Assisted-living center, exterminator appeal $5.3M fire ant verdict

posted on:
February 15, 2003

author:
David Holden

A Huntsville assisted-living center and a pest exterminator have appealed a $5.35 million verdict in favor of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient attacked by fire ants while she slept.

Attorneys representing 84-year-old Lucille Devers convinced a Madison County jury last June that Huntsville Health Service and Terminix International employees should have prevented the insect attack.

In the Madison County case, Jeanne Hupfer sued the health center and exterminator in 1999 when she discovered fire ant bites on her mother’s body.

Devers was a patient at Greystone Assisted Retirement Community and Assisted Living Center, operated by Huntsville Care Services. Devers’ lawyers, SA Watson and Thomas McGrath of Huntsville, argued that Terminix International shared responsibility for their client’s injury because the company had a contract with Greystone to control pests at the facility.

Attorneys for Greystone and Terminix filed notices last week they will appeal the jury’s verdict to the Alabama Supreme Court.

Greystone’s attorneys argued during the trial that company officials are in the business of running an assisted-living facility and have no expertise at controlling pests. That’s why they hired Terminix, the lawyers said. Attorneys for Terminix said there was no way their client could completely rid the Greystone building of all ants.

Circuit Judge Jim Smith heard motions for a new trial from Greystone and Terminix in November. Greystone’s and Terminix’s lawyers argued for a new trial alleging the evidence did not support the verdict or the awards for damages. Madison County verdict ranks 11th among Alabama jury awards for $1 M or more Appeal Continued from page A1 Terminix also contended that because it had a binding arbitration agreement with Greystone, Devers should be required to abide by that agreement.

Binding arbitration in Alabama has become increasingly common in contracts and purchases of consumer goods, such as cars, in credit card agreements and insurance policies. The agreements require customers who have disputes with merchants and providers of other services to submit the disputes to arbitration rather than suing.

Terminix sought a ruling from a federal court in July 2001 to compel Devers to comply with the binding arbitration agreement it had with Greystone. U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn denied Terminix’s petition.

Smith denied the motions for a new trial in December and let the jury’s $5.35 million verdict stand.

Greystone and Terminix indicated in their notices of appeal that they will continue the same arguments in the Supreme Court. The verdict, the largest in Madison County in 2002, ranked 11th among the 19 Alabama jury awards for $1 million or more that were returned between December 2001 and November 2002, according to statistics compiled by the Alabama Jury Verdict Reporter.

The Louisville-based publication examined 493 civil trials across Alabama in which juries had rendered verdicts.

The Montgomery law firm of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis and Miles, won the largest civil verdict in Alabama in 2002. A Bullock County jury awarded the plaintiffs $122 million in compensatory and punitive damages against General Motors.

The plaintiff, the son of a circuit clerk of Bullock County, received a serious head injury in an Oldsmobile in a head-on crash. The plaintiff argued that General Motors had eliminated safety features to boost profits.

That verdict was the sixth-largest nationwide last year, according to statistics gathered by Lawyers Weekly USA, a national newspaper for small law firms.

Lawyers from Beasley’s firm were also involved in two other Alabama lawsuits in which juries awarded the plaintiffs more than $1 million.

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