Matt Murray, high-award reaping personal injury lawyer, is a member of the sprawling Murray clan.
Jessica Lester was 25 years old when she was crushed by an Allied Concrete truck.
PHOTO COURTESY ALLEN & ALLEN
The jury was so moved by 25-year-old Jessica Lester's 2007 death under the weight of an out-of-control Allied Concrete mixer that it awarded a record $10.6 million, the bulk of which to go to her grieving husband.
Now, seven months after the December trial, allegations that a respected personal injury lawyer lied, withheld evidence, and failed to disclose a family connection to the jury foreperson threaten to overturn the award– and a career.
Lawyers for Allied Concrete and its driver, William Sprouse, detail in a court filing how plaintiff's attorney Matt Murray allegedly instructed Jessica's husband, Isaiah Lester, to remove photos of himself partying, à la Casey Anthony, from Facebook and withhold them from a defense discovery request.
The defense also asserts that Murray ordered a paralegal to withhold the "stink-bomb" email that instructed Lester to get rid of the pictures, and when she refused to do so, Murray withheld it himself, then later called the omission an oversight by another paralegal.
One day after the July 5 defense arguments were filed, Murray resigned as managing partner for Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen, the largest personal injury firm in Virginia, which had recruited him to open its Charlottesville office in 2008. Murray also resigned from the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, of which he was a recent president.
"I retired from practicing law," says Murray, who also was a former president of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association.
He had previously stepped aside as Lester's attorney. "I withdrew five months ago when these allegations were made," says Murray, who declined to comment on the allegations but added, "We're in litigation." His attorney, Tom Williamson, did not return a phone call from the Hook.
On June 21, 2007, Jessica Lester was driving to work in a Honda Accord with her husband on curvy Route 53, the same road William Sprouse had chosen to haul 36,000 pounds of cement to a bridge job in Palmyra.
Near the entrance to Monticello, Sprouse was speeding around a curve when he lost control of the cement mixer, which rolled over and crushed the Honda, witnesses testified at the trial. Jessica Lester died eight days later with what her neurosurgeon described as the worst skull fracture he'd ever seen.
Sprouse pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a two-year sentence, with all but 30 days suspended.
The Facebook photo taken one year after Jessica's death showed widower Isaiah Lester holding a can of beer and wearing a t-shirt that read "I [heart] hot moms" with a garter around his head, according to court filings. When Allied attorneys asked for a copy of the photo on March 25, 2009, Murray allegedly told Lester that the easiest way to handle the request would be to take down his Facebook page.
The next day, according to the defense, Allen & Allen paralegal Marlina Smith emailed Lester, "There are some other pictures that should be deleted," and subsequently wrote, "We do NOT want blow ups of other pics at trial, so please, please, please clean up your Facebook and myspace!!"
Unlike Casey Anthony, there was never a suggestion that Lester had anything to do with the death of his wife, but his post-mortem demeanor could affect the award. The defense contends that Lester lied about the photo in his response to a document request and under oath about seeing the so-called stink-bomb email. Lester did not respond to an email from a reporter.
Murray, according to the defense, did not turn over the stink-bomb email until after the December 2010 trial.
"He falsely represented to this Court that it had all the ordered emails, which he knew was an egregious lie," says the court filing. When the trial was over, Murray produced the stink-bomb email and "continued his cover-up by sending a letter to this Court blaming another paralegal" for leaving out the stink bomb email, the filing alleges. When the paralegal refuted his story, Murray admitted in a February 28 deposition that he "had lied about that too," the filing claims.
Allied counsel also alleges that Murray did not disclose a connection to a juror. Here's the connection: Juror Mandy Hoy was the former director of Meals on Wheels, an organization with which Murray's firm has donated money and for whom Murray's mother, Bunny Murray, has volunteered for 15 years.
Allen & Allen stood to gain $3 million from Murray's conduct that was "egregious, unlawful, and unethical," according to the filing.
Defense attorney David Tafuri declined comment on his request for sanctions, but the news of Murray's conduct and abrupt resignation sent shock waves through Charlottesville's legal community, where Murray is both well-respected and well-liked.
"My reaction is one of very great surprise and disappointment because I think he's a good lawyer," says Tom Albro, who has battled Murray in the courtroom, notably in what he calls the "infamous WVIR libel case" in which Murray won a $10-million defamation award (later reduced to $1 million) for his client against the television station Albro represented.
"I think that he's a good person and he works very hard for his clients," says Albro. "I've found him to be absolutely courteous and ethical."
Accusations of evidence destruction are very serious– and unusual– and could be subject to contempt or an ethics violation, says Albro. "Particularly if discovery had been served," he says, "then it's most certainly a violation and would be sanctionable."
Albro reports that there was a contentious relationship between Murray and Tafuri, who practices with Patton Boggs in Washington, DC.
"The way they practice the law in DC and Northern Virginia is scorched earth," observes Heilberg, though he hedges, "I'm not saying Tafuri is like that."
Heilberg, who admits he isn't familiar with details from the case, says that it seems that the emails sought by the defense would fall under attorney-client privilege.
"For the judge to ask seems unusual," says Heilberg. "There are very limited exceptions to breaching confidentiality."
As for Murray's connection to the juror, Heilberg says that sounds pretty tenuous.
"What did Matt personally know?" asks Heilberg. "He may have known his mom's a volunteer, but unless he went with her, he wouldn't have known the director. Allen & Allen donates a lot of money. It could be that he met her and didn't remember."
As for the Facebook photo, it seems "marginal" to Heilberg. "It would be more relevant in a case where the spouse survived," he says. "[Isaiah Lester] is in his twenties, he's acting his age, he's expressing his grief in a poor public display.
"There's a difference between saying take down the photos and destroying them," says Heilberg. "It's not evidence. It happened after the fact."
And, he wonders, "What does this have to do with [Allied's] liability and that someone was killed?"
Allied attorneys offer some suggestions to Judge Edward Hogshire, who will hear the case September 23: dismiss Lester's claim as a sanction for Murray's alleged conduct; order a new trial, and prohibit Allen & Allen from representing him, or slice the award to $2.2 million or $1.1 million, and prohibit Allen & Allen from collecting its contingency fee.
"I don't know what Matt did," says Heilberg. "He might have crossed a line, and it could have been forgivable misconduct," warranting a private reprimand from the Virginia State Bar. "He's already had his public reprimand."
–edited 11:11am Tuesday, July 26 for print publication