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 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.