First published on March 11, 2022 in Law.com’s Daily Report. Read the original HERE
Looking back on 3½ years of litigation over the death of an electrician killed at work on MARTA tracks, plaintiffs attorney Darl Champion noted one key to reaching the $17 settlement now being prepared: Robert Smith’s widow would not back down.
Michelle Smith was first offered $3 million to settle the lawsuit she filed in 2018 over the death of her 38-year-old husband and father of their two children, then ages 8 and 10, Champion said. She turned it down.
“It took a lot of courage from our client to stick with us and let us do what we advised,” Champion said.
Champion worked on the case with Rudjard Hayes of Sanchez Hayes & Associates. They filed the lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court.
MARTA and its employees were defended by Walter McClelland and James Scarbrough of Mabry & McClelland along with David Dial and Jackson “Jad” Dial of Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial. The defense attorneys did not return messages seeking comment.
According to the complaint, Robert Smith was performing regularly scheduled work on a section of MARTA track near the Medical Center Station in Sandy Springs on June 3, 2018. That portion of the track was supposed to be out of service. He was removing the hi-rail vehicle he had used for the work when a train crashed into the back of it, ramming it into him. Champion said Smith’s ribs were crushed, puncturing his lungs and causing his death within a couple of minutes.
The complaint sought damages for the full value of Smith’s life plus pre-death pain and suffering, mental and emotional distress, fear of imminent death and shock, as well as all funeral expenses.
Champion said the parties met for mediation, during which MARTA offered $5 million and stopped at $7 million. Champion said he and Hayes made a demand for $16 million. Later on, MARTA offered $9 million.
Discovery continued despite the coronavirus pandemic. Champion said Judge Emily Richardson held some status conferences by Zoom. But last June, as the number of new virus cases was dropping and vaccines were widely available, the judge held an in-person hearing on the defense motion to dismiss. The lawyers argued for seven hours, Champion said.
The turning point came recently when the judge indicated she had decided to rule against MARTA’s motion to dismiss. Champion said she asked the plaintiff’s counsel to draft a proposed order denying the MTD. He did that, and circulated it to opposing counsel. Soon after the case settled.
The meeting of the minds came in a phone call on Feb. 28, Champion said. “I told them the $16 million offer was no longer on the table,” he said. They agreed to $17 million.
The MARTA board approved their part of the settlement last week. That was $5 million, the amount for which MARTA is self-insured. The other $12 million is coming from Zurich Insurance Group, Champion said.
Champion said the lawyers are in the process of putting together a structured settlement for the children with the help of Forge Consulting to at least provide the bereaved family with financial security.
“Cases like this,” Champion said, “are why you go to law school and why you become a lawyer.”