A Carroll County jury has awarded more than $11.8 million to a Westminster man whose car was rear-ended by a repeat drunk driver in August 2007 and who developed a painful and debilitating nerve condition that has largely confined him to a wheelchair.
After a week-and-a-half of trial before retired Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Lawrence R. Daniels, members of the jury panel cried Friday afternoon as they delivered their eight-figure verdict for Michael Wayne Harris and his wife, Connie, according to their lead attorney Robert J. Weltchek.
Jurors disagreed with arguments offered by insurance defense attorneys representing Stephanie A. Richardson that the accident, which did little damage to the cars, was not the cause of Harris’ reflex sympathetic dystrophy years after the fact, the plaintiffs’ attorney said.
“The jury not only disagreed but they gave much more money than we asked for — they gave three times what we asked for,” Weltchek said, adding that sheriffs and other courthouse employees had never heard of such an expensive jury verdict in “very conservative” Carroll County.
Defense attorneys Mark R. Brown, representing State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. through its in-house counsel, H. Barritt Peterson Jr. & Associates, and Charles M. Kerr, of Kerr & McDonald LLP, did not immediately return calls for comment Friday afternoon. Kerr represented Brethren Mutual Insurance Co.
The defendant’s combined policy limit was $1.3 million, Weltchek said, but the defense attorneys made no pretrial offer.
“They refused to do that, so now they’re on the hook for the whole thing,” he said.
Weltchek said the jury awarded approximately $2.6 million for Harris’ future medical expenses, $800,000 for his past and future lost wages, and $256,000 for home modification.
The jury’s awards for Harris’ noneconomic damages — $5.6 million — and the effect of the accident on his marital sexual relationship — $2.5 million — will likely be subject to the state’s cap on such damages. But Weltchek refused to concede that the eye-popping verdict could be substantially reduced.
“We are going to vigorously contest the reduction and we believe we have an argument that is unique,” he said.
On the afternoon of Aug. 28, 2007, Harris, then a landscaper for Red Hill Lawn Service Inc., was stopped at the intersection of Baltimore Boulevard and Malcolm Drive when Richardson hit him from behind.
What the jury did not hear is that Richardson fled the scene and, when she was finally stopped, failed two field sobriety tests and was booked for DUI, according to the Harrises’ suit. Richardson had a history of DUI before her run-in with Harris and was convicted of a separate DUI not even a week after the Harris accident, according to the suit.
The 61-year-old defendant did not testify at trial, which started on May 31. Michael Wayne Harris testified over the course of three days, Weltchek said, and four medical experts buttressed his case, as opposed to one for the defendant.
Weltchek, who tried the case with his son and other lawyers from their Lutherville firm, described Harris, who has an 18-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son, as “the salt of the earth.” The 48-year-old plaintiff once enjoyed his motorcycle, hunting and fishing, Weltchek said, but, thanks to his misfiring nerves, now suffers sweats and chills simultaneously and has to wear special clothing so as not to irritate his skin. He hasn’t driven or worked since the accident.
“The family really stuck together through such a tremendously difficult time,” said Weltchek’s son and law partner, Nolan. “The jury ultimately fell in love with these people.”
MICHAEL WAYNE HARRIS, ET AL. V. STEPHANIE ANN RICHARDSON
Carroll County Circuit
Lawrence R. Daniels
Event: Aug. 28, 2007
Suit filed: March 25, 2009
Verdict: June 10, 2011
Robert J. Weltchek, Kip A. Mallahan, Nolan J. Weltchek and Nathan Hopkins of Weltchek, Mallahan & Weltchek LLC.
Mark R. Brown of H. Barritt Peterson Jr. & Associates; Charles M. Kerr of Kerr McDonald LLP.
Negligence and loss of consortium.