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Column: What kinds of cases score the largest verdicts in S.C.?

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Paul Fletcher is the editor-in-chief for S.C. Lawyers Weekly, which is in the news group managed by SC Biz News, which includes the Columbia Regional Business Report, Charleston Regional Business Journal, GSA Business Report, SCBIZ magazine, S.C. Lawyers Weekly, N.C. Lawyers Weekly and the Mecklenburg Times. For information about receiving the latest in legal news, case law and opinions in South Carolina, contact Liz Hodges at lhodges@scbiznews.com or call 843-849-3105.

The answer last year was “medical malpractice.”

S.C. Lawyers Weekly just published its annual list of “South Carolina’s Largest Verdicts” for 2017. The survey covers the biggest jury verdicts handed down in 2017 in the Palmetto State.

The two largest entries were both med-mal plaintiff’s victories.

The No. 1 verdict reported was an award of $13.75 million. An Aiken County woman needed multiple amputations after nurses at a local hospital were found to be “grossly negligent and reckless” in their treatment of her.

In second place was an award for $10 million, returned by a Richland County jury to the family of a woman who died of kidney cancer. They argued that her doctor failed to diagnose the cancer properly; had she undergone early treatment, the woman would have had a 90% chance of beating the disease.

Other top verdicts for 2017 included cases for wrongful death, personal injury, civil rights and construction defects, among others.

There she is … Miss Plaintiff of 2018

Coastal Carolina University is being sued by its own beauty queen. A woman named Allura Westberry, who held the title of Miss Coastal Carolina 2017, has hung paper on the university in Horry County.

Her claim: The school pushed her to be a contestant in the Miss South Carolina pageant, despite knowing she was too old to compete in the pageant.

Westberry claims in her lawsuit, which also names the Miss South Carolina organization as a defendant, that she only entered the pageant after her liaison at CCU told her that she had to. Otherwise, she said, she was told she’d have to forfeit her Miss Coastal Carolina title and hand over her sash and trophy.

Participating in the Miss South Carolina competition ain’t cheap. Westberry said she incurred all kinds of expenses — professional photographs, hair styling and makeup, and pageant clothes. She added that she also had to make appearances and take part in a number of activities, including a camping trip last year.

That camping trip was the fateful moment for Westberry. She told other contestants that she was about to turn 25. Awkward pause. One of the others then asked, “How are you even in the pageant?”

She called pageant officials who confirmed she was too old to compete. Westberry is seeking $25,000 in damages, and she said she wants to make it clear no one suffers a similar fate.

Fired for failure to get along

Put yourself in the shoes of a man named Allen Cottrell back in 2012. You’re on trial for capital murder charges for killing a cop and your two court-appointed lawyers just can’t get along.

The lead attorney said she had never met a lawyer as unethical and dishonest as the second-chair lawyer; she added she couldn’t wait to be done with the case so she could “get away from him.”

The man in the second chair was just as cordial: the lead lawyer was lazy, unmotivated and “drank too much,” he said. He had to push for discovery and details on the shooting that prompted the charges.

Despite all this, Cottrell told Horry County Circuit Judge Larry Hyman Jr. that he was sure the two lawyers could represent him. Hyman met with the bickering pair, who said they could be professional and do their jobs, although they were concerned their disagreements might jeopardize their client.

Hyman essentially fired them, relieving them of their appointments and continued the case. A few years later, with new lawyers, Cottrell was convicted and sentenced to death.

On appeal, he claimed that the removal of his appointed lawyers violated his right to a fair trial.

But the S.C. Supreme Court rejected his argument. The trial judge gets wide latitude and broad discretion in matters like these, the justices said in State v. Cottrell. The court wasn’t about to disturb the disqualification. Death sentence upheld.

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