Dr. Angela Ashley "knows more about the human brain in her thumbnail than all of us in this courtroom put together!" Keenan Nix says in his closing argument against Papa John's.
How does a jury shown no more than $225,000 in past medical expenses—no future lost wages, no future medical expenses—return an $11 million verdict in a traumatic brain injury trial?
Expert testimony. Or, more specifically, one expert’s testimony, according to Morgan & Morgan’s Keenan Nix, who spoke with CVN after the eight-figure verdict against Papa John's Pizza.
“We positioned the case around Dr. Angela Ashley,” Nix said of the Atlanta neurologist whose testimony formed a centerpiece at trial against the pizza giant for the lifelong brain injuries Nix says one of the company's delivery drivers caused his client, Glenda Williams, during a rainy evening car crash in 2014.
Williams, 51, claims the wreck left her with brain damage that renders her frequently confused and prone to severe memory loss, along with depression, anxiety, and other health problems.
While Nix noted other evidence proved delivery driver Robert Pollard caused the crash, he said Ashley, a neurologist at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital and a professor at Emory University, served as the key to proving the severity of Williams' brain damage. As the only board-certified M.D. to testify at trial, Ashley walked jurors through conclusions she reached after 25 different visits and numerous tests: that Williams suffered the most severe mild traumatic brain injury the doctor had seen in 20 years of practice.
“She’s the local neurologist [the defense] had no answer for,” Nix said.
Beyond Ashley’s medical conclusions, which Nix said included severe impairment for the rest of Williams’ life, it was the way Ashley spoke to the jury that likely swung the verdict. Throughout her testimony, the neurologist simplified complex medical terminology with everyday comparisons, while also addressing potential hurdles to Williams’ case. An emergency room CT scan that didn't find brain damage immediately after the accident was like a "Polaroid picture" that's "not very clear," but simply used to find injuries in need of the most immediate care. By contrast, a later MRI that showed Williams' brain damage was like a “35mm digital image, where you can really see the details in the brain," Ashley explained.
When asked on direct exam by the Summerville Firm’s Darren Summerville about how mild any “mild traumatic brain injury” really was, Ashley answered “If you were the one experiencing it, you would absolutely say that any [term] that has traumatic brain injury attached to it would not be considered 'mild' in the way that it would impact your life.”
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"Ms. Williams' 'mild traumatic brain injury' pushes the limits" of the term, says Dr. Angela Ashley.
“The jury loved her,” Nix said. “When I tell you they were leaning in and embracing every word Angela Ashley had to offer by way of insight into Miss Williams and the impact that this injury had on her life, that’s an understatement.”
Ashley’s testimony, along with that of neuropsychologist Dr. Richard Perrillo, was sufficient to prove major damages, Nix said, without risking questions about the details of a life care plan, even if that plan was supported by doctor recommendations. “We decided we had a strong enough case on the medicine and permanency of injury that we didn’t even need to put any [life care] numbers on the blackboard.”
Indeed, defense attorneys offered no medical witnesses of their own to dispute Ashley's findings. Nix said the defense retained an expert, Dr. Robert Barth, a neuropsychologist who had reviewed Williams’ records. However, defense attorneys declined to call him to testify at trial, days after he was deposed by Nix. The seven-hour deposition showed Barth to be “totally incredible, incredibly biased, and [not useful] to them, since he didn’t even examine the plaintiff, barely reviewed a fraction of her medical records, and . . . testified that, at the time he was doing his records review, he had no idea that [Williams] even existed,” Nix said. “Had they brought him [to testify], the verdict would have been twice as large.”
Instead of offering its own expert at trial, the defense sought to punch holes in Ashley’s medical records. During closing arguments, Hall Booth Smith's R. David Ware told jurors Ashley’s January 2016 medical notes never described Williams' brain damage as permanent. “She does not say... ‘This will continue for 30 years.' [The record] just doesn’t say it,” Ware told jurors. “You’re going to be asked to award [Williams] millions of dollars for 30 years, but the doctors don’t say [that]. You have to speculate, you have to guess.”
But, during his closing, Nix reiterated Ashley’s trial testimony and hammered the defense for not calling an expert of its own. “They didn’t bring you one medical witness to say that anything that I said was inaccurate, and I stood before you in opening statements, and I predicted [that],” Nix told the jury.
Although defense attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story, Ware noted after trial that the $11 million verdict was significantly less than Nix’s request for up to $45 million. “The plaintiff asked the jury to award $45 million in damages based on the position that she has permanent brain damage. Obviously, the jury did not believe that plaintiff sustained anywhere near that damage and only awarded around 25% of the request,” Ware said.
Nix said he was satisfied with the verdict, but he told CVN that Ashley’s unchallenged testimony could conceivably have set the stage for a $20 million-plus award. “Once [jurors] determined that there was very credible evidence to support the plaintiff’s claims for severe brain injury,. . . you’ve got to bring somebody into court to challenge that or you’re going to face a runaway train, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected].
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