Jury rules for restaurant owner, guard

David Knighten, left, and Litco attorney Willie Abston talk privately after closing arguments.
Staff Writer

By a 10-2 vote that came in less than 30 minutes, a nine-woman, three-man Clay County Circuit Court jury decided Tuesday evening Litco Petroleum and security guard Annie Avant weren’t responsible for injuries suffered by tRalph Weems IV and David Knighten in the Huddle House parking lot in West Point almost five years ago.

“I hate it for my clients,” said David Owen, one of three attorneys who represented Weems and Knighten.

“We are pleased with the verdict,” said John Brady, one of the attorneys for Litco, which owned the Huddle House at the time.

Ralph Weems III, the younger Weems’ father, declined to comment. Knighten left the courtroom quickly after the verdict was read.

The decision came after two hours of powerful and emotional closing arguments.

It was a case that centered around use of racial slurs and the role they played in the confrontation and whether the restaurant owner knew or should of known of the potential for violence early on the morning of Aug. 23, 2014, a so-called ‘club night’ and other times.

The jury began deliberating at about 5:20 p.m. and knocked at about 5:45, letting Judge Lee Howard know they’d reached a verdict.

The jury included eight blacks and four whites. The 10-2 verdict included one white and one black voting ‘no.’ In civil cases, only nine of 12 jurors are needed to achieve a verdict. In this case, the jury could have divided responsibility among several people and entities but instead believed Weems sparked the assault with his behavior and Knighten and their designated driver, had opportunities to avoid it.

Tuesday marked the 11th day of the trial, which is the longest in Clay County history.

In his closing arguments, Ed Blackmon, one of a team of attorneys representing the two men, asked the jury to award Weems almost $15 million for loss of life enjoyment, lost wages, existing medical bills and future expenses for his care that doctors said would include treatment of some kind in brain-injury rehabilitation.

He also asked the jury to award Knighten $66,000 in medical expenses and $500,000 for loss of life enjoyment.

“Litco knew this could happen…they assumed this was the best way to run their business,” Blackmon intoned, repeating some of the facts the two men have focused on during the two-week trial.

“If you are not reporting it, you are hiding it….If you know things are going on, then it is foreseeable…It went too far this time,” Blackmon continued, as Weems’ mother wept quietly on the shoulder of the younger Weems’ cousin in the audience.

But Litco attorneys countered none of the witnesses supported any of the two men’s claims the assault was foreseeable.

“He created and caused the event that led to the assault on him and Mr. Knighten. There’s no doubt Ralph Weems IV suffered terrible brain injuries. He didn’t deserve it, he may have created it and caused it, but he didn’t get what he deserved,” Brady said on behalf of the North Mississippi-based company during closing arguments.

Brady’s co-counsel, Willie Abston, put the blame even more squarely on Weems.

“It was 2014 and Ralph Weems was still using the ‘N’ word,” Abston said, at times using the actual word for emphasis with the jury.

“Huddle House didn’t ignore the instructions of police. Huddle House didn’t call people the ‘n’ word. Huddle House didn’t call people the ‘mf” word,” Abston stated.

“That person is evil…I am not trying to justify what happened to Ralph Weems. He went looking for a fight and he unfortunately got one, he got what he asked for,” added Abston, who told his own story of being called the ‘N’ word as a 14-year-old and assaulting the white teen who used the term.

Roberta Haughton, whom represents Avant, said her client did her job, controlling the situation as she saw it.

“She did her job,” Haughton told the jury.

Blackmon implored the jury not to be fooled by the ‘n’ word, which has resonated through testimony for most of the trial which was in its third week.

“He had every opportunity to lead a good life…that’s a result of the apologies of Huddle House,” Blackmon said, referring to Weems’ injuries.

“They (Litco) have deployed the ‘n’ word extensively …everyone who is black has a story to tell,” advised Blackmon, who also is black, calling Huddle House an extension of “every club in Clay County.”

“Litco wasn’t concerned about the use of the ‘n’ word…they are deflecting from their own liability and responsibility…The question is there liability and was it foreseeable that something like this could happen,” Blackmon continued, at times sounding like a minister.

“They’d rather make money than make the place safe…they crossed their fingers and hoped,” Blackmon said, also encouraging the jury not to let the company blame Avant, Christina Stark, the designated driver, and Knighten.

“They aren’t going to do anything unless you hold them accountable,” he said of Litco. “Don’t let the ‘n’ word excuse their conduct. They had a duty to make sure they could leave the property safely.”

“Litco has blamed everyone they can think of, except themselves…tell them the ‘n’ word is not going to work here,” Blackmon closed, pointing to Knighten and what he, too, “has lost” referring to Knighten’s marriage and business.

That attack occurred just after 2 a.m. Aug. 23, 2014 as Weems, Knighten and their designated driver, Christina Stark, were being ushered from the restaurant for their role in a heated confrontation inside.

Both men were severely beaten. Weems, who is 37, was left with permanent brain damage that likely will force him to live in some kind of treatment environment for the rest of his life. 
Knighten still suffers repercussions from the incident and has testified the assault has made his post- traumatic stress disorder worse. Knighten spent 13 years in the Air Force, including a tour of duty as an explosives engineer in Afghanistan where he experienced as many as 15 “concussive events” involving bombs.

Weems and Knighten claim Litco Petroleum, which owned Huddle House at the time, was negligent for not properly training the staff 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 claims there was “absolutely” no atmosphere of violence around the restaurant and no way to foresee the assault.

The company also 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 and then at Huddle House after police broke up the Waffle House incident. 
At that time, police told the men they should go home, but they didn’t. It started up again when they encountered the men at Huddle House, Litco claims.

Three men, Davis and brothers Frankie and Cortez McMillan, were charged with assaulting Weems. They’ve pleaded guilty and been sentenced to prison. No charges ever were filed against anyone for assaulting Knighten.