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April 15th, 2011

Judge Dempsey’s Home-Cookin’ Has Rural Alabama County Poised for Judicial Hellholes Ignominy

With his recent home-job handling of a specious lawsuit brought by a local manufacturer against an out-of-state software company, Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Terry Dempsey appears singlehandedly determined to qualify his rural Alabama jurisdiction as the next notorious Judicial Hellhole.

Ignoring the plain language of the enterprise software licensing agreement signed in 2005 by plaintiff Sunshine Mills (a pet food maker and one of Franklin County’s  larger employers) and defendant Ross Systems of Atlanta, Georgia, which specified that any subsequent disputes arising from the agreement would be adjudicated by Georgia law, Judge Dempsey, seemingly in cahoots with plaintiff’s counsel, nonetheless allowed the case to go all the way to trial before requiring the plaintiff to spell out its vague allegation of fraud.

Judge Dempsey also repeatedly allowed plaintiffs’ counsel to make thinly veiled xenophobic references to the defendant’s parent company based in China in an apparent effort to appeal to the lesser angels of the jurors’ nature.  And after Judge Dempsey allowed a never-before-recognized-in-Alabama-courts rationale for calculating Sunshine Mills supposed damages (based on projected profits not realized), those jurors ultimately came back with a $61 million verdict – including $45 million in punitive damages — for the hometown favorite.  It should be noted that Ross Systems’ was valued at just $58 million at the time of the verdict. 

It should also be noted that, as reported by the Birmingham News, the software system in question only cost Sunshine Mills $235,000, and was used for years without complaint before the suit was filed just days before the statute-of-limitations was to run out.  In fact, according to Ross Systems as it pursues a motion to reverse the jury’s verdict in Alabama, an appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, and a countersuit in Georgia, Sunshine Mills still uses the software without a license, purchased additional products and paid for ongoing customer support during the trial, and consistently gave Ross high marks for its service in feedback surveys.

Judge Dempsey may now be deliberately stringing out the post-trial process in Franklin County so as to assist Sunshine Mills attorneys in putting the squeeze on Ross Systems.  Though the Alabama legislature is currently considering reform legislation, current law makes losing defendants immediately responsible for a whopping 12 percent annual interest on original damage awards while they pursue appeals.  This boils down to about $20,000 a day for Ross in this case, and court observers wonder how long the software firm can hold out before caving in and settling with Sunshine Mills on a figure less than $61 million.

In any case, barring righteous intervention by appeals courts in Alabama or Georgia, this single textbook example of backwoods justice has put Franklin County on the fast-track to ignominy as a Judicial Hellhole.  Updates to come.

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