On January 26, 2018, the Law Office of Michael Neff, P.C. agreed to settle the case of Woodard v. Dempsey, which was set to begin trial on Monday, January 29 before Judge Richard Story in the Northern District of Georgia.
The case involved a March 20, 2014 car wreck in Marietta, Georgia. Thomas Dempsey, a 78-year-old man from Ohio, was driving through Atlanta on the way to Florida and had to use the restroom. When he exited off of Cobb Parkway in Marietta and approached a line of stopped cars, Dempsey testified that he could not move his foot off of the accelerator.
Dempsey swerved his SUV into a grassy median where it accelerated and hit a deep drainage ditch, causing the car to go airborne. Dempsey’s SUV landed on top of a pickup truck driven by Boris Woodard with his 25-year-old daughter, Anna, in the passenger seat. The force of the impact forced both vehicles across two lanes of traffic and down and embankment.
Dempsey was charged with vehicular homicide, driving too fast for conditions, and failure to maintain lane. He eventually surrendered his license and entered a negotiated plea of failure to maintain lane. Boris was injured, and Anna remained in intensive care for 9 days before succumbing to her injuries. Partner Dwayne Adams recalled, “The testimony we heard was that Anna’s funeral was attended by the widest cross-section of our community imaginable – many who shared stories of Anna’s impressive character and service to others.”
Even though Dempsey’s insurer, Grange Mutual Casualty Company, was aware of the crash and the injuries, the company did not preemptively tender its policy limits of $50,000/$100,000. Thus, Shane Peagler from the Neff firm sent a time-limited settlement demand that required Grange to pay within 10 days of acceptance.
On the day the demand was to expire, Grange sent a written acceptance, but the funds did not arrive within ten days. The Neff firm filed suit, and Grange filed a declaratory judgment asserting that a settlement had occurred. Rich Dolder and Jay Sadd from Slappey & Sadd were retained to defend the declaratory judgment. The Woodards obtained favorable appellate rulings from both the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Georgia finding that no settlement had occurred.
A hotly disputed issue in this case was whether Mr. Dempsey’s medical problems should have put him on notice that he should not be driving across the country. Partner Susan Cremer’s exhaustive review of Dempsey’s medical history uncovered evidence that Mr. Dempsey had numbness and tingling in his feet for years prior to the wreck and that he had been diagnosed with polymyositis, an autoimmune condition. Dempsey’s use of a lift chair, a cane, and notes in medical records about the use of a walker were important in assessing liability.
The medical records reflected that Mr. Dempsey had fallen multiple times in the years preceding the fall. Michael Neff noted, “This wasn’t a case about driving a mile down the road for groceries or medicine. It was a 1,000 mile trip to go on a vacation.”
The Neff team also sought out testimony from people who knew Anna. Neff recalled, “The testimony from others about who Anna was as a person was the most poignant testimony I’ve heard in my career. One witness testified that the world would be a better place if more people were like Anna. That is the most impressive tribute I can imagine.”
Two weeks prior to trial, the Court ordered the parties to mediation. After a snow day cancellation, Gino Brogdon mediated the case on January 18. The case did not resolve at mediation, but Mr. Brogdon continued mediating between the Parties during his subsequent vacation. Neff noted, “Not many people can productively continue mediation negotiations from a jazz club in New Orleans. Maybe he should pipe in saxophone music for future mediations.”
The case resolved just before trial. Neff noted, “I believe Grange recognized the risks associated with allowing a jury to put a number on the value of Anna’s life and chose to offer an amount acceptable to the family. We are pleased that there can be some closure for the parties.”
The Woodards were represented by Michael Neff, Dwayne Adams, Susan Cremer, and Shane Peagler of the Law Offices of Michael Neff. Wayne Melnick of Freeman Mathis & Gary represented Thomas Dempsey. Grange hired Trevor Hiestand to represent its interests.
For more information, read reporting on the case from the Daily Report: