A lawyer for Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who lost a $1.6 million Lexington County civil verdict in July, has asked the trial judge to toss out the verdict or reduce it to $300,000 or below.
The jury award was “clearly excessive and based upon passion, caprice or prejudice by the jury,” argued Lott’s lawyer, Patrick Frawley to trial Judge William Keesley in papers filed in Lexington County.
Moreover, Frawley writes, if damages are upheld, they should be reduced to a maximum of $300,000 or below, because under state law governmental entities like the sheriff’s department can only be held liable for up to $300,000 for acts of negligence.
The purpose of that law is to award citizens some compensation for wrong-doing by employees of a government agency but to keep that award so low that it doesn’t put a financial burden on the government agency, according to language in the S.C. Tort Claims Act.
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In reply filings before Keesley, winning lawyer Jake Moore argued that the $300,000 limitation on damages to be paid out by government agencies only applies to negligent acts by government agencies.
“The jury returned verdicts ... on causes of action for malicious prosecution and abuse of process, not negligence,” Moore wrote. Those acts by one of Lott’s deputies against his client, Kay Paschal, were intentional – not mere negligence.”
Under S.C. law, sheriffs are responsible for the actions of their employees and are named in lawsuits as defendants. Lott testified briefly during the trial, telling the jury he had no direct involvement in the case.
The case that Lott lost after a weeklong trial concerned the $6 million estate of a prominent Columbia businessman, David Wallace, who died at age 88 in 2011.
In Wallace’s final years, he struck up a relationship with local lawyer Kay Paschal, with whom he had a close live-in relationship with, according to trial evidence.
After Wallace died, Paschal had a claim to share in his estate – valued at some $6 million – and was named personal representative of his estate. But Wallace’s two adult children, Jeffrey and Elizabeth Wallace, petitioned the Richland County Probate Court to remove her.
The two Wallace children also believed they had discovered an improper financial transaction committed by Paschal in the last year of their father’s life, and they brought that allegation to Richland County Deputy Lt. Heidi Scott, according to court documents.
The transaction involved the June 2010 purchase of a $63,000 Sienna van by Paschal with Wallace’s money, just after Wallace suffered a stroke.
Prompted by the Wallace children, Lott’s deputy Scott persuaded a Lexington County sheriff’s investigator, Stephen Baumgardner, a 16-year veteran detective specializing in white-collar crimes, to look into the van purchase. The van had been purchased in Lexington County, which was why Scott asked the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department to investigate.
However, Baumgardner found that Paschal had bought the van with Wallace’s knowledge and cooperation, according to legal papers.
Baumgardner declined to proceed with the case. But then, Scott in November 2011 “took it upon herself to leave her jurisdiction” and to get a Lexington County magistrate to issue an arrest warrant for forgery and breach of trust,” according to Paschal’s lawsuit.
Paschal was arrested in November 2011 – the same day she was to appear at an estate hearing in probate court to defend herself against allegations by Wallace’s children that she should not be the estate’s personal representative, according to legal papers and testimony in the case. Paschal lost her status as representative, at least in part because she did not appear at the hearing, the documents said.
At the jail, Paschal was stripped and given “nothing but a sheet to wrap herself in,” according to testimony in the case. She was later released on a personal bond.
In January 2012, Lexington County magistrate Gary Morgan held a hearing to determine whether the forgery and breach of trust case against Paschal should go to the Lexington County grand jury. He heard from Scott and Baumgardner, then dismissed the case.
After getting the criminal charges dismissed, Paschal filed her lawsuit against Lott for malicious prosecution and abuse of process.
No date has been set for oral arguments in the filings before Keesley. The party who loses any ruling by the judge likely will appeal to the S.C. Court of Appeals.
Lott, asked for comment, said, “We have confidence in the judicial system and are leaving matters to the lawyers and the judge to do what they get paid to do.”