Lawyers for a Columbus bail-bond company are asking a judge to order a new trial or at least reduce a jury award of $600,000 to a Walmart cashier handcuffed and detained for about an hour in a case of mistaken identity.
The tab could have been higher: The jury awarded $350,000 in compensatory damages and $600,000 in punitive damages, but the judge reduced the punitives to $250,000 because the jury didn’t find specific intent to cause harm. Georgia law caps punitive damages at $250,000 unless a defendant is ruled to have acted with such intent.
The plaintiffs lawyer, David Rayfield of Columbus’ Waldrep, Mullin & Callahan, said the defendant ignored his initial settlement demand for $150,000, and only offered a “minimal” sum shortly before the case was set for trial.
Rayfield said the evidence showed that the defendant, John Law Investment Co., doing business as Ace Bonding, “had no policies and procedures to detain and identify a bonded individual,” he said.
The listed defense attorneys included J. Mark Shelnutt and William Kendrick II of Columbus’ Law Offices of J. Mark Shelnutt, but Rayfield said the trial defense was handled by Roger Sumrall and Jennifer Bellis of Atlanta’s Bendin Sumrall & Ladner. They did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Rayfield and court filings, 24-year-old Jasmine Hayes was working at Walmart in June 2014 and was in a back room with a superior when a co-manager came in with two men who asked her name.
When she told them, Ace recovery agent Tony Viggins told her stand up and turn around as her superiors looked on.
“He handcuffs her, then tries to figure out who she is,” Rayfield said.
“She gave him her name and social security number, but he didn’t believe her, and he wouldn’t let her go to her car and get her driver’s license,” Rayfield said.
The men never produced a warrant.
Hayes, a mother of two, had never been arrested and was “terrified,” he said.
After questioning Hayes some more, Viggins called the Ace office and was told that the Jasmine Hays they were looking for sported tattoos on her thighs.
Viggins asked the co-manager to have Hayes pull down her pants to check for tattoos, but the woman refused; so did a female loss protection officer.
Viggins eventually removed the handcuffs and said they were seeking a different person. The bond agents “happened to be in the area and dropped in the Walmart looking for their Jasmine Hayes without having the warrant or a mugshot,” Rayfield said.
Rayfield said Viggins claimed he didn’t remember who the second man with him was because the incident was not “unusual or memorable” enough to remain in his memory.
The defense portion of the pretrial order said that Hayes was “defiant and hostile,” screaming “I’m not giving you my fucking Social Security number,” when asked.
The defense account conceded that Viggins had asked female supervisors to see if she had the identifying tattoos the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office had said the wanted woman had.
Viggins is a certified bail bondsman whose “actions were taken in good faith and were in no way motivated by malice of ill-will,” the defense portion of the order said.
It also said Viggins was an independent contractor and Ace was therefore not liable for his actions.
When Rayfield received no response to his presuit demand, he filed suit in Muscogee County State Court, claiming false imprisonment, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
During a two-day trial before Judge Benjamin Richardson, Rayfield said evidence showed that Ace’s entire file on the Jasmine Hayes they were seeking was an index card with no photo.
“I just pointed out that this should never have happened,” Rayfield said.
He said the defense relied heavily on the assertion that Viggins was an independent contractor, “and I think that just pissed the jury off,” he said.
That issue was on the jury form, and on Sept. 21 the jury ruled that Viggins was an Ace employee and that Hayes was entitled to $350,000 in compensatory damages; after another two and a half hours, they awarded $600,000 in punitive damages.
On Oct. 12, the defense filed a motion for remittitur, judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.
The $350,000 in compensatory damages “is clearly against the weight of the evidence,” the filing said, arguing that Hayes’ “distress was largely restricted to the duration of the incident which was, at the very most, an hour to an hour and half long” and did not even prevent her from finishing her shift as cashier.
The punitive damages “are simply not authorized here” because Hayes’ only claimed injury “is to her peace, happiness and feelings,” it said.
“There is no authority in Georgia that handcuffing in and of itself constitutes an injury,” the motion said.