Johnson’s $16 million wait

Attorneys roll up their sleeves and gear up for the next round in ex-grocer’s case: collection

By Bill McKelway, Richmond Times-Dispatch – June 8, 2007

Getting a multimillion-dollar verdict on paper is the easy part. Getting the money in your pocket is a lot harder.

That’s the word from lawyers, barbers, and othes on the street yesterday in the wake of former Richmond grocer Jonathan F. “Johnny” Johnson’s $16 million jury verdict Wednesday.

Johnson’s legal team convinced a three-woman, four-man jury after 11 days of trial that the collapse of his Community Pride grocery business three years ago was linked to his dealings with Supervalu Inc., a grocery supply and retailer.

“It is an ecstatic feeling,” said longtime trial lawyer Stephen Bricker, who’s been there. He won a $10 million verdict in an accident case, the previous Richmond high.

“This was a true David-and-Goliath situation with a team of sole practitioners waging a fight against top lawyers from three major law firms and one of the biggest corporations in the country,” Bricker said. “The door hasn’t closed. But Goliath got outmuscled by David in this one. It’s a big deal.”

At the John Marshall Barber Shop in downtown Richmond, Hugh Campbell, a 39-year-veteran of barber-shop chatter, said the pre-verdict word was that Johnson wouldn’t prevail.

But legal eagles who frequent the shop say that “Johnny is going to get some money. These things aren’t easy to win” on appeal, Campbell said.

That’s the view of legal scholar Carl Tobias at the University of Richmond’s T.C.WilliamsSchool of Law.

“Appeals courts will defer to a jury as fact finder, and Richmond Circuit Judge [Margaret P.] Spencer enjoys a reputation for being such a careful judge that it seems unlikely that [the decision] will be reversed on legal grounds, such as evidence being improperly admitted or jury instructions being incorrect,” he said.

Bricker and others cautioned that Johnson’s legal team has a lot of work ahead to preserve John- son’s windfall.

And crunch time is imminent for Supervalu’s team as well. They’ll have to pore over 2,040 pages of testimony looking for flaws in the proceedings.

“The state Supreme Court isn’t going to accept a case on appeal just because of the number of zeroes there are in an award,” said L. Steven Emmert, a Virginia Beach lawyer who specializes in appeals cases. If appealed, the case could take as much as a year to resolve.

From the day of the jury’s decision, interest started accruing on the $16 million at 6 percent a year. That’s close to $1 million by the time the state’s high court might decide the case.

The company said after trial that it is considering an appeal and likely will ask Spencer for a retrial.

Once the judge actually enters an order imposing the $16 million judgment, Supervalu will have to take steps to stall the collection of the judgment while it appeals the case, Bricker said. That means putting up money on bond equal to the $16 million.

For many people around town who watched Johnson’s career rise and fall, the verdict simply reaffirms their faith in a man who seemed to touch people in a good way.

Ten years ago, then a penny-pinching nursing student, Dori Fitchett spilled bleach on her jeans from a leaking bottle she bought at one of Johnson’s Community Pride stores. She

went to customer service, filed a complaint and heard nothing.

Weeks later she returned and came across Johnson.

He wrote her a $50 check, gave her a $50 gift certificate, and apologized.

“I left contented and feeling fuzzy that he had gone above and beyond. The extra $50 gift card was a huge bonus for me and very gracious of him,” she wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “I continued to shop there until its eventual closing.”