Original article available online through the Richmond Times Dispatch.
MONTROSS — A four-man, three-woman jury Thursday night awarded an $8 million judgment against a Northern Neck restaurant owner whose wife was found dead of exposure on their 40-acre, snowbound property in February 2010.
Jurors deliberated just more than two hours after a three-day trial before issuing the verdict on behalf of the estate of Sally Rumsey, 42, and directed that the money be parceled out to Rumsey’s 28-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old daughter Rumsey had with defendant Stephen Andersen, 62.
Family members and supporters of Rumsey broke into tears at the decision, which also included a plaintiff’s verdict in favor of Sarah Thrift, Rumsey’s older daughter, whose lawyer argued that Andersen should not benefit from Rumsey’s estate. The disbursement of the estate will be argued at some future date. Defense lawyer John P. Harris III said he will appeal the verdict.
Plaintiff lawyer Randy Singer said that the award was a “reflection by the jurors of the regard held for Sally Rumsey in this community.” In court filings nearly four years ago, Singer asked for $10 million in the case.
The panel awarded $6 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.
The jury’s foreperson said jurors voted unanimously in both cases on the first vote and that jurors felt Rumsey’s death may have been prevented had Andersen done more to locate her on a frigid winter night. Andersen did not report Rumsey’s disappearance for 48 hours as a blinding snow storm covered the Northern Neck. Andersen testified he did what he could to locate his wife on the property but assumed she had left the area after an argument Feb. 5. Her frozen body was located by a Virginia State Trooper near the home on Feb. 9.
Thursday’s proceeding was highlighted by strained testimony from the defendant. Even his own lawyer told the jury that Andersen struggled to explain what transpired the day his wife disappeared. She was found four days later partially covered with snow about 80 yards from the couple’s rural home north of Haynesville.
“Even if you hate him, it doesn’t mean you don’t treat him fairly,” attorney John P. Harris III told the jury on Thursday. “He’s just who he is — he’s petrified. He runs off his mouth and tries to explain.”
In his 75-minute appearance on the stand Thursday, Andersen at one point paused for more than a minute wringing his hands and shifting his posture trying to answer a question about his belief of how his wife died.
In a sworn affidavit he had said that Rumsey didn’t commit suicide but “may have.” Thursday, after struggling uncomfortably, he said, “It’s the wrong answer because I believe she did commit suicide.”
At another point Andersen explained to the jury the reason 48 hours elapsed before he reported Rumsey’s absence to police on the evening of Feb. 7, 2010, Super Bowl Sunday.
“I didn’t think she was missing,” he said. “I just didn’t know where she was.”
Key conflicts in the case involved expert testimony dealing with the cause and manner of Rumsey’s death.
Kevin Whaley of the state medical examiner’s office testified that Rumsey was frozen solid and had to be “de-frosted” after she was discovered Feb. 9 and the body was brought to Richmond. Whaley refused to back off a conclusion that Rumsey took her own life, apparently wandering off from the home with a slightly elevated blood alcohol level and with a presence of the sleep narcotic Ambien in her system that was slightly above the high end of dosage levels.
Whaley conceded that the manner of death may have been accidental but flatly refused any suggestion that the death was a homicide.
Other testimony highlighted the odd position of Rumsey’s body, which was on its side but not in a fetal position in freezing weather. No snow was found beneath her body and a partially empty wine bottle was nearby but possibly propped up in fallen snow.
Singer, who argued the case on behalf of two plaintiffs, Rumsey’s estate and Thrift, presented other testimony that downplayed the death as accidental and incorporated testimony showing years of aggravation in a volatile marriage that even Andersen said was marked by agreements to simply ignore each other when arguments got heated.
“I would never have called police,” Andersen said when asked about the 48-hour lapse, explaining that Rumsey would not have wanted the community to know about troubles within the family or bring unwanted attention to herself.
Rumsey had returned days before her disappearance from a three-week bicycling trip to Asia, was exhausted, and almost immediately Rumsey and Andersen began sniping at each another, according to Andersen.
One argument was over no salt in the house for cooking, but Singer discounted a story told by Andersen to investigators that involved an eruption between the couple over Andersen’s viewing of pornography.
Andersen presented that scenario as police in Westmoreland began questioning him, but Singer told the jury that the porn argument was a ruse to explain why anger developed between the couple and why Andersen couldn’t account for Rumsey’s whereabouts.
Andersen told police he left the home to walk the dogs after the blowup only to return home and find his wife gone but key personal items still at the home, including car keys, credit cards and personal identification.
Rumsey, who had operated the popular Good Eats Café in Kinsale for nearly 20 years with Andersen, revealed fears and examples about spousal abuse to a waitress who also operated a shelter. That woman, Colleen Jordan, begged Rumsey to leave the home before she was killed. Rumsey acknowledged that dozens of signs of abuse and potential harm were part of her relationship.
Singer told the jury of Andersen’s dismissiveness and seeming lack of concern about his wife, including an episode in which Andersen told a relative days after Rumsey was found that he “had perfected the act of moving forward.” He also prepared a checklist warning himself to show emotion at Rumsey’s memorial service, according to testimony.
No criminal charges have been brought against Andersen, who was listed early on in the investigation of Rumsey’s death as a suspect. But throughout the three-day trial this week, Westmoreland’s prosecutor has been scribbling notes to herself accompanied by investigators who have been integral in looking into Rumsey’s death.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Julia Hutt Sichol declined to comment when asked if she is preparing a criminal case in the matter.
Original article available online through Attorney at Law Magazine.
At first blush, Randy Singer’s roles as a distinguished civil litigator, teaching pastor at Trinity Church and prolific author may seem diametrically opposed. “I’ve been a storyteller from a young age. That is probably the common theme of my three chosen professions,” Singer said.
According to Singer, the professions of attorney and pastor have much in common. “In both professions, you are trying to persuade people of something. In one case it’s a jury and in another it’s a congregation. In both professions, there is a big premium on counseling, and you have to be a good listener to be a good counselor. In both, you are helping people at a great point of need. Both require rigorous analytical thinking.”
“Historically, a lot of pastors have had legal training,” Singer said. He cited the example of 19th century theological leader Charles Finney, who was a lawyer before he found his calling as the father of modern revivalism. Part of Finney’s persuasiveness as a Christian leader derived from the fact that “he talked to people like he was speaking to a jury,” Singer explained.
During his undergraduate studies as a pre-law major, Singer clerked for a New York lawyer. “The most important challenges that we face as a society are hashed out in a courtroom. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Singer was accepted at Cornell Law School, but he decided to postpone his law career to spend a few years teaching and coaching. He taught at an international boarding school that included students from all over the world. “It was a great multicultural experience. It also taught me to think on my feet and helped me become more disciplined.”
Singer graduated from the William and Mary Law School and began his legal career at the firm of Willcox & Savage in Norfolk, Va. “I was well-trained at Willcox and Savage. It is one of the most highly regarded firms in this area. I learned to do things with excellence there. I think those formative years are so important. I was blessed in two ways. First, I had really good mentors. Second, it happened at a time when there was a boom in commercial litigation. I got so much experience so early,” Singer said. Among Singer’s notable mentors, he named Palmer Rutherford and Conrad Shumadine. Rutherford was an insurance litigator.
“He got me into court and trained me in the basics. He was always there to lift me up when I was down and cut me down a few notches when I got too cocky. Conrad Shumadine is a nationally respected media lawyer. He is just a really strategic thinker.
I was fortunate to have this combination of mentors; one who emphasized courtroom tactics and another who was a strategic, big picture guy. They both trusted me with a lot of responsibility.”
Eventually, Singer decided to open his own civil litigation practice. “We like to say that we are a small firm with a big firm mentality,” Singer said. Singer describes his practice philosophy as characterized by three primary principles: first, “commitment to excellence. Most of our cases are on contingency. We have the freedom to put in as much time as it takes to get it right.”
For example, when the firm has a large case, they will typically engage in one or more mock trials before the case goes to trial. “The mock trials help us get a jump on the case and stay focused on what will matter at trial.”
“Second, we take a holistic approach to things. We are not just advocates, we are also counselors. I take that role seriously. Our clients become our friends. We develop life-long relationships with many of them.”
“A third thing is our ability to handle the most complex civil cases without being a big firm. To do that, we will sometimes partner with other firms,” Singer explained.
Singer represents that “the best advertising for an author is a word-of-mouth recommendation from an excited reader. The same is true in the law profession.” Singer’s “book” of business comes from other lawyers, former clients and friends and associates in the community at large. “It helps that I am very involved in the community and local law school. I meet a lot of people.”
Singer’s daughter, Rosalyn Singer, joined the firm last year. “It’s great to have her here. Her office is right across the hall from mine. It’s more rewarding to build a firm knowing that one of your kids will be a part of it long term. I’m discovering practice again through the eyes of a new attorney, and that keeps it fresh,” Singer said.
According to Singer, he has adapted his own early perceptions of the practice of law to accept that the law is also a business. “You can’t just be a good lawyer. You have to be a good business person, as well.” He has also seen a general trend away from courtroom litigation practice to one that resolves cases in a number of different ways.
Singer teaches a law school class called The Art of Advocacy. He opines that the principles of advocacy remain the same regardless of the forum. Most cases today are not resolved in a courtroom, but through some form of alternative dispute resolution. “I think that law schools are a little slow to respond to that new reality about how cases get resolved.”
Singer laments that “there is more vitriol than there should be in the practice of law. There is so much needless emotional energy burned bickering over extraneous matters. It doesn’t advance the ball. I want to win. I want my client to win. But I’m not going to take ethical shortcuts. That’s where my spiritual side comes in. I want to practice law in a way that God can honor.”
Among Singer’s notable cases, his firm represented the daughters of Hamilton Somerville in a wrongful death case against their stepmother aft er she had been acquitted of criminal charges in the death of their father. Singer was able to prove that Hamilton Somerville had been poisoned by his wife, leading to a recovery of a family estate worth millions by the daughters. The events that led to the case became a Lifetime movie called “Widow on the Hill.”
Singer also appeared as lead counsel in the case of Farley v. Guns Unlimited on behalf of the family of teacher Karen Farley. Farley was slain at Atlantic Shores Christian School by a 16-year-old student who had purchased a semi-automatic weapon through a straw buyer, his uncle. This was a landmark case in Virginia and the first in the state to receive gavel-to-gavel television coverage.
Singer has authored 13 novels and three works of non-fiction. His cases are sometimes the inspiration for the material he writes. His novel, “The Justice Game,” arose out of the Farley case. In his Author’s Note for the novel, Singer wrote, “Atlantic Shores was the school where my wife taught. The school my kids attended (though they were not there that day). When I learned that Elliot had purchased the gun illegally from a gun store in Isle of Wight County (through a transaction referred to as a “straw purchase transaction”), I ended up representing the family of Karen Farley in an unprecedented lawsuit against that gun store. The verdict shocked everyone.”
The Somerville case inspired his novel entitled “The Last Plea Bargain.” Singer did extensive research about drug testing for the case, which provided interesting material for his book.
The ABA Journal and the University of Alabama Law School recently joined to co-sponsor the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. The prize is awarded to authors of books written in the spirit of Atticus Finch, the lawyer-hero in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Singer was one of the finalists selected for the inaugural prize last year, an honor he shared with John Grisham and Michael Connelly. “I’m kind of a unique creature, wearing the hat of a pastor, an author and a lawyer, and I’ve known many lawyers who felt like they had to check their spirituality at the door. Our profession is not really set up to minister to clients holistically anymore….We almost feel like we have to confine ourselves to a narrow area of someone’s life, but when you go back to Atticus Finch, that wasn’t his mentality at all.”
Original article available online through the Virginian-Pilot.
A legal case that sounds like a made-for-TV movie has been resolved with a widow acquitted of murder, yet found liable in a mediation that was part of a wrongful-death lawsuit handled by a Virginia Beach lawyer.
In fact, the case of Donna Somerville, a former hospice nurse accused of poisoning her husband, was fictionalized as a 2005 Lifetime movie titled “Widow on the Hill.” On Friday, a judge approved a wrongful-death settlement that conveyed the house on that hill, known as Mt. Athos, to Hamilton Somerville’s three natural daughters.
“You seek justice,” their lawyer, Randy Singer, said, “and we feel like we got justice in the civil case.”
The daughters grew up in the house on the farm northeast of Charlottesville but haven’t set foot inside for nine years. Their stepmother, Donna Somerville, lived there until a mediation in the civil suit ended with a decision against her in March. The decision was kept confidential until it was filed as part of the final settlement order in Orange County Circuit Court.
“Finally, we feel like there’s vindication,” said Sara Somerville, one of the three daughters, “that we have peace of mind, that we can have a good night’s sleep.”
“There’s finally closure, and we can go home,” said her sister Ginger Somerville-
Both were in Singer’s office at Regent University School of Law on Friday morning before driving to Orange County for a gathering with friends and supporters. The two women from South Carolina, plus sister Alita Miller of Philadelphia, will return today to their childhood home on the hill.
Retired Judge Robert L. Harris Sr. mediated the wrongful-death suit against Donna Somerville, and in his order wrote, “It is my opinion by preponderance of the evidence that the Defendant is liable.”
The case really began in the early 1990s when Donna Ecochard Scott, as she was then known, was hired as a hospice nurse for Hamilton Somerville’s wife, Sidney, who was dying of cancer. Less than a year after Sidney Somerville’s death, Hamilton married Donna.
He died in November 2001. In his argument before Judge Harris, Singer said that Donna called rescue workers to Mt. Athos but asked them to stop trying to resuscitate her husband and said she wanted his body cremated that night. The daughters insisted on an autopsy, which revealed large amounts of morphine, codeine, Oxycodone and promethazine in his stomach, blood, liver and eye fluid, Singer said.
During the criminal trial, the defense painted Hamilton Somerville as abusing painkillers and his death an accidental overdose, Singer said. Prosecutors asserted that Donna Somerville was having an extramarital affair and said she had access to the drugs through her work as a hospice nurse, a job she had quit years earlier, and to which she returned only a few months before her husband’s death.
The judge in the criminal case ruled in 2004 that the circumstantial evidence was not sufficient to convict her, in part because tests of Hamilton Somerville’s hair suggested long exposure to the drugs.
But in arguing the wrongful-death lawsuit, Singer said new data from the testing lab indicated that hair could be contaminated with drugs from outside sources, which would give incorrect results.
Somerville’s hair had vomit in it the night he died, and the vomit could have contained drugs expelled from his stomach, he said.
In a criminal case, guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In a wrongful-death civil suit, the preponderance of evidence must point to guilt.
Keith C. Cuthrell Jr., a lawyer who also worked on the civil suit, said Donna Somerville had tried to sell Mt. Athos but the daughters filed to prevent that until the civil case was settled. Mt. Athos was once part of President James Madison’s Montpelier estate.
“This has been one of the most hard-fought cases I have ever handled,” Singer said.
In addition to practicing law, Singer is a preacher and an author of legal thrillers. He said there is balance between preaching forgiveness and seeking damages in court.
“My role is two fold,” he said. “To be the most fierce advocate I can for justice, because Scripture is all about justice, but also to be a counselor. The very last thing we did at mediation was go to Romans 12 – don’t take vengeance into your own hands. Do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil -”
“With good,” Somerville-Grant finished.
Cuthrell said his goal was also to reclaim Hamilton Somerville’s reputation from the accusations of drug addiction. Cuthrell said he wanted “a very public resolution” to the case for that reason, in addition to returning the farm to the daughters.
The Mt. Athos farm will become a retirement home for unwanted show horses, Sara Somerville said.
Original article available online through Daily Press.
In what is believed to be the first such verdict in the United States, a Virginia Beach jury ruled Thursday that an Isle of Wight gun store must pay $100,000 to the family of a woman murdered by a handgun sold from the store.
The jury decided the Guns Unlimited clerk who sold the semiautomatic pistol should have suspected it would end up illegally in the hands of then 15-year-old Nicholas Elliott, not the hands of an older relative who chauffeured the youth to the store, paid for the gun with Elliott’s money and then signed the federal paperwork.
Less than three months later, on Dec. 16, 1988, Elliott loaded the Cobray M-11 pistol with a 32-bullet magazine and went on a bloody rampage at his school, Atlantic Shores Christian Academy, murdering teacher Karen Farley.
Dennis Henigan, director of the Center To Prevent Handgun Control, which tracks gun control issues nationwide, said Thursday’s verdict is the first he knows of in which a store is held liable for damages resulting from a “straw purchase.” In straw purchases, someone buys a weapon merely to hand it over to someone else forbidden by law to buy or possess that weapon.
William Farley, the victim’s husband, said he was “absolutely” pleased with the verdict and the damages.
“We weren’t in it just for the money,” he said. “We wanted to alert gun store owners they need to be responsible.”
Nevertheless, Farley’s attorney, Randy Singer, requested a hearing with another jury to redetermine the damages award without retrying the case. Singer was hired on a contingency basis and will be paid with a percentage of the final judgment, Farley said.
Guns Unlimited’s attorney, Peter C. Manson Jr. said there was almost no chance of the judge granting that request. Manson plans to appeal the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Circuit Judge John K. Moore, who presided over the four-day case, set Feb. 21 to hear arguments on those motions.
In ruling for the Farley family, the jury also decided that the shooting spree was a “foreseeable” result of Elliott receiving the gun.
Williams served 15 months in prison for his part in providing the weapon to Elliott, who as a minor could not legally possess it. Elliott, now 19, is in jail, serving the remainder of a life-plus-114-year sentence for Farley’s murder.
Straw purchases, like the one between Williams and Elliott, are a “tremendous problem,” Henigan said. “We feel it’s high time for gun dealers to recognize their responsibility to the community to stop arming children and to stop arming criminals.”
Thursday’s verdict, Henigan said, is a big step in that direction.
Reaching such a verdict was easy, according to two jurors as they left the courthouse about 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
Two days of often conflicting testimony had presented various versions of Elliott’s and Williams’ visit to Guns Unlimited, on Highway 17 in Carrollton.
Most versions, however, agreed that the youth and his relative arrived at the store together, that Elliott did much of the talking with store clerk Tony Massengill, that Elliott chose the weapon and that Elliott handed Williams $300 for the purchase only a few feet away from the display counters.
“It wasn’t difficult to decide,” said juror Mary McFetridge, “not on the negligence.”
A second juror, Yvonne Pettepit agreed, adding that she would like to see gun stores removed from Virginia altogether.
McFetridge and Pettepit said the jury of six women and a man spent most of their 2 1/2 hours behind closed doors deciding the more difficult issue of how much Guns Unlimited should pay to Farley’s husband and children.
The $100,000 total the jurors decided upon, with $20,000 going to Farley’s husband, William Farley, and $40,000 each going to her teen-age children, Lora and William Jr., was far less than the $3 million requested in the Farleys’ suit.
James S. Dick, owner of Guns Unlimited, said the relatively low damages awarded by the jury, damages he said his insurance will cover, indicated the jury’s decision was “a sympathy verdict.”
McFetridge said the jury decided Elliott’s mother was responsible, as well, for having bought bullets for her son’s gun, that clerk Tony Massengill was responsible for making the sale and that Atlantic Shores Christian Academy, the Virginia Beach school where Elliott studied and Farley taught, should have been more vigilant in matters such as checking students’ lockers.