James Merritt Jr., Vernis & Bowling, Atlanta. (Courtesy photo) James Merritt Jr., Vernis & Bowling, Atlanta. (Courtesy photo)

A man hurt in a car accident asked a Brunswick jury for 10 million dollars in damages. The other side said maybe $20,000 would be fair. The verdict was $2,500.

Defense attorney James Merritt Jr. of Vernis & Bowling in Atlanta talked to the Daily Report about how he did that.

To start with, he put on a Seersucker suit and bow tie. That, he allowed, would offset his concern about possible home cooking for a city lawyer in front of a Glynn County Superior Court jury. When he posted his selfie on Instagram, his friends said he looked like Ben Matlock, Andy Griffith’s never-losing fictional TV lawyer.

He made sure the jurors knew he had cousins whom he had visited often across the bridge on St. Simons Island where the accident happened. He did that simply by asking them to be sure they didn’t know his cousins or that, if they did, they wouldn’t be biased because of it.

To be honest, Merritt acknowledged, he got lucky with the verdict form the other side requested. The form separated damages into two categories to reflect the claim that the wreck caused spinal injuries requiring pain medicine—which in turn led to kidney trouble, dialysis and the need for a transplant.

“I think he lost all credibility on the kidney damages,” Merritt said of his opponent, Robert Killian of the Killian Law Firm in Brunswick.

Killian could not be reached for comment.

Merritt described Killian as “a Brunswick icon.” He formerly practiced with his father, who became a judge. He now practices with his daughter, Bonnie Turner.

“He’s a class act,” Merritt said of Killian. “It was a privilege to try a case against such a seasoned lawyer.”

Merritt figures that, if Killian had left the kidney problems out of the equation, the jury might have awarded up to $300,000 for the spinal injuries. But instead, the jury took just 30 minutes—half of which was spent electing a foreman—to return a verdict of zero for the kidney damages and $2,500 for all “non-kidney related matters.”

The whole trial before Brunswick Judicial Circuit Judge Stephen Kelley was over in 3½ days.

It also helped Merritt that his 82-year-old client, Judith Smith, is “just the most lovable grandmother-type of person,” he said. She and her husband of 63 years are longtime St. Simons Island residents. She admitted the wreck was her fault. She pulled in front of plaintiff Reginald Tucker. “And I shouldn’t have,” she said.

But Merritt noticed something when Killian was cross-examining her. The more he tried to press her on why she hadn’t called Tucker to check on him afterward, the less pleased the faces in the jury box looked.

She said she didn’t realize he was even hurt. He seemed fine afterward. Neither vehicle had much damage. She wasn’t hurt. And she didn’t hear anything else about it until he sued her two years later. She was shocked.

“I almost objected, but then I saw the jurors were not responding well to that question,” Merritt said.

For his part, Merritt said he tried to be very gentle cross-examining Tucker, even while bringing up inconsistencies in his testimony compared to his deposition. Though Tucker said the accident caused his kidney failure, his own doctors disclosed that he had kidney failure before, Merritt said.

“I’ve learned the hard way a couple of times not to be a bully,” Merritt said. So instead of taking a confrontational tone, he used the “I’m confused” and “just trying to understand” approach. Merritt said he offered $500,000 to settle on the Friday before the trial, but the answer was no. On Saturday evening, he offered $750,000.

“They said they wouldn’t settle if I offered them a million dollars,” Merritt said. “I’m framing that email, along with the verdict.”

The case is Tucker v. Smith, No. CE17-00846.