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Deep pockets files: Greensboro apartment complex murder

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I got rude hate mail from a trial lawyer, Gary W. Jackson of North Carolina, today, and was curious what might prompt such a thing. His own track record from his website in the first link I clicked there suggests why he's apparently angry at people who ask for common sense to be applied to the civil justice system.

Let's stipulate that the underlying facts are appalling: in 2006, ex-con Tony Savalis Summers raped and killed a mother, Lavell Williams, and stabbed her daughters. Summers stabbed Williams 39 times as she suffered horrifically and drowned in her own blood, resulting in a rare death penalty verdict in Greensboro, North Carolina. Summers was the husband of a friend's godmother and knew Williams from giving her and two of her children a ride home from a barbecue at the godmother's home. Several months later, allegedly high on cocaine and alcohol, he entered Williams's apartment from an unlocked window, and attacked the family.

This is, Jackson and his law office alleged in a lawsuit, the fault of Williams's apartment complex: with 20/20 hindsight, they should have provided "better" security to residents who apparently pay about $500/month in rent, though it's hard to see how anything short of an armed guard summonable through wired panic buttons would have made a difference here. Notwithstanding an exculpatory clause in the lease, the case settled for $1.45 million in 2010. One presumes that Summers, the most (and likely only) culpable party, didn't pay anything (though he was surely named as a defendant to avoid diversity jurisdiction if the landlord was an out-of-state LLC). Now, if I were a benevolent dictator with access to the Treasury printing presses, and didn't have to worry about inflation, I'd happily command that any children who were victimized like these children were victimized be awarded a million dollars; I'm not questioning their desert. The question is why the apartment building should be footing the bill, and what purpose is served by holding landlords who offer $500/month apartments liable.

The costs will be simply shifted to future tenants (in this and other apartment buildings serving the poor), so what we have here is a wealth transfer of about $500,000 to $600,000 to trial lawyers from people of an income level that they can only afford to pay about $500/month for housing. Another consequence: developers less willing to build reasonably priced housing for people who are more likely to associate with ex-convicts, because, at the margin, some developers will not be able to afford the litigation tax that pays for America's lawyers to be the highest paid in the world without making us any safer.

The civil justice system is sufficiently broken that cases like this are so commonplace that they fly under the radar daily without being reported. And they're only possible because of jackpot justice: the apartment building is willing to settle for $1.5 million to avoid the tiny risk of getting hit with a verdict for tens of millions of dollars if they get the wrong judge and the wrong jury.

(Interestingly, one theory of liability is that the apartment complex was negligent because it failed to have a zero-tolerance policy for trespassers. Of course, had the complex raised the rent to be able to spend the money on the personnel to be able to implement a zero-tolerance policy for trespassers, they would've been sued and accused of racial profiling the first time they hit a false positive. Just ask the NYPD. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.)

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.