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By Craig Hlavaty
Jury verdicts against the city of Houston don't come much bigger than the one awarded last month to Barbra Piotrowski, the striking former beauty-queen athlete who is the paralyzed victim of a notorious 1980 shooting.
Depending on who's doing the counting, the city is facing the prospect of paying anywhere from $28 million to $148 million. Even if you use the lower figure, the verdict represents an amount almost equal to what the city has paid out in lawsuit claims for the past three years combined.
The final amount will be determined by U.S. District Judge David Hittner, who has yet to rule how much prejudgment interest should be added to the jury's $22.3 million award.
The jury found January 20 that the Houston Police Department had received a tip that Piotrowski's former lover, health-spa tycoon Richard Minns, was looking to hire someone to murder her. Officers did nothing to warn her -- in fact, two of the officers involved were moonlighting for a close associate of Minns -- and five weeks later, a bungled slaying attempt left Piotrowski, now 44, in a wheelchair for life. Minns has never been charged in the case and now lives in Europe.
The tale has spawned a best-selling book, a made-for-TV movie starring Shannen Doherty and a string of lawsuits.
The city is the latest defendant, and its performance in court so far has been inauspicious, to say the least. And although City Attorney Gene Locke professes absolute confidence the award will be tossed out or significantly reduced on appeal, the job done up to now by his lawyers inspires more skepticism than awe.
Hittner regularly reprimanded city attorneys throughout the suit; once the case got to trial, jury members were not only baffled by the city's inept case, they were angered as the defense openly cooperated with attorneys for Minns. The jurors' anger grew as the city's closing arguments included a finger-pointing tirade against the wheelchair-bound plaintiff, who received hugs after the case from several jurors.
How do you turn an attempted murder 18 years ago into a possible $148 million hit against taxpayers? It takes just ten easy steps, the city of Houston way:
1. Don't take the case seriously. Never make a legitimate settlement offer, don't hand the case over to an outside law firm and let two junior attorneys represent you.
Piotrowski's attorneys, Steve Sumner and Marilyn Lahr of Dallas, say Locke's office made exactly one settlement offer -- for $5,000. Seeing as their suit was asking for $50 million, the lawyers were unimpressed. "We offered to settle early for $12.5 million, and that was our first offer -- we would have come down from that," Sumner says.
"They sent us a letter saying they had paid out less all last year in settlements than the $12.5 million," Lahr says. "But you have to wonder how many of those settlements involved a woman in a wheelchair."
Locke vehemently disputes that the city didn't take the suit seriously. He says the city "took a couple of runs" at settling but the plaintiffs never wavered from the $12.5 million figure.
The city never considered hiring an outside firm ("We have limited resources," Locke says) and assigned assistant city attorneys Judith Sanchez and Andrea Chan to the case. Both graduated from the University of Houston Law Center in 1990, making them the equivalent of associates in a large law firm. (The city will hire outside specialists for the appeal, Locke says.)
Sanchez, 37, and Chan, 32, are both part of the defense litigation department, comprising 11 of the city's 100 attorneys. Locke says Sanchez has had "lots of success" handling civil-rights suits similar to Piotrowski's in her five years working for the city; he says Chan has specialized more in research and appellate issues since being hired in September of 1992.
Locke vigorously defends the pair's efforts but doesn't answer directly when asked if they were the best lawyers available to defend the suit. "These are the people who were assigned to the case and they were the appropriate ones to deal with it," he says. "Once we found we were definitely going to trial, we put another lawyer on it. That's not unusual."
Sumner, 51, and Lahr, 37, aren't strangers to complex litigation. Sumner, in fact, has almost specialized in civil and criminal suits stemming from high-profile killings. He was one of T. Cullen Davis's attorneys when the Fort Worth millionaire fought murder and wrongful-death charges in the 1970s and 1980s, and he represented Ricky Kyle, whose 1987 conviction for involuntary manslaughter in the death of his father received heavy publicity in Los Angeles and was chronicled in Ulterior Motives, a true-crime book by Suzanne Finstad.
Finstad later wrote a book on the Piotrowski case, and introduced Sumner to Piotrowski, who now lives in California and was looking for an attorney to handle the civil suit against the city. Other lawyers thought the case a longshot, but Sumner decided to take a chance on it. He hooked up with Lahr, a business litigator who says she left mega-firm Fulbright & Jaworski four years ago because "I was looking for cases with more principle behind them than two corporations fighting."
2. Annoy the judge even before the trial starts.
Hittner has long displayed all the imperiousness that comes with a lifetime appointment, so it's not news when he castigates an attorney. Chan and Sanchez, however, came in for special treatment.
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