For seven years, eight months and five days, Ida Lord has lived with brain damage from a serial criminal’s bullets fired into her head and back.
Finally, Monday started a York County civil trial where Lord will find out if the Rock Hill check cashing business where she was maimed should have had a security guard to protect her while Phillip Watts was on the loose robbing stores and shooting people.
Watts, serving seven life prison sentences for several robberies and shooting four people in 2007 and 2008, is not on trial. The Cash on the Spot business, where Lord went that day on 2008 to get money, is the defendant in Lord’s legal claim that the business was negligent and should pay.
No one is questioning that Watts’ crime against Lord was brutal. The question the nine men and three women of the jury have to decide is simple: Was there anything that the business could have done to prevent Watts coming in the store, pretending to be a customer, then shooting Lord twice in an attempted armed robbery – after Watts had robbed two other stores and shot three people in the weeks before the crime?
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Lord, a home health hospice worker, was paralyzed for months after she was shot. She was Watts’ last victim.
“It is a miracle she is here,” one of Lord’s lawyers, Robert Reeves, said in opening statements. “By all accounts, Ida Lord should have died that day.”
Lord spent months in the hospital and then a wheelchair. She is still disabled from the injuries. Lord’s brain damage has altered her ability to walk and talk, Reeves said, and her left arm is almost useless. Lord endures near constant pain and has other health problems including memory loss. The business, Reeves argued, failed to protect Lord by not having a security guard or off-duty cop working while Watts – unidentified at the time – was on his crime spree.
The business located at the intersection of South Cherry Road and Heckle Boulevard did $100,000 in cash business a month during the February tax refund season in 2008 and had bulletproof glass and panic buttons and video cameras to protect employees, Reeves argued Monday, but did not protect Lord, the customer.
Watts was found guilty at trial of one robbery, pleaded guilty to a second shooting/robbery, then pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the remainder of the crime spree after telling police he would not stop robbing and shooting until police either caught him or shot him dead. One of his victims was former Fort Mill Mayor Charles Powers. Watts also shot a Chinese immigrant fish market worker named Ping Chen and a Vietnamese immigrant store clerk, Yen Nguyen.
Lord filed the civil suit in 2009, but her lawsuit was initially dismissed by a judge who ruled that Watts’ previous crimes had been at other places nowhere near Cash on the Spot, so the business had no duty to protect Lord from criminal activity that had not yet happened. But before the dismissal, court records show that the store’s management had told employees to be vigilant that there was “a madman on the loose.”
The S.C. Supreme Court ruled last year she deserves a trial to see if the company owes her damages for her claims of negligence.
Leland Greeley, lawyer for the business, did not dispute that Lord has endured terrible suffering from her injuries.
“A very tragic, tragic, tragic, horrible thing happened to Ms. Lord,” Greeley told the jury.
But, Greeley argued, the business is not responsible because its management could not have known that Watts – who struck a fish market in Rock Hill and convenience store in Fort Mill just prior to shooting Lord – would go after the check cashing business. More, DNA evidence from the crime scene – and Cash on the Spot security video – helped police catch Watts.
“It’s an awful case for her,” Greeley said, “but the question is, ‘Is there always somebody who has to be responsible?’ ”
Darrell Starnes, owner of Cash on the Spot, testified Monday that he didn’t recall saying the line about a “madman being on the loose,” although court records show he testified to saying it in a 2011 deposition.
Starnes said he has “laid awake in bed” thinking about the terrible injuries to Lord, but that he is not responsible for Phillip Watts’ terrible actions.
Lord could have sued Watts, but Watts, a career criminal who was only out of jail for six weeks before his crime spree, had nothing. After seven years, eight months and five days, Ida Lord finally finds out this week if she will leave the same courthouse where Watts was sent to prison forever with a jury award, or if she will remain stuck in poverty that her wounds left her with.
The insurance company for the business was able to extricate itself from any liability because Lord was injured during the commission of a violent crime. Called the assault and battery exclusion, the insurance giant paid Ida Lord nothing.
So now the only defendant is the business itself.
Unlike a criminal trial where a defendant is either found guilty or not by a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, a civil judgment only requires a lower standard of preponderance of the evidence on one side or the other.
The jury could award Lord millions, pay her medical bills, or send her home with nothing at all.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065