Virginia Supreme Court restores $8.58 million verdict
against Allied Concrete

By Samantha Koon, The Daily Progress – 1/10/2013

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of a local widower whose wife died in 2007 from injuries suffered when a cement truck hit the car in which the two were riding. The decision reinstated a Charlottesville jury’s original $8,577,000 award.

On June 21, 2007, an Allied Concrete cement truck driven by William Donald Sprouse tipped over after crossing the center line on the Thomas Jefferson Parkway and landed on Isaiah and Jessica Lester’s vehicle. Jessica Lester later succumbed to the injuries sustained in the crash, and Sprouse pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Isaiah Lester later filed a wrongful death suit, and in December 2010, a Charlottesville jury ruled in his favor, awarding him $6,227,000 plus $2,350,000 in interest. The jury awarded each of Jessica Lester’s parents $1 million.

Charlottesville Circuit Judge Edward Hogshire reduced Lester’s award by $4,127,000 because, Hogshire said, Lester played on jurors’ emotions by crying during opening and closing statements. Hogshire filed a 32-page document explaining this decision that said he lowered Lester’s settlement in part to make the amount awarded closer to that of his wife’s parents.

The state Supreme Court, in its decision that Hogshire erred in his ruling, said “we have specifically rejected comparing damage awards as a means of measuring excessiveness.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Elizabeth A. McClanahan said that by overruling Hogshire’s decision to lessen Lester’s award, the Supreme Court “chipped away” at the trial court’s right to protect against excessive verdicts.

“In my view, the singular ability of the trial court to assess whether the jury has been motivated by passion or prejudice has been disregarded, and its inherent discretion to correct a verdict that it finds so excessive as to shock the conscience of the court has been discarded,” McClanahan wrote.

The trial also raised questions about the use of Facebook as evidence when it was uncovered that prosecuting attorney Matthew B. Murray asked Lester to “clean up” his profile.

“Facebook is an interesting aspect of this case because this is a phenomenon that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” said legal analyst L. Steven Emmert.

Before the start of the civil trial, Lester deleted 16 photos from his Facebook page after defense attorneys requested images and screen shots from the account. Most of the images were later recovered, including a photo from 2009 of the defendant holding a beer can and wearing a T-shirt that said: “I [heart symbol] hot moms.”

“There’s no limit to human stupidity as far as what you can put on a Facebook page,” Emmert said.

Defense attorneys said Murray and Lester’s misconduct required a new trial, but Hogshire denied their request. The Supreme Court upheld Hogshire’s ruling in the matter.

“Allied Concrete was fully aware of the misconduct of Murray and Lester prior to trial and the trial court took significant steps to mitigate the effect of the misconduct,” the Supreme Court ruled.

Both defense and prosecuting attorneys had disagreed with Hogshire’s findings. Attorneys representing Allied Concrete appealed the decision based on Hogshire’s refusal to grant a retrial, while Lester argued that he was due the jury’s initial verdict.