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.”