$581 Million Verdict Puts Rural Family in Spotlight

posted on:
May 15, 1999

author:
Mike Cason

category:
Fraud

GREENSBORO – Standing under a shade tree in front of his small hime in rural Hale County on Tuesday, George Merriweather, 80, was unimpressed by all the attention.

Reporters and photographers lined up for interviews with him, his wife and daughter. Cars lined the gravel driveway, and a uniformed driver stood by a white limousine that brought one of several television crews to Merriweather’s country home, deep in Alabama’s sparsely populated Black Belt. Merriweather answered questions, but otherwise stood quietly with an impatient look.

Four days had passed since Merriweathers family won a lawsuit, with the jury ruling they should get $581 million for being cheated by a satellite dish salesman. The family hasn’t gotton a penny yet and will probably get a small fraction of the award. Even if they final settlement is large, Merriweather can’t imagine it causing him to change his life or move to a bigger home.

“I had this house built here,” Merriweather said, seeming surprised at the question. “Why am I going anywhere?”

The stunning jury decision happened on Friday at the Hale County Courthouse in Greensboro, about six miles from Merriweather’s home.

The trial judge and appeals courts are almost certain to sharply reduce the award. The case has renewed the call for civil lawsuit reforms a hotely debated issue in the state legislature for the last five years. Business backed lawmakers and lobbyist say huge punitive damage awards frighten businesses away from Alabama. The state senate was to consider some legislation on Tuesday.

Attorneys for the defendants in the case, Whirlpool Financial National Bank and Gulf Coast Electronics, have called the verdict outrageous and said they will appeal.

In the meantime, Merriweather and his family, their attorney close by, obliged curious reporters eager to find out what they thought about the staggering sum.

“I was shocked, happy, overwhelmed, but knowing all the time that we will never ever get that much.” said Barbara Carlisle, 40, the Merriweathers’ daughter, who was also named in the award.

Asked what she thought would be a fair amount, Carlisle said she didn’t know. “I’ll be satisfied with the whatever,” Carlisle said.

Her attorney, Tom Methvin of Montgomery, had asked for $6.9 million in punitive damages. Carlisle and her parents say they each were charged about $610 more for the satellite dishes than the salesman promised.

Carlisle lives in Newbern, and 20 miles from her parents. She’s a sewing machine operator at Greensboro Apparel, which makes pants, shirts and shorts. Her husband works at Harvest Select Catfish in Uniontown. They have four children, including two that still live at home.

Velma Merriweather, 60, George’s wife and Barbara’s mother, works at Peco Foods in Tuscaloosa. She cuts the bones and skin off chicken breast and plans to retire next year. She said she “was rejoicing” when she heard the jury’s verdict but still couldn’t quite believe it.

“When I saw it again in the paper on Sunday, I just couldn’t imagine seeing my name in the paper,” Velma Merriweather said.

Velma Merriweather also said she had no desire to move. “I’ll stay here. I love it in old Alabama.”

Velma Merriweather said she grew up near their home, a neat one-story house with a blue lap siding and white shudders. Sawed off tree limbs propped up window air conditioning units on each end of the house. Two happy dachshunds ran around the yard.

George Merriweather perked up when asked about his garden. Merriweather is retired, having worked 35 years at Central Foundry, a Tuscaloosa plant. He said he spends a lot of time tending to the purple hull peas growing in neat rows inside a wire fence. One reason they bought the satellite dish was because he loves to watch old westerns.

“I fool around in my garden and sit around and watch TV, or drive around,” Merriweather said when asked how he spends his days. He doesn’t expect that to change.

“The money doesn’t excite me.” Merriweather said. “The only thing I was interested in was getting the message to the people

“That satellite company lied and cheated me. And I didn’t want nobody else to be cheated out of their earnings like I was.”

In downtown Greensboro, an aging, sleepy town with many Main Street store fronts that look abandoned, not everyone was happy about the award.

“I think it’s horrible,” said Emily Tubs, who had business at the Hale County Courthouse on Tuesday. “I think Alabama needs to change its laws. It’s too easy to win a lawsuit, that’s the reason we can’t get any industry in there. People are afraid.”

Felicia Williams, a courthouse employee, disagreed. She’s a friend of Carlisle.

“I didn’t know how much (the award was), I just hear they won the biggest lawsuit there ever was. I just think it’s great. I don’t care what people said

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