Articles

 

Owner of property where man was killed didn't put up a defense

By Kathleen Baydala Joyner
Daily Report
November 15, 2013

Steve Goldman says his client's husband was killed by a squatter who had threatened others.
Photo by John Disney/Daily Report

The widow of a tow truck driver who was fatally shot by a squatter in 2011 while removing junk cars from a derelict lot obtained a $4.8 million default verdict against the property owner in DeKalb County State Court on Wednesday.

But plaintiff's attorney Steven Goldman said because the defendant was wholly absent from the case, the plaintiff's chances at collecting on the damages may be slim.

"I'm not overly optimistic," Goldman said.

In the complaint filed in February, Goldman alleged that owner Brandon Marshall and his property investment company, Investga.com, were liable for the death of 44-year-old Travis Fenty because they failed to warn Fenty and his towing company of violent threats made by the squatter.

"Marshall bought distressed properties and flipped them," said Goldman, an Atlanta solo practitioner who specializes in personal injury and wrongful death cases. According to Goldman, Marshall had purchased a foreclosed plot at 1020 Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway in Atlanta and was fighting to evict the previous owner, 74-year-old Philmore Reed.

When Marshall hired a towing company to remove cars from the lot, Reed angrily confronted the towers, and police were called to the scene, Goldman said.

Sometime after police and Marshall arrived, "Reed screamed, 'If anybody else comes on to my property, I will shoot them,'" Goldman said. "Police told me that Marshall heard that."

Three weeks later, Marshall hired Fenty, who worked for Quickdrop Impounding, Towing & Recovery, to try again to remove the cars. When Fenty and his company arrived at the property on Feb. 24, 2011, Reed fired a shotgun at Fenty from the roof of a building on the property and killed him.

Attempts to contact Marshall were unsuccessful. Marshall also did not file responses to the lawsuit and did not appear in court. He has no lawyer listed on record.

Judge Janis Gordon ordered a default judgment in August. After a bench trial on Wednesday, she awarded Fenty's widow, Elizabeth Whatley-Fenty, and his estate $1,872,000 for future lost wages and $3 million for loss of enjoyment of life, Goldman said.

Because Marshall did not participate in the case, Goldman did not have to fight a defense argument typical in this kind of case-that someone other than the defendant was liable for the wrongful death. Reed was tried and convicted of murder in Fulton County last year and was sentenced to life plus five years in prison, but he wasn't a defendant in the suit.

"Often, the other side files a notice that they plan to blame the shooter, and we didn't have that in this case, which was nice," Goldman conceded. "That's a big deal in premises liability cases."

What is less encouraging is that because there are no insurance disclosure requirements in this type of case, Goldman and his client aren't sure how to collect on the damages.

"It would be wonderful if [Marshall] notified his insurance, but I have no idea if he's insured," Goldman said. "That's why we sued both Marshall and his company. I expect some shell game here, moving money around. It's obvious our work has just begun."

The case is Whatley-Fenty v. Marshall, No. 13A45831.