Matthew Bobo of Fort Worth knew it would be legally and emotionally difficult to represent the parents and estate of murder victim Melanie Goodwin, the 19-year-old University of North Texas undergraduate whose body was discovered four hours after she purchased chocolate milk and Cheetos at a convenience store.

He knew Denton County jurors usually decide “conservatively.” And he had known Goodwin since she was 6 years old; his wife worked with her mother, Peggy Goodwin, for more than a decade.

Among other things, Bobo’s clients alleged premises liability in their suit against QuickTrip Corp., which owned the store where their daughter met her killer.

About the trial, Bobo says, “It had more of an emotional impact than I thought that it would. Putting her parents on the stand, talking about what happened. But in the same vein, I really wanted to present the best case I possibly could, and that was a little extra motivation.”

On Sept. 29, after a five-day trial before 393rd District Judge Doug Robison in Denton and 12 hours of deliberations, plaintiffs Peggy Goodwin and her husband Glenn, for themselves and on behalf of their daughter’s estate, won an $8.6 million jury verdict.

On Oct. 3, the Goodwins filed a motion for final judgment. If approved at a hearing scheduled Oct. 20, the proposed judgment would award more than $2.3 million in damages, prejudgment interest and costs from QuickTrip.

The discrepancy between the verdict and the proposed judgment exists because the jury charge asked about the convicted murderer’s liability, even though the Goodwins had not named him as a defendant, says Bobo. The jury divided the liability for the negligence that caused the occurrence: 71 percent for the killer, 28 percent for QuickTrip and 1 percent for Melanie Goodwin.

Bobo notes that the Goodwins’ case is the first premises liability case that involves the criminal acts of a third party to go to verdict since the Texas Supreme Court decision in April 2010 in Del Lago Partners, Inc. et al v. Bradley Smith . In Del Lago , the court upheld a $1.48 million award based on premises liability involving third-party criminal acts.

According to the QuickTrip’s outside lawyer, Donna Peavler of The Peavler Group in Dallas, the company plans to file a motion seeking a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. In that motion, Peavler says, QuickTrip will argue that the evidence is legally insufficient to support foreseeability and causation.

According to the fourth amended petition filed on Aug. 10, 2010, in Glenn Goodwin, et. al. v. QuickTrip Corp., Melanie Goodwin stopped by a QuickTrip on Interstate Highway 35 in Denton for the snack in September 2007. The hour before Goodwin entered the store, the petition alleges, Ernesto Pina Reyes had started loitering and telling a store clerk that he had been kicked out of his house for beating his brother, had warrants out for his arrest and had broken his girlfriend’s phone.

On Feb. 27, 2008, 282nd District Judge Andy Chatham in Dallas, following a jury’s finding, entered a conviction of capital murder against Reyes, who had pleaded not guilty, and sentenced him to life without parole. The 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas affirmed Reyes’ conviction in March, and his appeal is pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Adam Seidel, a Dallas solo and Reyes’ appellate lawyer, says the civil litigation has little bearing on his client’s appeal.

Bobo says a security camera from the store captured the encounter Goodwin had with her killer, as well as that which Reyes had with the store clerk before Goodwin came in. In the fourth amended petition, the plaintiffs made a premises liability claim, among others, against QuickTrip.

In an amended answer filed on Aug. 5, QuickTrip denied the allegations, stated that Reyes’ criminal act had been solely responsible for Goodwin’s death, and alleged that the college girl may have failed to use “the care and caution of a reasonable person.”

In an email, Peavler writes she “believes the verdict shows the jury could not view the situation objectively given their knowledge of the horrific result.” Peavler also believes “this case is readily distinguishable” from Del Lago.

Writes Peavler, “While the QT clerk knew Reyes had exhibited minor domestic violence against his brother and girlfriend, the parties’ retired FBI violent-crime experts agreed that neither they nor anyone else reasonably could have foreseen he would rape and kill a complete stranger. And unlike in Del Lago , Reyes exhibited no aggressive or violent tendencies while on QT property, and there is no evidence that any crime or injuries occurred on QT property. Most of the jurors stated they believed Melanie voluntarily gave Reyes a ride.”

Bobo remains happy about the verdict and confident the trial court will issue the judgment he has sought. He says, “These cases, premises liability cases, are difficult, as it is when it involves the acts of a criminal third party. For the jury to hold [QuickTrip Corp.] to such a percentage as they did is significant.”

To suggest a Litigator of the Week,email cmcgushin@alm.com.

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