For a little over two years, it has been my great pleasure to know and and honor to represent Marilyn Noe -- although, unfortunately, most of our conversations, by necessity, have been serious ones.
Every week, the assisted living center where Ms. Noe lives transported a number of residents to the Publix Supermarket located at 2900 Peachtree Road in an Atlanta shopping center known as "The Peach." And, every week, Ms. Noe purchased a bag of Community Coffee with chicory, a specialty blend from New Orleans.
Not coincidentally, the Publix in question usually sold one bag of Community Coffee a week. In fact, according to evidence, the only reason the product was kept in stock at all was at the persistent request of Ms. Noe, who, at 81, speaks her mind and can be quite persuasive.
Community Coffee, obviously, was never been the hottest selling product on the shelves at Publix -- but it probably had the distinction of being the highest product on the shelves.
That is, the bags of chicory coffee which apparently were ordered specifically for Ms. Noe were placed on top of a freestanding unit of shelves that towered seven feet high. Yet, as at least some employees knew, the only customer likely to purchase any of those bags, by contrast, is a diminutive 4'8" tall -- or 4'8" short, to be a little (no pun intended) more accurate.
The beer is nearby, so it's usually a busy part of the store, and Ms. Noe would look around for someone tall she could ask to reach the coffee for her. She also liked to browse the other unusual items banished to this obscure nook, which actually is a recess for an exit door and a place where one might not even expect to find any display at all.
At about 2 p.m. on the afternoon of June 2, 2010, no tall people were nearby. Ms. Noe was alone on the aisle.
Here's what happened:
The security cameras at Publix leave much to be desired. For starters, they don't even record video. Rather, the system captures a series of tiny, low-resolution still images -- three per secondt. Oh, and nine seconds are missing.
After Ms. Noe disappears from sight into the recess, there's a break in the timecode from 14:01:38 to 14:01:48. That, we're told, is because the system is motion activated. Maybe so, although we found several other timecode breaks which occurred despite plenty of activity. The best that can be said, I argued in court, is that the quality of this footage is so poor and unreliable, it shows only one thing with certainty: An enormous set of shelves toppled over, suddenly crushing an elderly customer.
Ms. Noe sustained a concussion and a laceration three-and-a-half inches wide that requiring 15 sutures. She also got two very black eyes, as well as injuries and bruising to other parts of her body.
What she didn't get from Publix was an apology, let alone adequate compensation for her injuries. She was, however, offered a certificate worth $100 toward purchases at any Publix store.
I was surprised, to say the least, when attorneys for Publix blamed Ms. Noe for the accident. In fact, their contention was that she scaled the shelves and then lied about it.
The same year its shelving unit fell on Ms. Noe, Publix ranked #99 on the Fortune 500 list of U.S. companies. The grocery store chain is the 14th largest retailer in the U.S., with profits well over $1 billion a year, some of which it used to hire "expert" witnesses to testify about the construction of the shelving unit as well as what is "actually" depicted in the extraordinarily poor "video" produced by the store's own surveillance system.
One of those witnesses testified he was unbiased but admitted he earns more than 70 percent of his income from Publix and has been retained in more than 60 legal cases against the chain during the last several years. Another claimed the shelving unit was so sturdy he could have done chinups on it.
Frankly, I found all of that ridiculous -- and was perplexed by the show of force.
This is not a case I ever expected to go to trial. Yet, Publix, in my opinion, showed little interest in reaching a settlement, and subsequent mediation failed. So, on June 11 -- two years and nine days after the incident -- I appeared before Judge Susan Forsling in Fulton County State Court to empanel a jury with my colleague Kelley Brooks Simoneaux, who played a major role in the case before and during trial.
Four days and many Subway sandwiches later, that jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Noe and awarded her $65,000. In reaching a decision on the amount, jurors were required to consider how much longer she is likely to live.
"According to Georgia life expectancy tables, I have no more than two-and-a-half-years left!" Ms. Noe wrote the other day. "Gotta move fast!"
I've been told there's nothing wrong with flattery as long as one doesn't inhale it, so I'll try not to -- while at the same time repeating a few of her compliments. This was a long, expensive, David-and-Goliath fight, and I've won larger verdicts during my career, but the gratitude of this client means more to me than I can say.
"During the nearly two years Keegan represented me, he fought the deep-pocket, arrogant forces aligned against us," Ms. Noe told friends. "He out-thought them all the way. The defense team mocked my story and my physical disabilities. They flat-out called me a liar from their opening statement through closing. Keegan lays a trap for the other side... they jump right in! A former judge himself, he understands all sides of a case. He worked for me!"
I'm going to try to live up to Ms. Noe's description:
"A gentleman and a man of probity. Disciplined, focused, ever courteous -- and clever."
I hope I never have to file or fight another case as seemingly unnecessary as this one, but I wouldn't hesitate to do it all over again.
The only part of the case that presented any difficulty at all was keeping the feisty and outspoken Ms. Noe from jumping out of her chair to give someone a piece of her mind -- although I did not go so far as to attempt, to transform her into "a mild-mannered grandmother."
"Who, me?" she asked. "I should get a home perm, a blue rinse, sensible shoes, and a cardigan?"
She said she did take to heart the admonition that her "smart mouth" could get her into trouble -- but that being quiet was her worst ordeal of all.
What a great lady! Thank you, Ms. Noe, for the pleasure of representing you!