As featured in the article “Woman wins $100k from Geico with attorneys fees possible” by The Daily Report’s Mark Niesse:

A woman whose insurance company opposed her in court won a $124,000 verdict for a three-car wreck on Interstate 285 that flipped her SUV across the highway.

The insurance company, Geico, represented the hit-and-run driver who caused the chain-reaction accident after the insurer balked at paying the plaintiff’s $100,000 policy for uninsured motorist coverage, said her attorney, Lloyd Hoffspiegel. The defendant was identified as John Doe because he was never apprehended.

The Oct. 16 verdict in DeKalb County State Court was reduced to plaintiff Valencia Swift’s $100,000 policy limit, but she will have the option to pursue a bad faith claim worth 25 percent of the judgment—$25,000—plus her attorney fees because Geico failed to settle, Hoffspiegel said.

“There was no reason for them to play hardball with us. It was an economic decision on their part. It gets your dander up when they’re trying to play hardball to save a couple of bucks,” said Hoffspiegel, of Hoffspiegel & Associates.

Geico’s attorney in the case, Richard Ormand of Bridges, Ormand & Nash, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Geico initially offered $70,000, and then agreed to pay the $100,000 policy limit two weeks before trial, Hoffspiegel said. But by then, Hoffspiegel said he was confident a jury would return a verdict in excess of the policy limit and the bad faith claim could be brought.

“It was a calculated risk on our part, but we thought we had a strong case with good witnesses,” Hoffspiegel said.

The verdict included $85,000 for Swift’s pain and suffering, as well as about $39,000 for medical expenses including two broken ribs and a concussion.

One factor that worked against Swift was that she recovered from her injuries within five months of the accident, Hoffspiegel said.

Hoffspiegel learned from a focus group how important it was to confine Swift’s claims for damages to the period of her medical treatment. Swift was hospitalized for four days, suffered post-concussion syndrome for several weeks, had to use a walker, lost memory capacity and focus, and couldn’t sleep in bed due to her rib pain.

“Otherwise the jury would think she was embellishing. The medical records were clear about how much better she got after five months. For her to say something inconsistent with that would have been hurtful to us,” he said.

Swift, who was 60 years old at the time of the accident on Feb. 8, 2011, was driving her 1997 Ford Explorer in the third lane from the right of I-285 northbound near Chamblee Tucker Road and Buford Highway, according to her complaint.

The unknown defendant was in the right lane when he swerved to the left, hitting a 2005 Buick LaCrosse in the second lane. The Buick struck Swift’s car, which rolled over three or four times before coming to rest against a guard rail, Hoffspiegel said. Swift, a retired Marta driver, was taken by ambulance to Atlanta Medical Center.

During the two-day trial, the defense admitted negligence but tried to hold down damages, Hoffspiegel said.

The defense didn’t present any witnesses or documents, he said. For the plaintiff’s side, jurors heard testimony from Swift, her doctor, her physical therapist, a family member, a friend and a witness to the crash.

“There was only evidence for the plaintiff and only argument for the defense,” Hoffspiegel said. “When you’ve got a nice person and clear liability, I think that gave her an advantage.”

During closing statements, Hoffspiegel asked for $175,000 and Geico suggested $75,000. The jury split the difference to arrive at its $124,000 verdict, he said.

“It was a case where I didn’t have to reach for the sky because I was capped at the coverage,” he said. “If I got $101,000, it was just as good as $201,000.”

The jury, which was roughly balanced between women and men, deliberated for about two hours before reaching its verdict, he said.

State Court Judge Stacey Hydrick oversaw the trial. The case is Swift v. Doe, No. 11A38299.

This article was featured in the Tuesday November 6, 2012 edition of The Daily Report.