By Katheryn Hayes Tucker
Fulton Daily Report
Howard Spiva: Biggest Verdict In Town
Although Savannah has its share of successful plaintiff’s lawyers, just one can lay claim to winning the biggest personal injury verdict in the city’s history—plus the runner-up—and this one can’t be found in the historic district where most of the top drawer firms reside.
That would be Howard Spiva of Spiva Law Group, who won a $12 million verdict against the city for a client hit by a falling tree limb. His co-counsel in the case was C. Clay Davis, a lawyer in Spiva’s firm.
He did it with a case that staged a class war.
Howard Spiva Causes Class War
Spiva alleged that the city maintains perfectly its legendary live oaks in the wealthy historic district where the tourists visit, but neglects them in poorer neighborhoods like the one where his client was injured.
She had just left her job at a Wendy’s in a working-class part of town when she was hit by a falling limb that weighed as much as the truck in which she was a passenger, according to Spiva. She lost her right leg and the function of many of her internal organs, requiring 30 surgeries so far and needing more. He says the limb was full of ants and rot and should have been cut years earlier.
The city argued that Spiva’s allegations weren’t true, that the limb in question was green and had not given any warning of failure. While everyone involved expressed sympathy and concern for the plaintiff, city attorney W. Brooks Stillwell III says the accident was not the city’s fault.
An appeal is in the works based on governmental immunity and the freedom of a city to determine how to manage resources. Stillwell also says that trees are trimmed and maintained all over the city, and that the highly automated and efficient complaint center had no calls about the tree in question.
Still, the jury answered Spiva’s call to “send the city a message” and “make it loud.”
12 Million Dollar Settlement: Spiva Law Group
The $12 million verdict came as “a very big surprise” to the city, said Stillwell, who until 2012 had been a partner at the biggest firm in town, HunterMaclean, where he’d practiced for 41 years. His lead counsel for the trial was Malcolm Mackenzie III of Weiner Shearouse Weitz Greenberg & Shawe. That firm, like HunterMaclean, is located in the historic district not far from the gold dome of Savannah City Hall.
Spiva grew up on the city’s southside, where his office is located. “We’re near the Walmart,” says his co-counsel on the tree case, C. Clay Davis, also of Spiva Law Group. That landmark puts the firm a world away from the National Register of Historic Places-listed homes and offices of downtown Savannah. They nicknamed their case “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Spiva also is a world away from the private clubs and schools listed on the résumés of some at the city’s bigger firms. His father, a mechanic, was murdered when he was 6. He went to public schools while working to help his mother. He became a certified mechanic, then earned a real estate broker’s license, which he used to work his way through night school at Woodrow Wilson College of Law.
Spiva was the topic of conversations at the downtown firms on the day the $12 million tree verdict was reported on the front page of the Savannah Morning News. Lawyers were marveling at the size of the verdict—and at Spiva’s brass. He asked the jury for $15 million to $20 million. And they were also recalling that it was Spiva who won the second-biggest personal injury verdict in the city’s history, a medical malpractice case that resulted in a $6 million award in 2001.
Spiva downplays the $6 million verdict, saying that the case belonged to his friend, Tommy Malone of Malone Law in Atlanta. He had only served as local counsel to Malone.
But he doesn’t downplay his success over his 29 years in practice. According to a biography he shared, when he’s trying a case, he keeps an RV parked outside the courthouse equipped with an office for him and a comfortable place for his clients to relax when they’re not needed in the courtroom. His firm owns a private airplane, which he’s licensed to fly himself. He’s a member of the invitation-only trial lawyers’ group, the Melvin Belli Society, and a past president of the Savannah Trial Lawyers Association.
In the tree case, Spiva tried to have the city sanctioned for spoliation because workers didn’t preserve the limb that fell and hurt his client in 2010. When the case was over, he offered to donate $500,000 of the $12 million verdict back to the city for tree maintenance—if they’d pay up immediately and forgo the appeal.
“We’re worried that if the city doesn’t do something soon, other people will get hurt,” says Spiva. “We want to make the city take care of our trees.”
The city declined his offer in favor of an appeal. The battle continues.