L-R Nathan Cronic and Matt Alford, Willis McKenzie LLP, LaGrange, Georgia
L-R Nathan Cronic and Matt Alford, Willis McKenzie LLP, LaGrange, Georgia ()

Matthew Alford of Willis McKenzie in LaGrange is a medical malpractice defense attorney mainly, representing doctors insured by MagMutual. He has handled some personal injury cases for plaintiffs over his 18 years of practice, but all of them settled—until this month, when he tried a car wreck case in Troup County Superior Court before Judge Jack Kirby.

“This was the first plaintiff’s case I’ve taken to a jury,” he said.

The result: a $2 million verdict for a two-and-a-half-day trial. The jury deliberated for 15 minutes. “It turned out pretty good,” Alford said Friday.

He said it was the largest personal injury verdict on record in LaGrange, where he grew up and went to high school and college before going on to law school at Mercer University.

But then this was an unusual client. David Smith II, known as D.J., was a student at Auburn University and a champion high jumper when his car was sideswiped on I-85 by Donggue Lee, a Korean national on a student visa.

The crash fractured Smith’s hip. His doctors first tried to treat the injury conservatively with physical therapy and time. He continued training despite pain and competed in the Olympics. But the pain increased later. An MRI revealed a bone chip in his hip left from a fracture that never properly healed. He needed surgery. His doctors testified that his flexibility and strength was impaired, Alford said.

Lost potential of a professional contract for international track and field performance, along with sponsorships with athletic gear makers, ignited the value of the case, as Alford told the story.

“What really resonated with this jury is D.J. was an elite world class high jumper who achieved a lot of professional achievement and results at 90 to 95 percent of his ability,” Alford said. “He can still jump, and he’s trying to train and compete, but his profession is measured in centimeters.”

The trial was set for the same week as a world championship track and field event in London, Alford said. He told the jury that, if not for the wreck, Smith would have been in London competing instead of sitting in the Troup County courthouse.

The case was tried in the county where the wreck happened instead of the location of the defendant’s residence, which was Alabama, because Lee is a Korean national, Alford said. Although Alford said this was never mentioned to the jury, court documents said Lee did not have a driver’s license.

But Lee was insured because he was driving a rental car provided by his employer, a company that supplies parts for the Kia manufacturing plant, Alford said.

David Atkinson and Eleanor Jolley of Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers in Atlanta defended Lee. Atkinson said by email, “It is our policy not to comment on pending litigation.”

Alford, who tried the case with Nathan Cronic, said the defense attorneys had indicated they would appeal, although he wishes they wouldn’t. “I hope we get it resolved so this young man can move on with his life.”

The case is Smith v. Lee, No. 14-CV-0644.