Chuck Williams

Atlanta defense attorney is common thread in two large Columbus jury verdicts

It is always interesting to connect the dots. You never really know what you will get.

Take Muscogee County State Court, for example.

On Monday, a State Court jury brought back a record $26 million medical malpractice verdict against St. Francis Hospital and one of its employee physicians, Dr. Erik Westerlund. The jury, after about five hours of deliberations, determined that Westerlund was completely responsible for injuries suffered by a 58-year-old Columbus woman who sought treatment in the hospital’s emergency room after suffering complications from neck surgery.

On Sept. 21, another State Court jury returned a $950,000 verdict against a Columbus bail bonding company in a case of mistaken identity. The jury awarded Jasmine Hayes $350,000 in compensatory damages and $600,000 in punitive damages against John F. Law, doing business as Ace Bonding Co.

Though the cases appear to be vastly different, there was one common denominator between the two — other than they were tried in front of Judge Ben Richardson. That link is Atlanta civil defense attorney Roger S. Sumrall.

Sumrall, a partner in Bendon Sumrall & Lander LLC, was the defense attorney in both cases. Sumrall has nearly 30 years of civil defense work in Georgia and is a cum laude graduate of Duke University and a graduate of Emory Law School.

That’s a nice resume.

But he has had a rough fall in Muscogee County. He has been on the receiving end of the two largest jury verdict awards in State Court this year and they came less than three months apart.

You want to talk about someone who had a couple of long drives back to the big city and his office at One Midtown Plaza on Peachtree Street Northeast this year.

Sumrall didn’t respond Friday afternoon to an interview request.

Columbus Attorney David Rayfield of Waldrep Mullin & Callahan LLC was the lead counsel in the verdict against Ace Bonding. His client, Hayes, was working at the Walmart on Gateway Road in June 2014 when a bounty hunter entered the store looking for a “Jasmine Hayes,” who was wanted on a child cruelty charge.

The only identification the bail bondsman had was the name and that the woman was a black. He handcuffed the woman in an office while her managers watched. It took between 45 minutes and an hour and a half for the bounty hunter to determine he had the wrong “Jasmine Hayes,” according to testimony in front of Richardson.

“I thought Mr. Sumrall did a good job in our case, but he nor his client seemed to realize how reprehensible the conduct was and the extent of the injuries that our client suffered,” Rayfield said on Friday. “And it seems like that may have happened again.”

It has to be noted that both losses were tough cases for Sumrall to defend. And the verdicts seem to back that up.

Lloyd Bell, an Atlanta trial attorney with Bell Law Firm, said you should probably not read too much into the fact that Sumrall was hit big twice in the same county in a short period of time. Bell represented Sandra Williams, the woman who successfully sued St. Francis Hospital.

“A lawyer is only as good as his facts,” Bell said on Friday.

One of the things worth noting is that Sumrall did not have a Columbus attorney sitting with him during in either trial. In the bail bonding case, Sumrall came into the case in May of this year when it appeared to be headed for trial. Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt was the initial firm representing Ace Bonding Co., according to court records. William Kendrick, who works with Shelnutt and primarily does criminal defense work, was present during questioning of potential jurors but not involved in the trial.

In the St. Francis case, there was not a Columbus firm involved in the 11-day trial.

While there is nothing that requires out-of-town attorneys to associate local lawyers, it is a common practice. Just as in athletics, there can sometimes be a home-field advantage in a courtroom and out-of-town firms will hire local lawyers to negate that advantage.

Take the bail bonding company case. In a community the size of Atlanta, the case of mistaken identity, while unfortunate and preventable, may not have seemed to be as big a deal because there are so many people there.

In Columbus, a much smaller place that come consider the world’s largest cul-de-sac, that case of mistaken identity and the embarrassment it caused in the workplace might be perceived to be more damaging by a jury.

Lawyers, like relief pitchers, sometimes need a short memory. That said, Sumrall would probably like to forget his trips to Columbus in 2017.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams