Valerie Lakey and John Edwards

Nosing around Senator Edwards' most famous case

Above, left to right: NC Senator John Edwards, looking fetching on NBC in what appears to be pink lipstick;
the Lakey family - Dave, Valerie and Sandy; President George Bush, who made "tort reform"
one of his highest priorities as governor of Texas.

Introduction The Players The Accident The Trial


Introduction

This page grew out of a Metafilter thread and collects information about what Washington Monthly once called "the defining case" in N.C. Senator John Edwards' legal career. It's my small contribution to the debate over the morality of trial lawyers, the myths and realities of frivolous lawsuits and the politics of tort reform.

The American Medical Association has been complaining for a while now about the way the legal system handles malpractice cases, and the concerns about disappearing insurers in Mississippi, for example, seem valid [thanks to Screename2000 at Plastic for the links]. But I'm skeptical of anything that limits consumer power in the face of companies that can bring enormous resources to bear on a case - including companies that use frivolous SLAPP suits to silence opponents. I'll tell you now that any federal "tort reform" proposal would have to also include anti-SLAPP provisions to win me over. Is it silly to link those two things? I don't think so.

John Edwards' legal career seems to be a good jumping off point for the discussion, mainly because he has a reputation as a highly effective and relatively upstanding personal injury trial lawyer. More than half of his cases involved accusations of medical malpractice, which makes him an interesting foil to the AMA links above. The millions Edwards made from his clients' large jury awards directly launched his political career. It's doubtful a complete political unknown could have won North Carolina's 1998 Democratic Senate primary, let alone a Senate race against a Republican incumbent, without spending millions of his own dollars. For Edwards, that money came from malpractice and personal injury lawsuits. Edwards' past, his Presidential ambitions, his stated commitment to a so-called "Patient's Bill of Rights" and his widely acknowledged skills as an orator make him central to any discussion of tort reform.

Edwards makes a juicy target for Republicans who like to paint trial lawyers as greedy and exploitative (trial lawyer groups donate almost exclusively to Democrats).

Which brings us to Valerie Lakey.

The Players

Valerie Lakey and her parents. Valerie was 5 years old at the time of the accident.
(Here's the family site and Dave Lakey's Astrophotography page.)
John Edwards, the lead attorney for the Lakeys. He was assisted by his partner David Kirby.
Sta-Rite Industries, a company that makes pool drain covers, and the only defendant
unwilling to settle with the Lakeys before trial.


The Accident

Here are the basic facts: On June 24, 1993, Valerie Lakey was playing in a wading pool at the Medfield Area Recreation Club in Wake County, NC (a few miles down the road from where I live in Raleigh). The drain cover on the only suction outlet in the pool had been removed sometime previously, probably by other children earlier that day. When Valerie approached the uncovered outlet, the suction was strong enough to pull her down and suck 80% of her small intestine and 50-70% of her large intestine out through her anus. Four adults could not free her until the pool's pumps had been turned off. It sounds like some kind of urban legend but it's not. It's happened multiple times, actually.

Valerie survived, but has to spend 12 -14 hours (often 7pm to 7am) being fed by a tube in her chest dripping nutrients into her body. The expensive procedure will probably be required for the rest of her life, among other medical treatment. Her parents sued the club, the county, the maker of the pool's circulation pump and Sta-Rite, the manufacturer of the missing drain cover, with the help of John Edwards and his partner David Kirby. The first three defendants settled before trial for a total of $5.9 million. Sta-Rite, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Energy Corporation, offered $100,000. The Lakeys declined and the case went to a jury. Here's how the Washington Monthly described what happened next:

...[Edwards] discovered that 12 other children had suffered similar injuries from Sta-Rite drains. The company raised its offer to $1.25 million. Two weeks into the trial, they upped the figure to $8.5 million. Edwards declined the offer and asked for their insurance policy limit of $22.5 million. The day before the trial resumed from Christmas break, Sta-Rite countered with $17.5 million. Again, Edwards said no...the jury found Sta-Rite guilty and liable for $25 million in economic damages (by state law, punitive damages could have tripled that amount). The company immediately settled for $25 million, the largest verdict in state history.

The Lakeys accepted the settlement in January 1997, giving up the potentially massive punitive damages the jury could have awarded in exchange for Sta-Rite's waiving of appeals that could have gone on for years. The jury award thus wouldn't have been affected by punitive damage caps, even as the settlement broke records and made Edwards a fortune - an interesting twist to the trial lawyer discussion. Most of the judgment was paid by Zurich, Sta-Rite's insurance company, but not before Zurich's failure to honor Edwards' request for the $22.5 million policy limit resulted in Sta-rite filing its own lawsuit.

Rather than write a summary, I've collected a ton of quotes from the Raleigh News & Observer's coverage to help piece together the various arguments used during the trial. It's an incomplete record but captures all of the important twists and turns, I think.


The Trial, as seen by the local daily

June 27, 1993 - 5-year-old injured by pool drain

RALEIGH -- A 5-year-old Raleigh girl was in critical condition Saturday after an accident in which a portion of her lower intestine was sucked out of her body by a swimming pool drain. The accident occurred Thursday -- the same day that state lawmakers unanimously approved a bill reducing requirements for community swimming pools...

The accident is the second known case of suction from a pool drain causing such injuries to a child in the Triangle. In 1991, a 3-year-old Durham girl required two operations after sitting on an uncovered wading pool drain at the Hollow Rock Racquet & Swim Club in Durham. There were at least a half-dozen similar accidents reported across the United States in the early 1980s. In all of those cases, the grate covering a pool drain had been dislodged or was missing...

Last June, the state Health Services Commission adopted tough new construction and health standards for all pools built for other than single-family use after May 1, 1991. But after an outcry from pool operators and some county health departments over the cost of compliance, many of the standards were rescinded.

June 29, 1993 - Drain that injured girl lacked cover

RALEIGH -- A safety cover was off the wading-pool drain that critically injured a 5-year-old girl last week, Wake County inspectors said Monday. The dome-like plastic cover was in place at Medfield Area Recreation Club on June 11 when a county inspector checked out the wading pool and allowed it to open for the summer, records show.

But the cover was off Thursday evening, when Valerie Lakey visited the pool with her family, a county health official said. The strong suction pulled Valerie into the 6-inch-wide drain, pulling out part of her intestines. She remained in critical condition Monday at Wake Medical Center.

"How it got off, we don't know," said Keith Glover, director of environmental health for the Wake Health Department. "We know that kids play with those things. You could take a dime or penny and unscrew it."

The cover was supposed to be held down by four screws...Even if the covers are screwed down, Glover said, they are relatively easy to remove...In fact, nearly all cases where children have been injured by pool drains involved covers that had been removed or had broken away. In Durham in 1991, a 3-year-old girl needed two operations after sitting on an uncovered drain at Hollow Rock Racquet & Swim Club...

"I don't believe this has anything to do with product design -- it's an issue of maintenance, an issue of a missing cover and the child sitting down on it," said Ken Giles, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission..."Somehow these covers are being taken off or broken off or bent and aren't re-secured. What happens is the child sits down on the drain and the tremendous force of the pump literally eviscerates them."

The National Spa and Pool Institute, along with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, issued a list of precautions for pool owners and managers in 1982. It states that covers must be checked daily to see whether they are in good repair and to make sure they cannot be removed without tools. Pools where covers are missing or damaged should be closed, the institute says...

"The only way the public is guaranteed to be safe is if the pools out there are maintained by knowledgeable people," said Mike Donathan, manager of Leisure Concepts, a pool builder. "Unfortunately, some of these pools are looked after by college kids or other people who don't have the hydraulic experience to know an uncovered drain is a trap."

June 30, 1993 - 15 Wake wading pools closed over drain covers

Wake County health officials closed 15 wading pools Tuesday as they conducted countywide inspections triggered by the serious injuries a 5-year-old suffered when she sat on an uncovered drain.

Inspectors have found that drains at nearly a fourth of the 65 pools checked lacked proper protective covers...the county began requiring the anti-vortex covers because they pull water from the side rather than from the top downward, as other drain covers do....But owners and managers told inspectors that playing children frequently break the plastic covers, Glover said. Rather than leave a jagged piece of plastic that could cut feet, the pool operators simply discarded the anti-vortex device, leaving only the usual grate to cover the drain, he said.

July 2, 1993 - Children blamed for removing pool drain cover

RALEIGH -- Children pulled the cover off a wading pool drain just minutes before a 5-year-old girl sat on it last week and was severely injured, attorneys for pool and its insurer said Thursday...parents who were poolside when the accident occurred about 7 p.m. told attorneys that children playing in the pool pulled the cover off minutes before the girl sat on it and had her lower intestine sucked out, said Katherine White, an attorney representing the recreation association and Burlington Insurance Co. "It happened pretty much all at once," White said.

October 2, 1993 - Pool accident prompts new safety rules

...Among other things, health department officials want pool owners to install anti-vortex covers on drains that cannot be removed without tools. The covers would prevent drains from creating a powerful vacuum if someone sat on the opening. The proposed rules also would require pool owners to inspect drains and sign safety checklists each day.

"We're not trying to punish anybody," said Environmental Health Supervisor Dee Worden, who helped draft the regulations. "We just want people to know what they're doing."

January 19, 1994 - Pool victim's parents file suit over drain

RALEIGH -- The parents of a 6-year-old girl whose intestines were sucked out of her body last summer by a wading pool drain have filed a lawsuit against Wake County and the manufacturers of the drain cover. David and Sandy Lakey filed the lawsuit in Wake Superior Court on behalf of their daughter, Valerie, whose gastrointestinal functions were so damaged in the incident June 24 that she is fed through a tube that drips nutrients into her stomach while she sleeps.

Also named in the suit was the Medfield Area Recreation Club, which owns the pool in which Valerie was injured. But the Lakeys on Friday settled out of court for $500,000 with Medfield. The county and the drain manufacturer, Sta-Rite Industries of Delavan, Wis., both appear ready to take their chances in a civil trial in Wake Superior Court.

"It's a regrettable, horrible accident," said Michael Ferrell, attorney for Wake County. "But I don't think the county has any liability here." Ferrell said he doubts there will be an out-of-court settlement with the Lakeys...

The lawsuit contends that Wake County health officials were negligent when they allowed the pool to open despite Medfield's failure to secure the drain cover so that children could not remove it. The manufacturer was negligent, according to the lawsuit, because it knew the drain covers could be dangerous unless they were properly installed and maintained. In addition, the lawsuit contends, written warnings about the dangers of improper installation were not prominently displayed on the drain covers...

The child was rushed to the hospital, but not before she lost 80 percent of her small intestine and 50 percent of her large intestine. She also had a colostomy. Kirby said the Lakeys have accrued $175,000 in medical bills, most covered by insurance so far. Each month, however, Valerie incurs additional expenses of $10,000 to $12,000 for nightly feedings, part-time nursing assistance and constant monitoring. "Just doing the math, you're looking in the order of $8 million to $10 million in future medical bills," Kirby said, noting that Valerie likely will always require such extensive medical care.

He said Valerie is unable to eat any food, and instead gets her nutrients from a tube that feeds directly into her stomach and an intravenous drip into her arm. She is constantly monitored for proper fluid balance. "She'll be hooked up to tubes at night for the rest of her life," Kirby said.

April 24, 1994 - The cost of pool safety

North Carolina's top health official...said he will ask the legislature later this month for authority to require pool operators to make modifications -- and shut down those who don't...Such a law could force changes at about 150 wading pools across the state -- less than two dozen of them in the Triangle -- and some operators are complaining about the potential expense.

Although one pool builder estimated the cost at $1,000, Raleigh swim club owner John Candler said the work could cost far more. "It will cost a small-business person like myself tens of thousands of dollars and we don't have it," Candler said.

Since May 1993, the state has required two drains in new wading pools. But about 150 older wading pools have only one drain. If the drain cover comes loose, tremendous suction from water flowing through the drain pipe can cause serious injury.

Three children have been hurt in such accidents in North Carolina and at least half a dozen similar incidents have been reported across the United States since the early 1980s. In every case the drain cover was missing altogether, but experts say most of those injuries could be prevented by adding a second drain to reduce suction.

"I honestly don't understand why something hasn't been done to require retrofitting the older ones," said Boyce Cox, president of Carolina Aquatech Pools in Sanford and a pool builder since 1956.

May 21, 1994 - Temporary rules target pool drains

June 15, 1994 - Stiffer rules for pools get nod

July 8, 1994 - Law will close wading pools with single drains

December 4, 1996 - Parents of girl hurt in pool go to trial

...The case could rewrite the record books in Wake County if the jury agrees to the monetary demand from Valerie's parents - between $35 million and $40 million to cover her medical expenses, pain and suffering and the difficulties of the child's life to come.

In the wading pool at Medfield Area Recreation Club in Cary, the drain's vortex trapped Valerie and held her with such force that Lakey and three other adults could not pull her away. Someone finally shut off the pump, and when Lakey lifted Valerie off the drain, the pool was filled with blood.

David and Sandy Lakey, in their daughter's name, are suing Sta-Rite Industries, a Delavan, Wis., company that makes pool equipment. They claim the company failed to put sufficient warnings on its drain covers even though the company knew an uncovered drain could be lethal.

Last year, the Medfield club settled with the Lakeys for $500,000. Wake County, which certified the pool, settled as well, although the amount was not disclosed. Sta-Rite is the only party in court now...

Kirby said Sta-Rite knew that pool drains needed covers to break up the possibly deadly force of a vortex and that the covers needed warnings. A California child was killed in a 1974 accident similar to Valerie's; in 1981, a boy in Henderson was killed the same way.

Kirby said the Medfield club had purchased a drain cover that did not require screws, a proven fail-safe. Shortly before Valerie got in the wading pool, some children had popped the cover off the drain. Kirby said Sta-Rite should have searched out distributors and buyers of the snap-on covers and warned them to get covers with screws.

But Tricia Kerner, who with Gary Parsons is representing Sta-Rite, said the company did everything possible to tell pool operators to install drain covers correctly. The cover for the Medfield pool drain did not have a warning stamped on it, but Kerner said it did have holes for screws. Sta-Rite, Kerner said, is not negligent. The club is the culprit for not taking greater care to ensure its equipment was in working order. The county repeatedly warned pool managers and staff workers to make sure that drain covers are secured, she said.

"Nobody disputes that this was a tragedy," Kerner said. "Nobody disputes that this wading pool was not a safe place on that day. What we dispute is the warning the pool got. Why didn't Medfield use that knowledge?"

December 5, 1996 - Witnesses detail pool incident

RALEIGH - An N.C. State professor and three other witnesses tearfully described the pool drain vortex that pulled out most of a child's intestines, as testimony began Wednesday in a civil trial over the 1993 accident...

The plastic cover, about the size and shape of a Frisbee, breaks up the force of the drain's suction. The maker, Sta-Rite Industries of Delavan, Wis., now stamps warnings on the covers and requires them to be screwed into the drain frames. But in 1987, when the drain cover in the Medfield wading pool was made, the covers bore no warnings, and the covers had only plastic prongs to be snapped into place.

Valerie's parents, David and Sandy Lakey, contend that Sta-Rite knew of the lethal dangers of missing covers: Two children, including one in Henderson, died when they were caught on uncovered pool drains. The Lakeys said the company had a responsibility to warn buyers of even its old products that the covers had to be secured.

Sta-Rite says the negligence is not with its product but with Medfield, which should have been more vigilant about the safety of the pool equipment...Lifeguards Debbie Jeffries and Benton Oaks, who also saw the accident, testified that if they had known such a danger existed, they would have made sure the cover was screwed down on the drain.

December 6, 1996 - Drain cover didn't have warning label

RALEIGH - Sta-Rite Industries' chief engineer testified Thursday that the company did not put warnings on its pool drain covers until late 1987 even though it had information before then that the suction of uncovered pool drains had killed and injured children. But Gary Brooks, the engineer, said he personally did not know about previous accidents involving the drain covers. Otherwise, he said, he would have put out warnings of them...

Sta-Rite Industries bought the company that made the pool drain covers in 1984 - 10 years after a California child was killed on an uncovered drain and three years after a Henderson, N.C., boy was seriously injured. After the 1974 death, an engineer tested the force of the vortex of an open pool drain and found that even a strong, aware adult could be trapped and could drown. The Lakeys claim Sta-Rite knew all that, yet it did not move to put warnings on the drain covers until late 1987. The drain cover in the Medfield wading pool was made in February 1987.

Sta-Rite's lawyers argue that it was Medfield, and not their product, that was at fault. They say pool managers had long been instructed to affix drain covers firmly, and the company is not liable for mistakes made at the pool.

December 11, 1996 - Company papers reveal 13 accidents like Cary girl's

RALEIGH - Under pressure from lawyers for a Cary girl injured on an open swimming pool drain in 1993, the drain-cover maker revealed that it knew of at least 13 similar accidents nationwide - far more than it has previously acknowledged. The girl's lawyers immediately rewrote their claim against Sta-Rite Industries of Delavan, Wis. On Tuesday, they accused the company of "willful and wanton negligence," asking for punitive damages on top of the millions of dollars already demanded...

The Lakeys have asked for $35 million to $40 million. They argue that Sta-Rite knew of the dangers of pool-drain covers that are not affixed with screws. The cover in the Medfield wading pool snapped on and could be pulled off.

The company said it knew about two accidents involving open pool drains, including one involving a Henderson, N.C., boy in 1981. But Sta-Rite did not put warnings on the drain covers until mid-1987. The Medfield cover was made in February 1987.

Last week, the Lakeys' lawyers asked Sta-Rite to provide company documents on any suction-entrapment accident, even if it did not involve a drain cover. John Edwards and David Kirby said the documents show that the company knew about the overall dangers its products posed.

Sta-Rite's Raleigh lawyers, Tricia Kerner and Gary Parsons, argued that they had never been asked for such documents before, and such a request in the middle of a trial was a burden. Superior Court Judge Robert Farmer told them to get the papers.

They arrived Monday. On Tuesday morning, Edwards and Kirby told Farmer that before 1987, Sta-Rite knew of eight other cases of suction entrapment, most of them children receiving injuries similar to Valerie's. Between 1987 and 1993, another five people were injured or killed by suction entrapment, including a Durham girl who suffered an intestinal injury in 1991.

If Farmer allows the jury to learn about these other cases, Edwards and Kirby likely will argue that Sta-Rite did nothing to make its products safer, even as more people were hurt. The company wants to keep the jury from seeing those documents and will argue that the extra cases did not involve pool-drain covers and thus are irrelevant to the Lakeys' claim.

December 12, 1996 - More pool drain injuries aired before jury

RALEIGH - The jury in the liability case against a maker of swimming pool drain covers heard Wednesday about more than a dozen cases of youngsters enduring injury and even dying when they were caught on open drains.

The information could help the case of David and Sandy Lakey, whose daughter Valerie was seriously hurt June 24, 1993, on an open pool drain at Medfield Area Recreation Club in Cary.

Ten women and two men have been chosen to consider the Lakeys' claim that Sta-Rite Industries of Delavan, Wis., knew the drain covers it made before mid-1987 were faulty enough to case injury and death. The Medfield drain cover was made in February 1987. The Lakeys have asked for between $35 million and $40 million to care for their daughter, now 8, who lost most of her intestines in the accident and requires constant care.

The jury already knew that Sta-Rite was aware of two previous accidents. But Wednesday, the jury found out about another 14 accidents - cases not revealed until the company handed over documents to the Lakeys' lawyers this week...Edwards implied that Sta-Rite deliberately hid that information. Sta-Rite's lawyers said those data were not requested until last week. The company had not been asked for accident data involving models of drain covers other than the one used at Medfield in 1993.

December 14, 1996 - Child hurt in drain accident talks to court

The suction pulled out most of her intestines. Three years of surgeries, hospital stays, consultations with specialists and round-the-clock care have brought her to where she can go to school every day and even compete on the Medfield swimming team. But she must get her nutrition intravenously for 12 to 14 hours a night. She runs a constant risk of infection, which could easily become life-threatening, and she likely will need a liver transplant.

David and Sandy Lakey sued on their daughter's behalf. Medfield and Wake County have settled claims with the Lakeys. In court is Sta-Rite Industries, a pool equipment manufacturer in Delavan, Wis., and a subsidiary of the utility Wisconsin Gas Co.

The Lakeys contend that even though Sta-Rite had more than a dozen complaints of injuries caused by broken or missing pool-drain covers, the company did not issue warnings or make its products safer until mid-1987. The Medfield pool's drain cover was made in February 1987.

Sta-Rite argues that the fault for Valerie's injuries lies with Medfield employees who should have known that the snap-on drain covers needed to be screwed down.

December 17, 1996 - 2 lawyers make magazine's top 8 list

Raleigh-A national legal publication has named Raleigh lawyers John Edwards and David Kirby as among the eight best in the country. Lawyers Weekly USA announced the list Monday and praised Edwards and Kirby for "tenacious lawyering and nice-guy professionalism that has resulted in at least $14 million a year in verdicts and settlements" in the four years of their partnership.

January 6, 1997 - Final stages of pool drain trial to begin

At issue in the Lakey case is whether Sta-Rite, a Delavan, Wis., pool equipment manufacturer, sufficiently warned users of a certain model of drain cover that the device had to be screwed down, not just snapped onto a fitting...

Officials for Sta-Rite, who testified the week before Christmas, said those injuries and deaths occurred primarily in hot tubs, not swimming pools. The drain covers in those cases, the officials said, were made by a company that Sta-Rite acquired in 1984. Sta-Rite's Raleigh lawyers, Tricia Kerner and Gary Parsons, told the jury that Medfield employees knew better than to leave the drain cover without a secure fastening and that any liability rests with the club.

January 10, 1997 - Defense argues pool staff knew to screw down drain covers

...Parsons, who defended Sta-Rite with his law partner Patricia Kerner, told the 10 women and two men on the jury that Medfield's personnel knew that all pool drain covers had to be screwed down to be secure. A staff member went to a training session and took notes to remind himself to check the fastening of the drain covers, Parsons said. County regulations and state law also required that drain covers be "secured." In fact, Parsons reminded the jury, the drain cover in the Medfield wading pool had been screwed into the frame at least three times in the past.

"The knowledge was there," he said. "The knowledge was in Medfield's control."

Parsons minimized the importance of the other suction-entrapment accidents. The company evaluated those cases and put warnings on the covers as soon as it believed it had enough evidence to warrant them, Parsons said. "We're trying this case, not those cases," he said. "If we had to try all those cases, we'd be here next Christmas."

January 11, 1997 - Lawyer plays to packed house

...The crowd came to watch John Edwards, a celebrated attorney, who last year was named one of the nation's eight best attorneys in the publication Lawyers Weekly USA.

Edwards is arguing this time that a large corporation should be held responsible for a faulty product and pay $42 million for negligence. What they heard was a man tortured by the recent loss of his son plead for justice on behalf of a little girl who nearly died in a freak accident and will suffer for it all of her days.

"This is it. This is her day in court," Edwards told the Superior Court jury, which begins deliberations Monday. "What you do in this courtroom will last a lifetime."

The Lakeys retained Edwards and his partner David Kirby, who argued that the pool-drain cover was faulty because it was designed only to snap into a frame, rather than to be affixed with screws.

Edwards and Kirby also argued that Sta-Rite had information on dozens of cases of suction entrapment - 13 involving pool-drain covers - and did nothing until late 1987, when it started stamping the drain covers with warnings.

The cover in the Medfield wading pool was made in February 1987.

Sta-Rite, a subsidiary of the utility Wisconsin Gas Co., hired Raleigh lawyers Gary Parsons and Patricia Kerner to argue that Medfield pool workers were to blame for Valerie's accident because they knew that pool-drain covers should have been screwed into place.

They also said the company acted as soon as it could to make its products safer.

Parsons finished his closing argument Friday morning, then Edwards stood to speak. It was his first closing since his son Wade, 16, was killed in a traffic accident April 4. Edwards' teenage daughter, Kate, sat in the front row.

For 90 minutes, Edwards led the jurors through the evidence, showing them how he figured the law had to be applied and telling them to consider the lifetime of care Valerie will need.

Periodically, he stopped and asked, "Am I making sense?" or "Y'all understand what I'm saying?" The jurors always nodded.

On a large posterboard, Edwards added up the dollars for Valerie's past and future medical bills, plus her physical and mental suffering. The total Edwards said was necessary: $42 million.

Finally, Edwards put down his pen and faced the jury. His voice, already soft, dropped even lower in pitch and volume. Everyone in the room leaned in to listen.

"There was a wonderful, wonderful thing written this past spring by someone who was writing about a tragedy that occurred," Edwards said. "It involved the death of a young boy who should not have died. "What he wrote was this: 'We have to gather around this family not because we understand what they're going through but because they have to know we share their pain.' " Edwards paused, as he struggled for words. "Their loss is our loss," he said. "Their child is our child. The responsibility we have toward our children. ..."

Edwards looked over his shoulder and spotted his daughter. He opened his mouth and for a moment, no words came out. He turned to the jury again: "That responsibility is a most awesome responsibility."

When Edwards finished, the people in Courtroom 10A let out a breath. Judge Robert Farmer called for a break. The lawyers filed out with that I-just-saw-Elvis look in their eyes.

Kate Edwards jumped up, ran to her father and hugged him.

January 14, 1997 - Record $25 million awarded in drain case

RALEIGH - A Wake County jury gave a 9-year-old girl the largest damage award in state history Monday, telling a Wisconsin company to pay $25 million to Valerie Lakey, who was eviscerated on an open swimming pool drain in 1993.

The 10 women and two men on the Superior Court panel deliberated for less than three hours before finding Sta-Rite Industries negligent in the accident at Cary's Medfield Area Recreation Club...David and Sandy Lakey, Valerie's parents, hugged each other and their lawyers when the jury returned its verdict. "The facts were on our side, and I think the jury recognized that," said David Lakey.

All the lawyers declined to comment until after the jury decides the question of punitive damages. The jury will not be bound by a new law capping punitive damages because Lakey vs. Sta-Rite was filed before Jan. 1, 1996.

Before Monday's verdict, the biggest injury judgments in North Carolina were for $15 million each - a 1988 wrongful death case in Cumberland County and a 1991 negligence case in Hertford County involving a nursing-home patient who died after receiving the wrong drug.

The jury awarded David and Sandy Lakey $4.2 million for Valerie's past and future treatment until she is 18. Then the panel awarded Valerie $20.8 million for her care when she becomes an adult. The Lakeys asked for $42 million, but were satisfied with the award. "We're just really glad there was a jury that recognized what we recognized -that Valerie's needs are going to be great," David Lakey said...Though she can go to school and play outside, she must be home by 7 every night so she can be hooked up to intravenous nutrition through a tube in her upper chest for 12 to 14 hours. She also has a gastrointestinal tube for medication.

January 15, 1997
- Pool firm's cash to end drain case, Payment decision skirts new penalties

RALEIGH - A Wisconsin company will pay what appears to be the largest product-liability judgment in the history of the swimming pool industry when it writes a $25 million check by the end of this month to Valerie Lakey, who was eviscerated in a 1993 accident.

A Wake County jury awarded that sum - the biggest injury judgment ever in North Carolina - to Valerie, a Raleigh third-grader, and her parents Monday afternoon. After consulting with its European insurers, Sta-Rite Industries decided to end the case by paying the judgment in cash. The unusual resolution in court Tuesday let the Lakeys avoid years of appeals and let Sta-Rite avoid the prospect of punitive damages, which the jurors were scheduled to consider. The Lakeys also have settled with three other parties for $5.9 million.

"We're very pleased," said David Lakey, Valerie's father. "We feel that this will be enough to help take care of Valerie"...

The jury returned the $25 million verdict in less than three hours.

Juror Wanda Presnell of Raleigh said Tuesday that the panel of 10 women and two men discussed the evidence fully but when considering the law, the case quickly tipped in favor of the Lakeys. "I was pretty headstrong that we take care of that little girl," said Presnell. "I hope that this will make a difference, that something like this will never happen to another child."

The Lakeys sued Sta-Rite, Medfield, Wake County and Haworth Co., which made the circulation pump in the Medfield pool, in January 1994. Three of the parties settled out of court - Medfield for $500,000, Wake County for $2.5 million and Haworth for $2.9 million.

In a statement Tuesday, Sta-Rite's president, James Donnelly, expressed sympathy for Valerie and her parents but insisted that if Medfield personnel had used the cover properly, Valerie would be healthy now.

"Sta-Rite was not responsible for what happened," he said.

Donnelly also complained that the company was not allowed to present the jury with important evidence. Raleigh lawyer Gary Parsons, who with his partner Patricia Kerner represented Sta-Rite, said several items were excluded that he thinks could have helped. "Each individual item, you can't say what the effect would be," Parsons said. "Cumulatively, though, we think it would have been important."

Zurich Insurance Co., the Swiss carrier for Sta-Rite, will pay "the vast majority" of the settlement, said company spokesman Dennis Ruis, although he would not define "vast majority." Sta-Rite itself will have to pay the balance...

Sta-Rite spokesman Dennis Ruis said the company has never paid a judgment of this size. Other children who have been injured on open pool drains have sued Sta-Rite, but the company had always settled out of court, sometimes for as little as several thousand dollars.

John Edwards, the Raleigh lawyer who with David Kirby represented the Lakeys, said Sta-Rite's last settlement offer before the trial began in November was $1.5 million.

The $25 million deal struck Tuesday also departs from custom in civil cases because the Lakeys will get the exact amount the jury awarded them. The settlement is subject to federal taxes.

Neil Vidmar, a Duke University law professor who studies liability cases, said that contrary to popular understanding, people who win a lot of money in court rarely end up banking it. A defendant often offers a smaller amount in return for dropping the appeal, Vidmar said, and a plaintiff often accepts. A trial judge also can unilaterally decide that the jury made a mistake and reduce the award. An appeals court may throw out the whole award, too.

Lawyers' fees in civil cases vary, but Vidmar said they average about 30 percent of the jury verdict. Edwards and Kirby would not disclose their fee.

January 19, 1997 - Pool drain-maker pays $25 million

...After consulting with its European insurers, Sta-Rite Industries of Wisconsin decided to end the case Tuesday. The company plans to write the $25 million check by the end of the month. The unusual resolution in court let the Lakeys avoid years of appeals and let Sta-Rite avoid the prospect of punitive damages, which the jurors were scheduled to consider.

May 22, 1997 - Girl adapts to life since drain accident, verdict

...Four months after a Wake County jury gave the Raleigh family the record $25 million judgment, life has achieved a certain normalcy. "We've become more relaxed, now that we don't have the specter of the trial," Sandy Lakey said Wednesday. "It was a big part of our lives for a long time. We're glad it's over."

As Valerie tells the nosy, the money goes toward her care. After months of hospitalizations, operations and specialists, she is hooked up for 12 to 14 hours every night to an intravenous feeding system. She faces the possibility of an organ transplant. During the trial, Valerie suffered abdominal pain that stumped her doctors. After the trial, the Lakeys took Valerie to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where doctors said her gallbladder had to come out. The surgery was performed in March, and her mother says Valerie looks and feels better. "Even her teacher comments on it," Sandy Lakey said.

The jury verdict, Lakey said, has allowed her to hire private nurses...In the first weeks after the verdict, Sandy Lakey said, strangers called their home or stopped the family in grocery stores to offer encouragement. "Life's pretty much resumed a normal pace," she said. "We're plugging along, and Valerie's feeling better."

May 26, 1997 - Like 'The Candidate.' he's building a case for his campaign

...When Edwards attended the Democrats' recent Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Raleigh, he had to introduce himself to most of the party regulars. But a year from now, Edwards hopes he will be his party's nominee for the U.S. Senate, preparing to take on Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth.

Edwards, who will turn 44 next month, is an intriguing political newcomer who seems to have the ability and deep pockets to become a political player, as well as some liabilities that could cause him to crash and burn...Edwards has the thinnest party credentials. But he is also the candidate who seems most likely to run...

Edwards strikes a populist tone, which is not surprising for someone who has spent much of his career suing corporations on behalf of injured people...Practicing law in Raleigh, Edwards and his partner David Kirby in December were rated among the eight best lawyers in the country by Lawyers Weekly USA. Edwards has made a fortune, and he is likely to use some of it to help finance his campaign. He also probably will benefit from significant contributions from trial lawyers. But his background also will provide his opponents with a juicy target. Personal injury lawyers are only slightly more popular than newspaper reporters.

Edwards says that he doesn't think standing up for average people is a political liability, and that he will be ready for any such attacks. "I absolutely believe that what I've been doing for the last 22 years is perfect preparation for going to Washington and advocating for the people,'' he said..."I'm proud of what I have done,'' Edwards said. "I am more than happy to have Valerie Lakey and Joe Blaney, whose wife was killed by a drunk driver a year ago - any of these folks - stand up and speak on my behalf, which I know they will. Whatever issue they raise about that, I intend to take it head-on.

(I'd planned on this page growing over time as I looked into tort reform issues,
but for now have left it simply as a resource about the Lakey case.
Feel free to email me with questions and/or info.)

(The Monkey Media Report might have something new and interesting.)