A recent Law 360 story by Rosie Manis, “11th Circ. Orders New Look At $6M Atty Fee in Man’s Death” reports that the Eleventh Circuit has vacated a $6 million attorney fee awarded as part of a $21 million jury verdict over the death of a Georgia pedestrian who was hit by a truck, ordering the trial court to reconsider its reasonableness. The three-judge panel's per curiam opinion affirmed the jury verdict but said that two subsequent opinions from the Georgia Court of Appeals warrant the reconsideration of the attorney fees. The jury had ordered the $6 million fees after finding bad faith on the trucker's part.
The estate of Alabama trucker James Harper and his insurer Cypress Insurance Co. appealed the February 2020 verdict in favor of Patricia and Wayne Holland, the mother and brother of Kip Holland, who was hit by Harper's truck and died in December 2016 after Harper suffered an unspecified medical event while driving.
The panel rejected most of the defendants' arguments for overturning the verdict, but they said the Hollands' 40% contingency agreement alone doesn't necessarily make the attorney fee award reasonable. U.S. Circuit Judge R. Lanier Anderson III pointed out during oral arguments in February that the fee amounted to about $5,000 an hour. "A contingency fee agreement alone, without more, is not sufficient to support the award of attorney fees," the court said, citing Georgia case law. "Rather, the party seeking fees must provide other evidence of the value of the professional services actually rendered."
The panel cited a March 2021 opinion from the Georgia Court of Appeals that vacated a $12.7 million attorney fee award in a wrongful death case after a $32.8 million damages verdict. The attorney fee in that case was based solely on a 40% contingency fee agreement. In the other cited case, the Court of Appeals upheld a July 2021 $1 million attorney fee award that was less than what the relevant contingency fee agreement would have provided. The trial court in that case assessed the work of the plaintiff's lawyers as well as the fee agreement in determining a reasonable award.
The Eleventh Circuit judges said they did not comment on the cited cases or the reasonableness of the original $6 million attorney fee "to avoid influencing the district court's reconsideration." They were not persuaded by the defendants' contention that Harper did not act in bad faith and therefore the Hollands couldn't get attorney fees under Georgia law.