A Hall County jury ordered the Ingles supermarket chain and two contractors to pay a Flowery Branch couple nearly $1 million for causing stormwater runoff damage to their farm.
The initial verdict for liability and damages in the case of Gary Kempler and his wife Lynn Kempler against Ingles, R.W. Smith Co. and Lowe and Associates came late Tuesday, in the fourth week of the unusually lengthy civil trial in Hall County Superior Court.
The jury of seven women and five men spent about six hours deliberating before finding that the defendants’ acts or omissions constituted negligence. Jurors awarded the Kemplers $975,000, including $400,000 for damages caused by negligence, $150,000 for the reduction in the value of the couple’s property on Winder Highway, $300,000 to put measures in place to protect the property in the future and $125,000 for acts and omissions that created "wounded feelings, loss of peace of mind, discomfort, unhappiness and annoyance."
The lawsuit centered around a detention pond designed to manage stormwater runoff at a supermarket shopping center built by Ingles on Winder Highway in 2007. The Kemplers said it was constructed and maintained improperly, resulting in erosion on their land and sediment and silt on their property.
During his closing argument to the jury Monday, the couple’s attorney, Robert W. Chambers III, said the faulty detention pond increased six-fold the amount of water flowing through his clients’ property.
"Water can be calming or water can be a nuisance," Chambers said. "They’ve turned it from one into the other."
Chambers said the Kemplers’ pond was once a treasured spot on their property, so special that they held their daughter’s wedding there.
"They used it for swimming, for the horses, for irrigating plants," Chambers said. "They don’t want to use it for that now. It’s burning out their pumps, it’s wrecked their lives."
In his closing, Chambers gave jurors dollar amounts to consider that added up to $908,500, though he said if they wanted to award more damages, they should.
"I’ve never seen a case before that deserves it like this one," Chambers said.
The marathon court case is not over yet. Jurors return to court today as the Kemplers ask for attorneys fees and punitive damages that could push the jury award over the $1 million mark.
Chief Superior Court Judge C. Andrew Fuller was almost apologetic as he told jurors after the reading of the verdict that their service wasn’t quite over.
"There is no one in the courtroom who takes pleasure in asking you to return to the courtroom after such a lengthy jury service," Fuller said.
Both Chambers and attorneys for the defendants declined to comment Tuesday, citing the ongoing trial.
The verdict amount was nearly as atypical for Hall County as the length of the trial. Several times in his closing, Chambers noted that Hall County jurors have a reputation for conservative verdicts and suggested that was why the defendants opted to try the case rather than settle.
Can’t you hear them saying, "Hall County’s a very conservative county and they won’t award any of the damages the Kemplers are asking for," Chambers said.
Evidence presented in court today is likely to show the Kemplers spent a significant amount of money to fight the case, which has been in litigation for two years and took three full weeks to try.
"If you are ready to take on corporate America, you better get your pocketbook out and hire an attorney," Chambers said in his closing.