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More than 17 years after his car was repossessed, George T. “Duke” Diggs Jr. has won a civil lawsuit that awards him $1.5 million.
In July, a jury with the Richmond City Circuit Court found the man who repossessed Diggs’ car, that man’s employer and his girlfriend responsible for actual and punitive damages related to the 1998 repossession that damaged another car and resulted in criminal charges against Diggs.
In the lawsuit, filed in 2003, Diggs claimed the incident damaged not only his property but also his reputation, resulting in the loss of several clients of his business, Duke Communications.
Diggs said John E. Burke Sr., who worked for Richmond-based SUMMS Recovery Inc., and his girlfriend Martha Ann Herndon arrived at Diggs’ home on Lake Powell Road around 11 p.m. May 27, 1998. Diggs had previously been in a dispute with First Union Bank about whether he had paid off his Jeep Grand Cherokee.
With the understanding the lawyers involved in his bank dispute had agreed the Jeep would not be repossessed until the matter had been settled, Diggs attempted to stop the repossession and asked Burke to stop his work until the police arrived.
Diggs said Burke refused, then proceeded to drive his wrecker backward toward the Jeep, striking Diggs’ family car. As the wrecker continued to push both cars toward the house, Diggs said he began to fear for the safety of his 10-year-old daughter, who had fallen asleep on the couch on the other side of house’s wall.
Diggs, a former deputy sheriff, said he fired a single gunshot at the tire of the wrecker to stop its progress. Burke, with Herndon as a passenger, sped away but was intercepted by police on Lake Powell Road.
Burke and Herndon reported Diggs had fired his gun at them, not the tire. Ultimately, the police asked Diggs to turn over his keys to the Jeep so the car could be repossessed, and criminal charges were filed against Diggs.
Several of those charges were dropped, with Diggs pleading guilty to two misdemeanors.
Diggs said he wanted the case to go to trial so he could clear his name, but the judge said he would have to wait for his trial date in jail, which would have been about three months.
“I didn’t want to go to jail, of course, so I decided to enter the guilty pleas,” Diggs said. “I intend to fight that plea now. I want to clear my record.”
Diggs said he found it important to earn both the financial and moral victory of clearing his name, as the incident had been widely reported in the media, so he pursued the civil suit.
None of the representatives for Burke, Herndon or SUMMS Recovery appeared in court for the July civil trial, nor did the defendants themselves.
Because they did not dispute Diggs’ account in court, the jury in the civil suit was instructed to consider his account of the May 1998 incident as fact in their decision. The jury awarded him more than $2 million in damages, which was lowered by the judge to about $1.5 million.
Diggs, a James City County resident and owner of the county-based Duke Communications, and the bank – First Union Bank, which is now Wells Fargo – that ordered the repossession came to a settlement last fall for an undisclosed amount. First Union Bank has not admitted any wrongdoing.
Diggs said he was able to use money from that settlement to hire a lawyer in the civil lawsuit against John E. Burke Sr., Martha Ann Herndon and SUMMS Recovery Inc., which concluded in July.
Because SUMMS is bankrupt, Diggs said he hopes to collect the judgment from the insurance company that represented the tow company at the time of the incident.
Before the settlement with the bank, Diggs had been battling the bank, the tow company and its two employees in the courts with little or no help from a lawyer for more than 10 years.
“[The bank was] overwhelming Mr. Diggs with motions he had to respond to, all without a lawyer,” said A. Blake Gayle, a lawyer with Richmond-based firm Zwerdling, Oppleman & Adams who represented Diggs in the latest jury trial. “They were basically burying him in procedure, but he responded to each one. … I was very impressed the way he was able to handle it on his own for so long. His pleadings looked professional grade.”