From Loudoun County, Virginia, comes this story: Combs-LaFleur Estate awarded $15 million in wrongful death lawsuit.
Short version of the backstory (without gruesome details): a man viciously killed his wife; he made up an unbelievable story to mitigate (not excuse) the killing; he was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder; and the jury recommended a sentence of life in prison.
Then, the deceased wife's estate brought a civil action against the husband for wrongful death. (Wrongful death is a cause of action in Virginia, just like breach of contract, personal injury, injury to property, medical malpractice, etc.) The jury awarded damages in the amount of $15 million!!! Whoa!!! The article points out that it might be the largest wrongful death verdict ever awarded by a Virginia jury.
Here's the rub...
I have no doubt as to the man's culpability or liability. Neither do I doubt that $15 million is wholly insufficient to compensate the deceased or her family for all that they have suffered.
But what good is a judgment for $15 million in this situation? I have yet to see any indication that the defendant had any significant assets.
A money judgment is a piece of paper that represents a court's order. You cannot pay a bill or buy a house with a judgment. To get any value, you must collect / enforce the judgment. There are several different methods of enforcing judgments. Some of the more common methods are garnishment of wages, garnishment of bank accounts, attachment of a lien to realty, and seizure of personal property through a sheriff's levy.
So, if the defendant is without any assets, how valuable is a judgment for $15 million?
One of the many topics that I discuss with clients is whether it is worth their time (and money!) to pursue their case. This is a crucial detail that must be considered when evaluating a civil case. Otherwise, you could be left holding a worthless piece of paper that says, "Judgment for $15 million."
This post will be followed shortly by a companion post that discusses a similar topic: How to balance the costs of litigation against the likelihood of recovery.
In the meantime, if you would like to discuss a potential civil case, call my office for a consultation: (757) 333-7529. I can evaluate your case, and we can discuss your options.