Judge won’t drop assault lawsuit; Expert puts Weems’ expenses at $9.4 million

Ralph Weems III, whose son was one of the assault victims, listens as Judge Lee Howard talks with attorney Roberta Haughton.
Staff Writer

A judge won’t drop a lawsuit over who is responsible from injuries two men suffered in a parking lot assault almost five years ago, sending the case into its eighth day today.

Meanwhile, an expert testifies that with a life expectancy of 43.4 more years, one of the victims faces almost $9.4 million in medical and specialized treatment expenses in current-day dollars. That figure is much higher once inflation is factored in.

Ralph Weems IV and David Knight rested their case against Litco Petroleum and security guard Annie Avant shortly after 2 p.m. Tuesday, the seventh day of their lawsuit against the former owner of the West Point Huddle House.

John Brady, the lead attorney for Litco, and Roberta Haughton, Avant’s attorney, asked Clay County Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard to render a directed verdict in the company’s favor based on Mississippi law.

“The only way they can prevail under Mississippi law is to show this kind of assault was reasonably foreseeable…they don’t have sufficient proof,” Brady told the judge.

“Once they were asked to leave the restaurant for starting a disturbance, they were trespassers under the law and were owed no duty by the company or its employees,” he added, citing Mississippi law.

“All their arguments have been rejected in previous rulings by the state Supreme Court,” he noted later.

But Amanda Meadows, who represents Weems and Knighten along with attorneys David Owen and Ed Blackmon, countered the proof so far has shown the company was aware of the potential for violence.

“This is an associated risk…that does impute back to what was foreseeable. This was a money-making night, they knew they had a problem because they hired a security guard when no one else had one,” Meadows argued.

“These are fact-finder decisions for a jury to make,” she added.

In his ruling, Howard agreed, saying enough questions remained for a jury to make the final decision.

Weems and Knighten were assaulted in the parking lot of the Huddle House shortly after 2 a.m. on Aug. 23, 2014. The first to call to emergency dispatchers came at 2:15.44 a.m. and police arrived at 2:17.54. Avant made the first call and about a minute later, a second person called saying it was “several black males on one white male.”

Prior to the initial call, someone on Avant’s phone called dispatchers at 2:13.18 but the call lasted only three seconds. That call has not been explained in court.

Earlier Tuesday, the nine-woman, three-man Circuit Court jury heard from financial and life-planning experts who have looked at Weems’ condition and long-term prospects for his recovery and quality of life.

He currently lives in a brain injury trauma rehabilitation center in Covington, La., but the Social Security Administration is pushing to move him to a less-expensive nursing home facility.

“He won’t be able to work in a competitive job. If he can do anything, it will be in a sheltered environment, very special circumstances, some kind of place where he won’t get fired for yelling at a customer or forgetting to do something,” Dr. Aaron Wolfson said of Weems’ outlook.

He estimated the 37-year-old Weems will require $9,386,167 in medical and other care over his remaining lifetime based on a life expectancy of 43.4 more years.

As part of the preparation for the trial, Weems’ attorneys took him to Prairie Wildlife, the Clay County hunting preserve where Weems had once worked part time helping with shooting training skeet and other customer services.

Weems, himself, previously was an excellent marksman.

During the visit at Christmas, he met with Xavier Fairley, the director of shooting sports at the preserve who was Weems’ supervisor previously.

“I’m not sure he ever really recognized me,” Fairley said.

With some guidance and instruction, Weems was able to hit some targets but was not near “his former self.”

His people skills were the biggest issue.

“He couldn’t do the job now that he did before. You have to be able to serve the customers. He couldn’t do that,” Fairley told the jury.

Litco and Avant will begin putting on their witnesses this morning, including people who witnessed disturbances at the Waffle House prior to Huddle House and at Huddle House. They also are expected to call their own security and medical experts.

Weems and Knighten claim Litco Petroleum, which owned Huddle House at the time, was negligent in the assault for not properly staffing the restaurant and training personnel who failed to call 911 when they saw a disturbance escalating.

They also claim Avant, a Clay County Sheriff’s jailer and auxiliary West Point Police officer who was moonlighting as a security guard, didn’t handle the situation properly and missed several opportunities to call police for help and avoid the attack.

Litco contends the two men, especially Weems, sparked the incident by hurling racial slurs, including the ’N’ word, in a drunken dispute with at least three young black men, first at the Waffle House restaurant and then at Huddle House after police broke up the Waffle House incident.

At that time, police told the men they were being belligerent and to go home, but they didn’t, starting up again when they encountered the men at Huddle House.

Three men later were charged with assaulting Weems. They’ve pleaded guilty and been sentenced to prison time. No charges ever were filed against anyone for assaulting Knighten.

The jury can assign fault to one or more parties, dividing up blame in percentages.