WWHGD Win Named Among "Top Defense Verdicts of 2006"

Missouri Lawyers Weekly

Missouri Lawyers Weekly has named one of WWHGD’s trial victories to its list of “Top Defense Verdicts of 2006.” The tragic premises liability and traumatic brain injury case took place in Kansas City, Missouri, in April 2006. Having only been brought into the case three weeks before trial, WWHGD partners Kevin Williams and Al Maxwell waged an uphill battle in their defense of a mall security company, IPC International.

The horrific events began on the evening of November 9, 2003, when 32-year-old Eric Wheaton decided to take his date to the Applebee’s at Blue Ridge Mall in a Kansas City suburb, adjacent to highway I-55. There, they were confronted as they walked toward the restaurant by two teenagers attempting to steal Mr. Wheaton’s car.

One of the teens, Ronald Morris, shot Mr. Wheaton in the head, resulting in the destruction of the frontal lobe of his brain and subsequent permanent brain damage. He was unable to recall anything that happened after the shooting and is trapped in a child’s mind requiring 24/7 care.

The mall security company was sued based on the following allegations: failure to patrol the restaurant area; grouping the two on-duty guards together on other duties away from the shooting (i.e., leaving no one to sweep the area); and lack of training and equipment. Plaintiff’s counsel demanded $40 million, while the victim’s life care plan alone approached $7 million.

Despite the trial judge’s disallowing any history in evidence about Mr. Morris’ prior criminal record, which included numerous prior jailings, institutionalizations and violent crime, WWHGD’s attorneys debunked the plaintiff’s scientific testimony related to foreseeability of the crime in general and deterability of this gunman in specific. The trial court’s decision to prevent the jury from seeing a complete picture of the gunman’s checkered criminal history allowed the plaintiff’s counsel to paint the shooting as an “accidental punk teen shooting.” This erroneous theory was further bolstered by an eye witness who claimed that the gunman looked “surprised” after pulling the trigger.

Interestingly enough, the WWHGD team was able to show that there was no Missouri case law addressing the intent of the shooter as being relevant to these issues. Other states have found such evidence relevant, but the trial court was not persuaded.

Even though hamstrung by the omission of key evidence regarding the gunman’s record, WWHGD’s attorneys were still able to show the jury that a security vehicle with flashing lights and an unarmed security guard would not have deterred this specific criminal.

After two weeks of trial and three days of jury deliberation, the jury returned a defense verdict on April 21, 2006. WWHGD believes that justice was served, finding that the security company could have done nothing to predict or prevent the tragedy that took place that night. Mr. Wheaton had settled with the mall, which was not admissible in Missouri, so there are funds available for his care.

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