if this thing went to trial,” said Thomas Kennedy Sampson & Tompkins partner Thomas “Woody” Sampson. He noted that the insurers’ jeopardy included not only the probability of being found to have acted in bad faith by failing to settle the claims, but the possibility that a jury would levy punitive damages as well.
“Once we got deep into discovery, the details of problems at the facility, emails between the corporate representatives—this was probably the worst gang-infested property I’ve ever seen,” said Sampson, who represented the dead teen’s mother along with firm colleague Shermela Williams, Moore Law Firm principal S. Leighton Moore III and Demetra Ford of Ford Law.
The Highlands at East Atlanta Apartments and management company NuRock Management Group were represented by John McKinley and Deborah Cameron of Mozley, Finlayson & Loggins.
They were joined by a team of Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial lawyers including Mark Johnson, Jackson “Jad” Dial and Clare Zhang, who came aboard shortly before DeKalb County State Court Judge Johnny Panos entered his sanctions order striking their defenses.
Johnson said he could not comment at length.
“Leighton and Woody did a great job for their clients,” he said. “And of course everybody on our side was saddened by this tragedy and offer our sincere condolences to the plaintiff and her family.”
Sariah Wilcoxson was shot in January 2016 as she stood at a bus stop near the complex when another Highlands resident, Deandre Seabrooks, got out of a car on Flat Shoals Road and opened fire with an AK-47 rifle, according to the pleadings.
Wilcoxson, who had just gotten her GED and was about to enter military school, died just inside the complex’s property line.
Seabrooks, who had a lengthy criminal record and was a known member of the Bloods street gang, was arrested 10 days later and is serving a life sentence without parole at Smith State Prison.
A month before Wilcoxson’s murder, a 4-year-old boy was shot while riding his Big Wheel at the complex. The DeKalb Police Department also assigned an anti-gang task force to the Highlands in 2015.
According to court filings, complex employees testified that gang activity was routine. One former property manager testified to having seen “groups of young men standing about in the breezeways carrying AK-47s and AR-15s.”
“There were nine killings in the nine- or 10-month period before my client’s daughter got killed, and about 1,000 calls to DeKalb Police in the prior year,” said Sampson. “We found a 2012 video that shows a gang brandishing guns on the property.”
Sariah’s mother, Sarita Wilcoxson, sued Highlands, NuRock and their then-security contractor Counter Measures Operations Inc., or CMO, in 2017 for claims including wrongful death, premises liability, public nuisance and vicarious liability.
CMO never responded to the complaint and was declared in default.
Sampson said there was a lot of trouble getting answers, particularly to discovery requests for information about security and what the complex management knew about gang activity.
The managers said they’d fired CMO and didn’t have any contact with them. “We finally were able to discover emails that they had completely lied about gang activity and that there were actually other cases going on,” Sampson said.
Emails also showed that corporate executives had been in daily contact with the security company and engaged in extensive discussions about gangs on the property, despite claiming otherwise.
The plaintiff’s first demand in 2017 was for $15 million, which was declined.
Sampson said there was never any offer to settle, even after Panos’ sanctions order in September.
A second demand in October for $16 million also was rebuffed, and the parties attended an unsuccessful mediation.
The Georgia Court of Appeals declined to hear an appeal of Panos’ order on Feb. 15, and on Feb. 28 the plaintiff’s team sent a third demand letter for nearly $14.7 million, which Sampson said was the total coverage available from three insurance policies.
The letter gave the carriers 10 days to accept and warned that, given Panos’ sanctions order, liability “is clearly established, regardless of what other appealable issues defendants may think they have.”
An attached spreadsheet laying out assorted scenarios and damages for the deceased’s life, pain and suffering, attorney fees and potential punitive damages, showing that “even assuming a relatively modest award of $5 million for the value of Sariah Wilcoxson’s life, defendants’ assets could be exposed to more than $20 million in liability, more than $5 million beyond the remaining insurance coverage.
“We believe a DeKalb County jury will value Sariah’s life at a much greater number,” it said.
Realizing they were in “serious trouble,” the defense agreed to the terms, Sampson said. The settlement was finalized last week.
Sampson said he was gratified the case didn’t go to trial.
“We got a little worried when Mark Johnson and the Weinberg guys came on,” he said.