Verdicts of 2000
Police Negligence Nets $5.25M Verdict
No Independent Investigation & Extensive Use Of Exhibits Credited
Kelly A. McCauley
How do you win a multi-million dollar verdict in an auto negligence case that involves the police?
First, start with a "perfect" plaintiff. Add startling photos of the accident scene, bolstered with graphic testimony from witnesses. Mix in a not-so-likeable defendant. Then sit back, relax and let the jury do the rest.
Sounds easy, right? Not exactly.
Bingham Farms attorneys Marcia B. McClure and Henry Langberg credited much more than this for helping them secure a $5.25 million judgment -- the fourth largest verdict reported to Lawyers Weekly in 2000 -- against the Detroit Police Department for an accident which resulted in the death of a pedestrian.
The attorneys spent more than two years preparing their case against the police, with McClure musing that it "almost felt like a child -- and you always do what's best for your child."
So with that thought foremost in their minds, the duo made a strategic decision to become a trio: they augmented their ranks with tough-as-nails trial attorney Geoffrey Fieger.
Langberg was eager to have Fieger join their team, calling him "an exceptional trial attorney."
McClure agreed, noting that attorneys must always do what's right for the client and the case, and "put the ego aside."
"If there's an attorney out there who you believe can help you do what's best, then you build the team that's best for your case," McClure asserted. "Geoff took the work we had done over two years and cut straight to the important matters."
Those important matters included testimony from the Detroit Police Department which indicated that no formal investigation was undertaken regarding the incident or the officer who was driving when the pedestrian was hit.
"What the officer's superior said almost exactly mirrored what the officer said in his statement," McClure commented. "There was no questioning [of the officer] the superior just parroted what the officer said."
Those reports, according to Langberg, were one of the "most effective" pieces of evidence presented at trial.
"Geoff Fieger had those two reports the officer's statement and the supervisor's statement blown up," Langberg explained. "The supervisor's statement wasn't a verbatim recount of the officer's statement, but it was plain to the jury that there was no independent investigation done by the department."
Wanda Cottrell was a 39-year-old librarian and graduate student. She and her fiancé, who lived at the northeast corner of Riopelle and Jefferson in the City of Detroit, planned a trip to the store on a Saturday night.
As they attempted to cross East Jefferson, they were struck by a vehicle driven by a Detroit police officer. Cottrell was thrown several feet, while her fiancé went through the windshield of the car. Both Cottrell and her fiancé were knocked out of their shoes by the force.
Cottrell eventually lost consciousness at the accident scene and lapsed into a coma for 25 days. She died as a result of the massive brain injuries she sustained.
According to attorneys, witnesses at the scene testified that the police officer was traveling at a high rate of speed in the center lane without emergency flashers or sirens. Accident reconstructionists -- including those hired by the Detroit Police Department -- estimated the officer's speed to have been approximately 45 mph.
The officer claimed he was pursuing a car that made a U-turn in traffic. He alleged that, as he was traveling down the center lane, the plaintiff and her fiancé darted out in front of the police car. The officer also claimed he used his four-way hazard lights, but no emergency signals (either sirens or flashing lights).
A Wayne County Circuit Court jury returned a verdict against the Detroit Police Department of $7 million less 25 percent comparative negligence, for a total of $5.25 million.
The defendant has since filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), remittitur and a new trial.
McClure and Langberg told Lawyers Weekly they did "everything right" in this case, which they said was "unusual."
"That never happens," McClure laughed.
Moreover, they said time was on their side. Because they got on the case quickly, McClure said they found witnesses who were in front of and behind the officer the night of the accident.
"They all agreed about what they saw and what really happened," McClure commented.
According to McClure, the officer testified that Cottrell and her fiancé "darted out" in front of him. But apparently this didn't stand up to eyewitness testimony, as one witness said he had passed Cottrell and her fiancé standing in the center lane before the officer showed up.
"How could they have 'darted out' in front of the officer if they were already in the center lane?" asked McClure. "That's simply not true. But even if it were, sirens and lights would have stopped somebody from running out."
Further, McClure added that pedestrians have a "certain expectation" when crossing a street and waiting in the center lane: "You don't expect cars to be driving down that lane, let alone speeding."
According to McClure and Langberg, time is of the essence in any case and, if you file suit quickly, evidence is less likely to be lost or destroyed and witnesses' recollections are fresher.
"We immediately filed suit and were able to get the police dispatch tapes and saw the police car that was involved in the accident," McClure explained. "Also, we were able to contact several witnesses quickly before their memories faded or became unclear."
Also essential to the effective case presentation was the use of exhibits and photographs at trial, McClure noted.
"We presented a picture book to the jury rather than a lecture," McClure stated. "It really came alive for them."
Langberg echoed these sentiments, saying that no expense was spared in preparing the photographs and "blow ups" for trial.
"We had blow ups of the accident scene, statutes relevant to the case, the almost identical police reports, as well as family photographs," Langberg explained. "I've never seen a case where exhibits were used so extensively."
McClure and Langberg indicated that an appeal has been filed.
When asked the basis for the appeal, McClure quipped, "The usual Geoff Fieger tried this case and won, so let's appeal."
Langberg agreed, saying the appeal is "very broad."
Moreover, he said one argument the defense will probably present is that Fieger said "Godspeed" at trial and therefore "violated the jury's rights" against establishing religion.
"There are two ways to handle an appeal the shotgun approach where you throw everything out and hope something hits, or you go with the strengths of your case," Langberg said. "We presented a good, clean straightforward case."
However, both McClure and Langberg are confident the verdict will withstand all aspects of the appeal.
McClure claimed the defendant "always underestimated and undervalued" the loss of the plaintiff.
Moreover, Langberg said even though they were allowed to present plenty of evidence, there was "no harmful error."
And while "my gut tells me that the verdict won't be overturned," Langberg offered this cautionary advice: "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched."