Personal injury litigant upset over jury award, attorney's fees and race component

Amelia Flood Jul. 17, 2009, 12:23am

Walter Spearman

If he'd known what it would take to bring a lawsuit over injuries he received in a rear-end crash, Walter Spearman of Edwardsville doesn't know if he'd have done it in the first place.

In a case that took two trials in Madison County and an appellate court decision to settle, Spearman isn't finished just yet.

On Tuesday, he filed a motion opposing his attorney's request for $41,000 in fees and just under $13,000 in litigation costs from an approximate $124,000 jury award. Spearman argues that the work attorney Rodney Caffey of LakinChapman LLC put into his suit doesn't merit that amount.

According to Spearman, a hearing on the matter is scheduled Friday at 11 a.m.

His experience with the court system started when he was rear-ended Dec. 11, 2002. He was driving in Edwardsville when he was hit from behind by Michael Sunley. The 54-year-old former coal miner claimed in his suit to have suffered herniated discs in his neck that had to be fused together with a steel plate.

When his case first went to trial, the jury awarded Spearman about $62,000 for past medical bills. The jury did not include any damages for pain and suffering or future medical bills.

Spearman's original attorney, J. Robert Edmonds of Alton, appealed the verdict after then-Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron upheld the verdict.

The appeals court overturned Byron's order and sent the case back to Madison County for a new trial on the damages issue only.

The second trial took place May 18-20 this year, getting under way late after a slew of pre-trial motions from both sides that irritated presiding judge Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth.

The second jury awarded Spearman $124,807.47.

By the second trial, Spearman had changed attorneys. Edmonds withdrew from the case Sept. 5, 2008, according to court records.

Although he won about double the original amount in the second trial, Spearman says he was disappointed in the outcome. He believes his injuries and suffering merited a larger award.

"I believe it was a travesty that someone would have to go through all that," Spearman said. He cited the pain from the initial injury, surgery and physical therapy that resulted from the 2002 accident.

Spearman cited an all-white jury in his second trial as a possible reason for what he considers a small amount. Spearman is African American. He said he believes a more diverse jury would have rendered a different, fairer outcome.

"I don't think it was right," he said. "And it was unfair not to have included a person of color. You might as well face it, that it's racism."

On top of what he considers to be a too-small jury award, Spearman now believes his current lawyer is asking to take too much from the settlement for costs and fees.

According to his July 14 motion, Spearman claims that the fees and litigation costs requested are "unjustified." In a July 13 interview, he said he was surprised by the fees Caffey requested and argues he is being charged more by the firm that took over his case than by his original attorney who saw it through the first trial and appeal.

Messages were left Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at Caffey's office asking for comment on Spearman's claims. None of them had been returned as of press time.

As frustrated as he feels by the whole case, Spearman said, he's pinning his hopes on the judge.

"I pray the judge looks at this in the right context," Spearman said. "I hope the judge sticks to what's right."

The defendant in the Spearman case was represented by Steve Mudge.

Mudge has a post-trial motion pending.

The case is Madison case number 04-L-007.

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