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Judge Awards $6.2M in Fees in Wrongful Death Case

The winning plantiffs team from Mahaffey Pickens Tucker (from left) Steven Pickens, Catherine Schutz and Gerald Davidson.

A Gwinnett County judge has ordered a Lawrenceville business to pay $6.2 million in legal fees and expenses to the widow and estate of a local home builder after a jury last year found the firm liable for the man’s death.

Gwinnett State Court Judge Joseph Iannazzone’s April 9 ruling awarding the fees augments a $17.8 million wrongful death verdict against Lawrenceville business Classic Millwork Designs Inc. that a jury awarded to the widow and estate of homebuilder Wade Blackwell last year. In a companion ruling, Iannazzone also denied Classic Millwork’s motions for a new trial and to set aside the verdict.

None of the verdict was apportioned to any other party or nonparty.

Blackwell plummeted three stories to his death in 2015 while trying to close a dormer window that Classic Millwork employees had improperly installed, according to court records and counsel for Blackwell’s widow.

Attorney Steve Pickens—a partner at Lawrenceville law firm Mahaffey Pickens Tucker, which represented Blackwell’s estate and his widow, Patricia—said after the trial that the dormer window installation was done by workers who never read the instructions.

The jury awarded $12,872,249 as the full value of Blackwell’s life and added $5 million for pain and suffering associated with the shock and terror Blackwell would have experienced as he plummeted to the brick steps below, Pickens said. The jury also awarded nearly $14,000 for funeral expenses.

Pickens’ co-counsel, Gerald Davidson Jr., said the legal fee award by Iannazzone brings the total owed by Classic Millwork to approximately $24 million.

Attorney Laurie Webb Daniel of the Atlanta offices of Holland & Knight confirmed Friday that she is representing Classic Millwork in an appeal of the jury verdict and that she also expects to appeal the legal fee award. “We believe this the fee award was not a result contemplated or authorized by the Georgia Supreme Court,” she said.

Classic Millwork’s attorney, Jeffrey Raasch of Atlanta’s Vernis & Bowling could not be reached for comment.

Davidson said the law firm petitioned the court to award legal fees after Classic Millwork’s counsel rejected a $1 million settlement offer in 2017 which would have been covered by the firm’s insurance policy. “They told us to go fly a kite,” he said.

State law permits plaintiffs to seek legal fees if a jury verdict is more than 125 percent of a final settlement offer. Davidson said state law permitted the judge to consider the law firm’s contingency agreement with Patricia Blackwell and her husband’s estate as a guideline for determining the legal fee award.

Davidson said the firm’s retainer agreement included a 33⅓% contingency fee for any settlement reached prior to trial and a 40% contingency fee for all legal work associated with taking the case to trial, he said. At a hearing on the fee request, Davidson said the defense “argued we ought to get only our hourly attorney fees.”

Iannazzone awarded Patricia Blackwell and her husband’s estate a combined total of $6,152,855 in legal fees and $94,378 in litigation expenses.

In his April 9 order, the judge said the fee award was based on “evidence that work of the plaintiffs’ counsel after the offer of settlement was rejected drastically increased the value of the plaintiffs’ case.”

The defendant’s own expert “testified that he believed it was reasonable for the defendant to reject the offer of settlement and not make a counter offer. This is evidence that at the time of the rejection of the offer of settlement, through the eyes of the defendant, the case was worth $0,” Iannazzone said.

The judge also pointed to “the high degree of difficulty involved in carrying the burden of proof in a case involving a fall from a third-story window with no eyewitnesses.”

“The court also considered what it personally witnessed at trial and the lengths the plaintiffs went to in order to present their case,” he said.