The Trial: Stephen Wells v. Aslan Commons LLC, et al.
The Attorney: Pete Law
Painting a $73-Million Picture
How do you successfully argue for a mega verdict? Even in a personal injury case where injuries are shocking, it’s difficult to win an award that is more than many jurors can even imagine, especially when a defendant admits some level of fault and suggests what the average juror would consider a substantial sum as compensation. It takes an artful combination of illustrating the severity of your client’s injuries, memorably outlining the evidence of your defendant’s negligence, and convincing the jury that its role rises to a collective civic duty to completely remedy the wrong, as substantial as that remedy may be. Pete Law brought each of these elements together to deliver a powerful close to his case in Stephen Wells vs. Aslan Commons LLC, et al.
Wells, a tenant at the apartment complex owned and managed by defendants, was severely burned when an uncapped gas line in his apartment exploded, engulfing him in flames. While the parties disputed who was responsible for the gas line being left uncapped, Wells’ own testimony during trial provided a riveting account of the pain he suffered because of the explosion.
In his closing argument, Law reminds jurors of that account, describing Wells’ screams as he was burning, screams that were so intense and powerful that he damaged his vocal cords. A witness testified that he had no idea that “someone could scream like that,” Law said. Thae image of Wells writing in pain, screaming with such intensity that his vocal cords bleed is far more emotionally powerful than pictures or explanations of the faulty gas line and what went wrong with it.
Law goes on to compare Wells’ suffering to that a soldier in the Iraq, noting that a soldier in a combat zone expects that something horrific may happen, while Wells was in the comfort of his home with no such expectation.
Law tells jurors that, like many soldiers, Wells suffered post traumatic stress disorder after his own incident. He reminds jurors how Wells’ family recounted how Wells would often wake in the middle of the night screaming, believing that he was still on fire. According to Law, the injury didn’t end the day of the explosion, Wells relived it, again and again, in his mind, even as he dealt with his physical trauma.
But Law did more than highlight his client’s pain. He painted the defendants’ apartment complex as a property rife with security and maintenance problems, a property that jurors could imagine may be responsible for the uncapped gas line that led to Wells’ injuries, as well as a host of other hazards. He tells jurors of an elderly tenant who suffered abuse because of the complex’s alleged security issues. "This is the worst-run apartment. I hope that... my kids never live in an apartment--when I send my kids out into the world--never live in an aprtment as poorly run as this," Law said.
Law asks jurors to consider if the explosion had engulfed a child. “Imagine if Stephen had been a six-year-old girl,” he implored, leaving the jury to imagine the result.
Law also scoffs at the defense's mention that a $5 million award, an amount most jurors may never make in their lives, is appropriate. Law tells jurors to consider the number only part of a defense strategy to avoid what he considers is full responsibility, and instead look at the evidence of Wells' injuries. "You've (as defense lawyers) got to defend the unthinkable," Law said. "And so you say, 'Let's make it a little confusing. We're going to find one or two things to save 10 or 20%, and we've done our job."
Large verdicts are difficult no matter the circumstances. The closing argument that leads to such a verdict must powerfully deliver the evidentiary building blocks jurors need to move past their natural reticence to return such a substantial award. Law did that in his close, helping lead to a $73 million verdict, including $47.6 million in punitives, in the case.*
*Editor's note: On February 4, Fulton County State Court judge Eric Richardson reduced the $47.6 million punitive award to $250,000 under Georgia's punitive damages cap, O.C.G.A. 51-12-5.1 (2010). The decision is expected to face appeal.
Georgia's Closing Argument of the Month is curated from our extensive coverage of top Georgia trials.
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