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Home / Featured / The year of the empty chair: For some big cases, the defense was MIA

The year of the empty chair: For some big cases, the defense was MIA

To an unusual degree, Missouri Lawyers Media’s Top Verdicts & Settlements rankings for 2019 feature cases in which the defense at trial was less than optimal, to put it mildly.

topvslogoThe year’s second-largest case, Enslein as Trustee for Xurex Inc. v. Di Mase, ended in a jury verdict of nearly $118 million after the individual defendants represented themselves at the trial — some of them by phone from their homes in Italy. The verdict, out of the Western District of Missouri, was rendered against several businesspeople alleged to have effectively taken over a company before forcing it into bankruptcy.

Todd Bartels of Polsinelli, the lead attorney in the Xurex case, chalked up the defendants’ self-representation to hubris.

“They’re entrepreneurs used to running the show,” he said. He added, however, that he thought the case would have come out the same even if they’d had counsel.

One of the individual defendants has since retained Boulware Law in Kansas City to try to contest the massive judgment. Brandon Boulware declined to comment. As it turns out, Boulware Law is the same firm that won the eighth largest plaintiffs’ win of the year, where the defense was even more limited.

In PR Group LLC v. Windmill International Ltd., a federal judge awarded $22.75 million in damages to a Missouri state court judge and a professional golfer who were defrauded in an investment scheme by a longtime acquaintance. The judgment followed a bench trial at which neither the individual defendant nor representatives of his company appeared. Their defense counsel had withdrawn from the case prior to trial.

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The 10th-largest case of the year, 1520 Swift LC v. BMMTech Canada Corporation, featured a similarly unrepresented defendant — a Canadian company that failed to pay the bills for a North Kansas City warehouse it leased for a bitcoin-mining operation. The case ended in an $18.3 million judgment after the company’s counsel withdrew from the case, citing a lack of communication or payment from the client.

Jason Scheiderer of Dentons said that, given the foreign jurisdiction, the international parent company of the defendant might have just decided to “let it die on the vine” rather than fight the case to the end.

Also among this year’s multimillion-dollar cases was an $8.2 million judgment in Jackson County against an Uber driver alleged to have sexually assaulted the unnamed plaintiff. Uber itself was dismissed from the case, but the driver, Yahkhahnahn Ammi, failed to fully respond to the suit and appear for court hearings. And a different Jackson County circuit judge entered a $4.25 million judgment in a wrongful-death case against a nursing home, although the defendant lacked insurance to pay either the award or its lawyer.

In the single-largest Missouri case of 2019, the defense was present but the circumstances were unusual. In CoStar Group Inc. v. Xceligent Inc., the defendant had declared bankruptcy, so its interests were primarily represented by a trustee. A federal judge entered a $500 million judgment against a real estate data company accused of copyright infringement, though the award was worked out as part of a settlement in bankruptcy court before it was finalized in Missouri.

Of course, not all judgments were against unrepresented defendants.

In Jo Ann Howard and Associates PC v. National City Bank and PNC Bank NA, a judge awarded more than $102 million in damages against a bank for its predecessor’s role in mismanaging a prepaid funeral expense trust that collapsed in 2014. Though that qualified the case as the third-largest plaintiffs’ win of 2019, it was far lower than an earlier verdict in the case of $491 million. It was the largest plaintiffs’ win in Missouri in 2015. But a federal appeals court said the case had to be retried with a more limited range of damages.

That isn’t the only case making a repeat appearance in our V&S rankings. The largest settlement of the year, and the fourth-largest case overall, was a $55 million class-action agreement that ended a long-running lawsuit involving fees charged by a St. Louis company’s retirement plan. The suit originally resulted in a $36.9 million judgment — the fifth-largest plaintiffs’ win of 2012. But the damages went up on appeal not once but twice before last year’s settlement was reached.

That settlement in Tussey v. ABB Inc. pioneered the use of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act as a vehicle for litigation. Our single-largest plaintiffs’ verdict also has the likelihood of landmark status. The $20 million verdict on behalf of a gay police sergeant in St. Louis County marked a rare successful suit in which sexual orientation played a role in an employment discrimination case.

In 2019, there were at least 73 plaintiffs’ wins worth $1 million or more. Missouri Lawyers Media’s annual V&S rankings are based on cases submitted to the publication and reported by our staff, and so they do not represent a complete record of cases litigated in Missouri.

The combined value of the 10 largest cases of 2019 was $947.1 million. That’s down from the prior year’s $6.55 billion in top 10 wins. Most of 2018’s total, however, was driven by two massive cases — a $4.69 billion verdict involving Johnson & Johnson talcum powder, and a $1.51 billion global settlement involving Syngenta’s use of genetically modified corn. The median amount of 2019’s largest plaintiffs’ wins was $2.5 million, the same as in the prior year.

Top V&S 2019:  Article | Plaintiff wins | Defense wins | Out of State wins | Digital Edition | Past Editions

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