By Elaine Owen, Editor ~
Friday, Sept. 14, a Fannin County jury awarded nearly $129 million to a family who lost one child in a 2011 Fourth of July wreck that also seriously injured the mother and three other children, including one left permanently paralyzed.
Jake Lee was only 16 years old at the time and was drinking alcohol and huffing aerosol computer keyboard duster. He admitted liability, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and is currently serving 15 years in prison.
David and Susannah (Susie) Johnson (plaintiffs) were represented by Fried Rogers Goldberg LLC partner Brian “Buck” Rogers and Darren Summerville, and Anna Cross of the Summerville Firm.
Rogers told the court the truck Lee was driving was registered to his father’s company and that even though a good commercial insurance policy was available, “It was not enough to cover the verdict.”
The Johnson family is from Florida and were vacationing in Blue Ridge at the time of the crash (July 4, 2011), Rogers said.
Defense lawyers James Hardee and Kevin Branch let the Johnsons tell their story with very little interruption.
In a statement, Hardee and Branch said the wreck was “one of the saddest motor vehicle accident cases in Georgia history.
“The past medical bills were in excess of $2.5 million when the plaintiffs stopped keeping track in 2014,” the defense lawyers said. “The plaintiffs’ 6-year-old child died in the accident, and their 3-year-old was rendered a high-level, ventilator-dependent quadriplegic.”
According to the lawyers, court filings and news accounts, the Johnsons and Lee—who was “hanging with friends,” had all attended a fireworks display (separately) the night of the accident.
David Johnson was at the wheel of the family’s Honda Odyssey minivan and stopped at a traffic light on U.S. 76 in Blue Ridge when Lee’s Dodge Ram pickup truck plowed into them at an estimated 75 mph.
David Johnson suffered a concussion and was treated and released, but his wife, Susannah—pregnant with another child—“had all of her ribs broken,” the defense statement said. Hannah, 6, died at the scene, and Owen, 3, whose spine was severed in the wreck, was left a quadriplegic and dependent on a ventilator.
The Johnsons 10- and 8-year-old daughters, Brooke and Kathryn, both suffered very serious injuries including a fractured pelvis, femur, tibia and wrist, the defense statement said.
Defense lawyers stated that early outreach efforts by Lee’s parents to assist with the plaintiffs’ needs were rejected, and plaintiffs would not accept the less than $2 million of insurance coverage that was offered years ago. Instead, the Johnsons filed suit.
Because the truck Jake Lee was driving was registered to a company owned by his father, Robert Lee, and Jake Lee’s uncle, their company was also originally sued. The case was complicated by Robert Lee’s bankruptcy, and in 2016 the Georgia Court of Appeals declared the company NOT LIABLE for the Johnson family injuries.
There were several unsuccessful mediations, Rogers said, but “Given the magnitude of the life-care plan for Owen, there was never any realistic way to try to settle the case. The Hartford (Lee’s insurer) offered their policy limits several times before trial.”
The bankruptcy issue for Robert Lee and his wife was resolved and the case went to trial before Chief Superior Court Judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit Brenda Weaver on Sept. 10.
The defense called no witnesses.
Friday, the jury took about 2.5 hours before awarding $128,813,522 to the Johnsons. This included $40 million for Owen Johnson’s medical expenses and $30 million for his pain and suffering, and $40 million for Hannah Johnson’s life and pre-death pain and suffering, among other items.
Afterward, jurors lingered outside the courtroom to commiserate with the Johnson family. Some reminded them of the gathering in Blue Ridge City Park, the release of balloons…and small donations…in memory of Hannah Johnson. They hugged and cried…obviously moved by what they heard and seeing the Johnson family together.
The Defendant’s Statement read, in part, “[Jake] Lee has no assets and will leave prison as a convicted felon. Consequently, it is doubtful that the large verdict will result in a meaningful recovery, which is sad, because the Johnsons have great needs and are very deserving. The devastation of this case, while unequal, was bilateral to both families and heartbreaking beyond description.”
This was truly one of the saddest motor vehicle accident cases in Georgia history. The Plaintiffs’ six year old child died in the accident and their three year old was rendered a high-level, ventilator-dependent quadriplegic as a result of the 2011 accident. The Plaintiffs’ ten and eight year old daughters both suffered very serious orthopedic injuries including a fractured pelvis, femur, tibia and wrist. The mother was pregnant at the time of the accident and had all of her ribs broken. The past medical bills were in excess of $2.5 million when the Plaintiffs stopped keeping track in 2014. The quadriplegic three year old was dependent on 24/7 medical care and his true life care plan was astronomical. Therefore, the level of devastation inflicted on Plaintiffs was unimaginable.
The Plaintiffs were sitting stopped at a red light when they were hit at about 75 mph by defendant, 16 year old Jacob Lee, who was driving a full-size pickup truck. Lee had been huffing Difluoroethane shortly before the accident and formally admitted duty, breach, causation and impairment before trial.
No pleasure was taken by anyone in the defense of this case. Early outreach efforts by Lee’s parents to assist with the Plaintiffs’ needs were rejected and Plaintiffs were unwilling to accept the less than $2 million of insurance coverage that was tendered years ago. Instead, Plaintiffs elected to file suit.
The suit was brought against Lee, his parents and the father’s corporation that was the title owner of the vehicle Lee was driving. Having been forced to defend themselves, Defendants were successful in getting the corporate defendant dismissed after a trip to the Court of Appeals. Additionally, after repeated settlement offers in multiple mediations were rejected, Lee’s parents filed bankruptcy early in the case and achieved a favorable resolution in the bankruptcy court. Therefore, the trial proceeded solely against the son, Jacob Lee.
Throughout the entire case, the only demand that Plaintiffs ever made regarding Lee was the approximately $200,000,000 that they requested from the jury in closing. By the time of the trial, Lee had pleaded guilty to numerous felony criminal charges and had been sentenced to 30 years with 15 years to serve in a maximum security prison. Lee has no assets and will leave prison as a convicted felon. Consequently, it is doubtful that the large verdict will result in a meaningful recovery, which is sad because the Johnsons have great needs and are very deserving. The devastation of this case, while unequal, was bilateral to both families and heartbreaking beyond description.