Bad Dog

A slip-and-fall case bites James Coney Island in the butt

Julie McLemore and her husband, former Houston Post sports editor Ivy McLemore, grew up within a few miles of each other in the Meyerland area, and though they didn't meet, and then marry, until much later, the couple found they shared a lifelong passion for James Coney Island cheese dogs. "They've got fabulous hot dogs," Ivy says. "I have fond memories of going there with my dad," Julie says.

After 11 years of trying without success to conceive a child of their own, Julie and Ivy adopted a son, Russell, as an infant in August 1996, and soon began to indoctrinate the young boy. The family fell into the habit of stopping in at the chain's Post Oak location for cheese dogs after church on Sunday.

So it was perfectly in character when the McLemores stopped in at James Coney's Meyerland store the day after Christmas in 1997, to meet two other couples and chew the post-holiday fat. When the McLemores walked into the store, they saw that one couple had already arrived, and Julie sat to talk with them, while Ivy -- with then-16-month-old Russell in the crook of his arm -- walked across the store to get a high chair for his son.

After being stonewalled by James Coney Island, the McLemore family got twice what it sought from a jury.
Deron Neblett
After being stonewalled by James Coney Island, the McLemore family got twice what it sought from a jury.

By the time Julie heard her husband yelling her name across the restaurant, Ivy was on the floor in a puddle of mop water, his knee and elbow badly bruised. Russell was on the floor too. He'd hit his head hard on the way down. A bump was growing on the back of his skull, and he was bleeding from the mouth. Julie says she had to ask three different times to get someone at James Coney to call 911.

"There was just utter chaos, like no one would take charge. They were just kind of looking at me, like, 'Do we need to call 911?' And I'm like, 'Yes, you need to call 911.' "

Finally the manager on duty approached her with a pad of paper and asked her to write down her name, address and phone number. Julie complied.

"He just took it from me and started to walk away. I stopped him and I said, 'and what is your name?' Because he did not offer it. And he said, 'Roger.' And he didn't give me a last name, and he didn't tell me what his position was. And he walked away. And that is the extent of my conversation with any James Coney Island employee at that time. That was it."

Both Ivy and Russell McLemore were conveyed to hospitals via ambulance, and both were released later that night with relatively clean bills of health -- Ivy was on crutches for a few days -- and about $2,000 in medical bills, which they hoped that James Coney Island would pay.

But, says Ivy, "They never called us or wrote us for any reason."

So after a month without hearing from James Coney, Ivy asked his friend and fellow Touchdown Club of Houston board member William Wade, an attorney specializing in personal injury and employment law, to write a letter. James Coney, Wade says, never responded. So Wade contacted James Coney's liability carrier, Kemper Insurance, and Kemper took care of what Wade estimates at less than 10 percent of the McLemores' medical bills, and then stopped.

A meeting with Kemper several months later, Wade says, was friendly, but led to nothing.

In July 1998 Wade wrote to James Coney Vice President Darrin Straughan about the McLemores' story, looking for an out-of-court settlement, and heard nothing back.

The McLemores finally filed suit against James Coney Island in the fall of 1998, but several weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin, Wade and the McLemores met with Kemper Insurance one last time. Wade made a settlement demand of $60,000 on behalf of his three clients. According to Wade, Kemper responded with a $10,000 offer. Wade then offered to split the difference: $35,000.

"I never got a response. Not even a 'Go to hell.' "

Slip-and-fall cases are notoriously hard to win, especially since tort reform legislation in 1995 -- under the guise of preventing frivolous lawsuits and lowering insurance rates -- upped the plaintiff's burden of proof and put caps on the amount of punitive damages juries were allowed to award to defendants. William Wade, who spent ten years working as an insurance defense lawyer for corporations before jumping fence to represent plaintiffs, thinks tort reform was a public relations masterstroke, but a legal crock.

"This is what makes me so mad doing my kind of work. You've got all these people out there, from the governor on down, talking about scummy plaintiff's lawyers. And here's a case where we're trying to do what's right, we're trying to settle the case. Even the ad litem is: 'We're just getting the stonewall.' "

The attorney ad litem in question is Norman Roser, appointed to represent the underage plaintiff, Russell. In March of this year, as the trial was already under way, Roser wrote a letter to the supervisor of Kemper Insurance stating: "ŠI have to tell you that in my entire history of handling slip and fall cases [as defense counsel for Memorial Hermann Healthcare System], I have never heard as good a fact scenario come out of a plaintiff case in a slip and fall as this one." Roser felt that the jury was "clearly looking to the plaintiffs in this case," and invited Kemper to the table yet again to discuss an out-of-court settlement.

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