Civil squirm: Huguely must testify in $30 million lawsuit
Two months after an explosive criminal trial and mere days before time expired to file a civil suit, Sharon Love has filed a $30 million action against the man convicted of killing her 22-year-old daughter. While doubts arise about the likelihood that she will ever collect a penny from the convicted killer, Mrs. Love may get something more valuable: seeing George W. Huguely V take the stand.
"The Loves could call George Huguely as the first witness in the plaintiff's case," says legal analyst David Heilberg, who notes that might be a savvy strategy.
"I love to do that when we perceive our adversary to be the scoundrel," says Heilberg, a practicing lawyer. "You put them right out there first. It sets the tone."
Heilberg says the chance to see Huguely squirm may begin long before the former University of Virginia college lacrosse player ever reaches the witness stand, as the Loves would likely force Huguely to submit to questioning during the pre-trial investigative process known as "depositions."
In a deposition, lawyers for the Love family would likely conduct a veritable fishing expedition and ask questions about money, women, sports, and prior acts of violence.
"The fishing expedition aspect of depositions is to determine what devil is in the details not known before filing," says Heilberg, noting that while Huguely might object, the convicted killer might be largely powerless to avoid answering. "They can ask anything," says Heilberg, "that is calculated to lead to admissible evidence."
Bill Clinton learned a hard lesson about the power of a deposition when asked in a sexual harassment case if he had a relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. For lying under oath, the president lost his license to practice law.
Heilberg explains that the well-known Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination that allows a defendant to avoid testifying in a criminal trial doesn't apply in the civil system. The only ways for Huguely to delay depositions would be getting getting a new trial, something Heilberg doubts will happen, or by dragging out his criminal appeals.
Yeardley Love was found dead on her bed early May 3, 2010, and Huguely was convicted of second-degree murder in February after the jury watched a videotape of him admitting to attacking and injuring her while she was sleeping.
But will Mrs. Love ever see any money from Huguely, a man who appears likely to remain behind bars past his 40th birthday?
"Most criminal convictions are collection proof," says Heilberg. "Those convicted don't have the assets to pay."
On the other hand, the Huguely case starts with an unusual convict. Born into a family that owned a lumber and building supply company for more than 100 years in the D.C. area and having grown up in comfortable Chevy Chase, he could be seen as a "deep-pocket defendant," particularly if he has a trust fund, says Heilberg.
If Huguely has a vested trust fund that hasn't already been wiped out by legal fees, that could be available, says Heilberg, noting also that wealthy families also tend to have insurance.
However, Huguely's father has experienced some financially draining situations in recent years. The elder Huguely's woes include a bitter divorce, some lawsuits, a highly-publicized drunk-driving arrest, and foreclosures that include a six-figure property loss right here in the Ivy area of Albemarle County.
Even a trust fund or a long-planned bequest can be rearranged, says Heilberg, suggesting that Huguely may have already been "written out of some wills."
What probably won't happen to the family of Huguely, who was 22 when he killed Love, is any ruling that holds them liable for his actions. "The only way the parents are liable," says Heilberg, "is if they were negligent themselves."
And even though civil suits demand a lower burden of proof than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard that the Charlottesville jury used February 22 to find Huguely guilty and recommend a 26-year sentence, there are still hurdles in squeezing money from a killer via the "preponderance of evidence" standard in a civil trial.
The families of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson know this all too well. Despite winning a $33.5 million jury award against the man once known as "The Juice," the families have struggled to extract any money from O.J. Simpson, who allegedly dodged payment and hid assets before going to jail on a subsequent kidnapping conviction.
Sharon Love's lawsuit accuses Huguely of negligence and "acting with utter disregard, and reckless indifference" in the death of her daughter, who was weeks away from graduation from UVA. As the administrator of the estate, Sharon Love seeks $29,450,000 in compensation and $1 million in punitive damages.
In the police interview played during trial, Huguely admitted kicking Yeardley Love's door, engaging in a physical altercation, and conceded that he didn't call paramedics even though his fellow college senior was admittedly left bleeding in her bedroom.
However, several defenses might emerge in a civil suit, and Heilberg points out one of the most common in Virginia is contributory negligence, a blame-the-victim concept that has quashed many lawsuits. Love’s high blood alcohol content might also arise, says Heilberg.
As for how Love's legal team may be compensated, the methods range from a simple retainer to a contingency agreement or even pro bono. Heilberg notes that unlike the personal injury attorneys who typically advertise on television and work for a contingency fee based on what they win for their clients, the complexity of this case may steer Love's attorney, Richmond-based Mahlon "Bud" Funk, away from the usual 40 percent arrangement. Funk did not return a phone call from a reporter.
"Many lawsuits are a matter of principle," says Heilberg, suggesting that in addition to forcing Huguely to testify, another goal may include preventing the man who caused so much sorrow, mental anguish, and loss of solace from getting out of prison with money waiting for him.
Another possible reason was recently offered by the mother of Morgan Harrington, the young woman was found murdered after attending a 2009 concert at John Paul Jones Arena. Gil Harrington informed the Hook last October that she filed suit against the Arena's security company in order to pose questions about what happened that night. Today, Harrington notes that the reasons for initiating a lawsuit are different for every parent of a slain child.
"As parents, we're seeking answers and trying to make sense," explains Harrington. "It'll never make sense. It's an unfathomable act, and there's no answer. That's the conundrum for the surviving family."
If questions remain for Sharon Love, the civil case can't proceed until the criminal one is done, and the Love family may have trouble with discovery because, Heilberg explains, evidence can be withheld until the appeals are exhausted. And Huguely's lawyers reportedly are expected to file a motion for a retrial.
"There are many hurdles for the plaintiffs," says Heilberg. "If money for defense is in no short supply but money to actually pay any judgment award is scarce, this will only be a pyrrhic victory."
Attached Documents:This story is a part of the Huguely trial coverage special.