On the morning of July 5, 2013, Emily Cheek was driving while intoxicated and crossed over the opposite lane of the highway. Ms. Cheek slammed her car into our client as she and her friend took their morning walk. Our client lived for eight days after the horrible crash. She left behind her husband and her father. Leto Copeley was asked to represent her estate.
Leto Copeley and her co-counsel, David Stradley and Robert Holmes, tried the North Carolina wrongful death case before a jury in Chatham County. The jury awarded $4,250,000 in damages to compensate the estate for our client’s wrongful death. The jury then awarded an additional $45,000 in punitive damages to punish Ms. Cheek for driving drunk. Ms. Cheek asked for a new trial. When that request was denied by Judge Eric Levinson, Ms. Cheek appealed the court’s decision.
The September 19, 2017, decision of the appeal in the case was a 100% win for our client’s team. Even though Judge Levinson considered the evidence – and sometimes made rulings in Ms. Cheek’s favor – she said that the trial process was not fair. But none of the judges who heard the case, from the trial judge to the three judges from the Court of Appeals, agreed with Ms. Cheek and her lawyers.
Emily Cheek’s lawyers argued that
- The judge should not have allowed questions about how potential jurors felt about drunk driving in jury selection (called “voir dire”). She said that should only be asked during the punitive damages part of the trial, not the first part of the trial.
- The judge allowed improper questions that asked the jury how they would rule if they heard certain facts.
- The judge shouldn’t have instructed the jury about our client’s pain and suffering before she died because there wasn’t enough evidence that she was conscious.
- The judge should not have allowed a friend to testify about our client’s personality, or that her co-worker had found a pregnancy test in her desk.
- The judge should not have allowed Leto and her co-counsel to argue that compensatory damages are meant to deter people from committing wrongs.
- The Chatham County jury awarded too much money when they found that Emily Cheek should pay $4,250,000 to compensate for our client’s wrongful death.
The three judges were unanimous. The trial was fair and free of any errors. The defendant Emily Cheek is not entitled to a new trial.
Judge Chris Dillon, who wrote the opinion for the North Carolina Court of Appeals, addressed each one of the defendant’s arguments. The opinion said that:
- The questioning of the jurors was appropriate.
- The questions didn’t try to “stake out” or bias the jurors.
- The jury instructions were not in error.
- The witness testimony was appropriate, and there was evidence that Julie was experiencing terrible pain before she died.
- One purpose of damages to compensate for things like wrongful death and pain and suffering is to deter future negligent conduct.
That is different from punitive damages, which are for punishment
- There was nothing wrong with the award of damages for the wrongful death of our client.
Leto Copeley is pleased that the three judges upheld the jury’s verdict. The firm’s client still grieves over the loss of his wife. He is glad that he was able to show the jury how a family can be devastated when someone drives drunk. The court’s decision will provide guidance to lawyers and judges in future North Carolina cases. We will keep you posted on the case developments.
Call Leto Copeley and the lawyers of Copeley Johnson & Groninger PLLC at 919-240-4054 when you have a question about a civil case, if you are a victim of a crime, or if you have been injured by the negligence or intentional conduct of other people.