Despite Win at Trial, Family Awaits Award

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From the St. Petersburg Times

A jury found a doctor negligent and awarded a girl's family $11-million. But their fight continues to receive any money at all.

It has been seven years since a doctor cut open Jessica Roud's brain. It's been five years since the little girl's father sued the surgeon who he said left her paralyzed and blind. It's been two years since the 11-year-old died.

Last year, a Pinellas jury awarded the family $11-million after finding Dr. Louis Solomon of St. Petersburg negligent for leaving Jessica a prisoner in her small, cancer-ravaged body in her final years.

But even after all that time, her family continues to wait.

A year after the verdict, the Rouds, formerly of Sarasota, have not received any money from Solomon or his insurance company.

"That's the saddest thing of all about the civil justice system," said Richard Shapiro, the Bradenton attorney who represented the Rouds.

Legal experts say that unlike the swift pace of justice on television and in the movies, civil cases often can drag on for years and leave plaintiffs with far less money than they expected.

Lawyers say they try to warn their clients about the countless obstacles that can occur, and note that even if they are victorious with a jury, the battle for money is far from over.

Jessica's father, Richard Roud, already considers himself well-versed in the legal system after enduring years of waiting for his case to go to trial. He knows not to wait around for the money.

"I was told it was going to take years," Roud said. "If Jessica were still alive, it would be more important. Now, it's just going to be my retirement."

There are many reasons why damage awards take so long to collect -- if they are collected at all. After a trial ends, the judge may reduce the amount of the award. The defendants may declare bankruptcy or hide their assets. An appellate court may dismiss the verdict altogether or send the case back for another trial.

Or, as in the Roud case, the plaintiffs may have to go after the money in a second lawsuit against an insurance company.

"It's the most frustrating thing in the world," said Sean Dominck, an attorney in a West Palm Beach firm known for its medical malpractice and products liability cases. "You could go years after a verdict without collecting."

Trial is just a first step

Circuit Judge Thomas Penick receives letters from time to time from distraught people who were successful in court and now want help cutting through the red tape and getting their jury awards.

But there's nothing he can do.

Penick, one of the area's longest-serving judges, can't change do a thing about a legal system that leaves people waiting for years to collect the money awarded to them at trial.

"This is something the general public needs to know," said Penick, a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge. "In this day and age, getting a verdict is one thing. But collecting the money is a whole new ballgame."

It can take a decade for some to get their award, which is valid for 20 years under Florida law. Some don't get it at all.

In a nine-year period ending in 1995, the state Comptroller's Office estimated that a jury award was paid in 36 percent of cases with punitive damages. In the remaining 64 percent, the money either could not be collected or had yet to be collected.

"Just because the jury's work ends doesn't mean it's over," St. Petersburg lawyer Michael Keane said.

Sometimes, legal moves after trial are just a delaying tactic, such as hiding assets. Other times, they are necessary, such as declaring bankruptcy -- a drastic step.

"It's not unusual for these things to happen," said Thomas Scarritt, a Tampa attorney who heads the Florida Bar's trial attorney section. "It's a general misperception for people to think they get the money the next day."

First, attorneys' fees come out of an award -- usually a third, but sometimes up to half the amount. Litigation expenses reduce the figure too. But judges also have the power to lower the overall amount.

The National Law Journal reported that jury verdicts not reduced by courts were rare in 2000. In Alabama, for example, a claim against Orkin was cut from $81-million to $4.4-million.

Sometimes an appellate court reduces the amount. A higher court, though, could also dismiss the verdict or send the case back to a lower court for another trial.

A recent Escambia County medical malpractice case went back and forth between courts. At the first trial, the plaintiff won. At the second trial, the defendant won. At the third trial, the plaintiff won again.

It's no wonder that many plaintiffs wind up settling for a lesser amount than they're awarded after a trial is over. That ensures neither side will appeal.

"The verdict is really just round one," Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada said. "What separates the men from the boys is the ability to collect."

The nine-year state comptroller study showed that total collections were only 13.2 cents on the dollar.

Lawyers who specialize in collecting judgments have been around for years but are becoming more important in today's litigious society.

The cost in interest that begins to build on an award after a trial is the strongest incentive for defendants to pay up. But, often, it's not enough.

That's why cases such as Roud vs. Solomon are not the exception. They're the rule.

The battles continue

Jessica Roud was playing ball with kids at school March 20, 1994, when she fell and hit her head. An MRI revealed a brain tumor.

Solomon operated on her twice in two days.

Before the second surgery, Shapiro, the family's attorney, said Jessica was able to move, see and swallow. Afterward, she was not, he said.

Solomon was not blamed for Jessica's death on Valentine's Day 1999 but for operating the second time.

Weeks after the trial ended in May 2000, Roud encountered his first problem.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge David Demers reduced the award to $8-million, determining that both Roud and Jessica's estate should receive $4-million.

Jessica's mother, Helen Barry, a beneficiary of her estate whose last known address was Sarasota, did not attend the trial because of the emotional stress and was not awarded any money. Roud said he has not seen her since their daughter's funeral and has been unable to find her with a private detective.

Solomon appealed the verdict to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, the same place Roud was challenging Demers' reduction. Then, the doctor declared bankruptcy, a move that froze his money for months.

"The bigger the award, the longer the recovery," said Shapiro, who was honored by a trial lawyers group for his relentless commitment to this case. "The wheels of justice turn very slow."

Solomon and his attorney did not return phone calls last week. His insurance company, the Florida Physicians Insurance Co., which covers 8,000 doctors, also did not return a call.

Shapiro is about to begin a second battle, a new suit against Solomon's insurance company for the doctor's $8-million judgment. Solomon was covered for up to $500,000, but Shapiro says the insurer should pay the entire amount because it did not settle the claim in good faith when it had the chance.

In Florida, plaintiffs are forced to get an award against an individual, such as a doctor, before going after that person's insurer, who usually is the one with the money.

In the meantime, while he waits, Roud has tried to get on with his life.

He moved to New Jersey and went back to school. He soon will switch to a career in banking, as he tries to make ends meet. He remarried and has two stepdaughters, who cuddle with some of Jessica's old stuffed animals.

"If the money comes, it'll be great," he said. "But finding Solomon negligent was the No. 1 thing."

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