Lawyers who’ve been fighting for nearly four years over a wrongful death case said Tuesday they reached a $6.75 million settlement just before the trial was to begin.
In March 2014, a 78-year-old man traveling through Georgia on his way to Florida exited I-75 to take a break in Marietta, according to the lawyers. As he approached a line of cars at the busy Cobb Parkway, he found he was unable to lift his foot off the accelerator. He swerved onto a grassy median, hit a deep drainage ditch, flew into the air and landed on top of a pickup truck, forcing both vehicles across two lanes of traffic and down an embankment. Anna Woodard, 25, was a passenger in the pickup driven by her father, Boris Woodard. She died after nine days in an intensive care unit. Her family hired the Law Offices of Michael Neff, including Neff, Dwayne Adams, Susan Cremer and Shane Peagler.
The Neff firm first demanded the Grange Insurance policy limit of $100,000 for the at-fault driver, Thomas Dempsey. Grange agreed to settle, but the funds did not arrive by the deadline, according to the Neff. The firm filed suit. Grange sought a declaratory judgment in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to enforce the settlement. The Neff firm won that battle, but only after appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and the Georgia Supreme Court.
Grange hired Trevor Hiestand of Waldon Adelman Castilla Hiestand & Prout. “The parties are pleased that they were able to reach an amicable solution to end this litigation on mutually agreeable terms,” Hiestand said by email Wednesday.
The case had been set for trial before Judge Richard Story on Jan. 16. But the judge was concerned that the short week with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday would not be enough for the trial. So he rescheduled for the end of the month and in the meantime ordered the parties to mediate.
They met with Gino Brogdon, a former Fulton County Superior Court judge, at Henning Mediation & Arbitration Services for six hours on Jan. 18, but they failed to reach an agreement, Neff said. As he is known to do, Brogdon kept mediating anyway. His efforts continued into his own vacation. Neff said at one point, Brogdon called him from a jazz club in New Orleans to relay another offer. Neff said that, while he appreciated the strains of a saxophone in the background, that wasn’t the offer that sealed the deal. He countered.
The figure that finally ended the litigation was significant but not excessive in a wrongful death case, Neff said. He figured a factor holding down the value was that, if the plaintiffs had received a high verdict, they’d have had to pursue a bad faith claim against Grange to collect. And that would have been particularly complicated, given Grange’s position that they tried to settle for policy limits long ago.
If the case had gone to trial, the lawyers would have likely argued over whether Dempsey should have been driving on a 1,000-mile trip for a vacation, given his age and history of health problems, Neff said.
Mostly, they would have talked about the young woman who was killed nearly four years ago. She would have just turned 29 by now, Neff said.
“The testimony from others about who Anna was as a person was the most poignant testimony I’ve heard in my career,” Neff said. “One witness testified that the world would be a better place if more people were like Anna.”