May 23, 2019 10:39:51 AM
WEST POINT -- A Clay County jury has ruled in favor of a local security guard and the company that owned a West Point restaurant in a lawsuit accusing them of allowing a 2014 altercation at Huddle House that left two men seriously injured and sent three others to prison.
After a two-week trial that featured 30 witnesses and more than 80 exhibits introduced into evidence, the jury took just 22 minutes Tuesday afternoon to deliver a 10-2 verdict absolving Litco Petroleum, the company that owned the Huddle House restaurant at the time of the incident, and security guard Annie Avant of any responsibility for the fight.
Attorneys for the two men injured in the incident, Ralph Weems IV and David Knighten, were seeking more than $9 million for medical care and continuing financial support for the two, most of which would go to Weems. According to his attorneys, Weems suffered serious brain damage that will require lifetime medical care and financial support.
The men's attorneys argued that Huddle House did not take proper precautions to prevent the altercation and responded ineffectively when the fight involving five men broke out late in the evening of Aug. 23, 2014.
The jury rejected that argument, however.
"The key point of the (plaintiffs') case, from the legal standpoint, was there (was) an atmosphere of violence at Huddle House prior to the events of Aug. 23, 2014, and how the Huddle House was run," said Columbus attorney John Brady, one of the attorneys representing Litco Petroleum. "We were able to show that, in fact, Huddle House was proactive in hiring a security officer who had worked in the West Point Police Department and the sheriff's office and had been there for two years. The facts of the case showed that it was Weems' conduct that caused the altercation, not the Huddle House or the security officer."
Columbus attorney David Owen, one of three attorneys representing the plaintiffs, had little to say after the verdict.
"All I can tell you is I hate it for (the victims') families," Owen said.
According to police reports and trial testimony, the altercation began when Weems and Knighten, who are white, got into an argument with a group of black men at a nearby Waffle House restaurant. After being told to leave, Weems and Knighten went to the Huddle House, where at least three of the men who they had argued with had arrived earlier.
The men began to argue again and soon were involved in a physical altercation that security officer Avant was unable to break up. By the time West Point police arrived minutes later, Weems and Knighten had been seriously injured and three men were charged in the beating.
The suspects pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in 2017. Courtez McMillian, 25, of Okolona, was sentenced to seven years in Mississippi Department of Corrections. Five years and eight months of the sentence was suspended and he was released on time served. Later that year Marquavious McMillian, 34, of Aberdeen, was sentenced to eight years in the MDOC with two to serve, and a week later, Kent Davis, 26, of Okolona, was sentenced to 10 years, with five to serve.
According to witnesses, Weems incited the incident by yelling profanities and racial slurs at several people in the Huddle House, including Avant.
Brady said that while the testimony was at times racially and emotionally-charged, he did not believe the racial slurs prejudiced the jury of eight blacks and four whites.
"I think the fact that the jury heard from multiple witnesses, including a white man, and from one of the plaintiffs through an officer's report, that Weems, a white man, went into the Huddle House and used racial slurs and that's what created the situation," Brady said. "The three men who assaulted him went to prison, and rightfully so. We can't get away from the fact that it was a racially-charged event caused by a white man. This had nothing to do with our clients. I think the jury's decision confirms that clearly."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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