A man facing a life sentence for the murder of his wife has been hit with a record-setting civil verdict arising from the same crime.
Last Monday, a Loudoun County jury awarded $15 million to the family of Catherine Ann “Cacey” Combs-LaFleur, a woman who died after Steven Combs-LaFleur, her husband, struck her on the head with a sledge hammer.
The verdict appears to be the largest wrongful death award handed down by a Virginia jury. It comes right on the heels of another eight-figure verdict out of Culpeper County, where at the beginning of February, a jury awarded $15.4 million to a victim of sexual abuse.
The plaintiffs in the wrongful death action – Cacey’s mother, brother and nephew – were represented by Peter C. Burnett and Jonathan B. Slater of Leesburg.
At the time of her death, Cacey, then 59, had been married to Steven for about 20 years. The couple had no history of domestic violence.
The incident occurred on Sept. 18, 2010. Steven initially told investigators his wife collapsed while working in the yard, and when he approached her, he realized she had suffered a terrible head injury. He later changed his story, claiming that a ladder he was standing on suddenly “kicked out” from underneath him and fell on top of her. He claimed her injuries were unmistakably fatal, and she appeared to be in so much pain that his immediate reaction was to end her agony. He took a two-pound sledgehammer and struck her multiple times in the head, in what he called a “mercy killing.”
Cacey’s family was shocked and devastated to learn the manner of her death, Burnett said. According to the trial brief, Cacey had been a source of enormous pride to her mother and two younger brothers, and she was a role model and second mother to her niece. Burnett said the family had their reservations about Steven, but had no indication that he was capable of such an act. To them, his story left too many unanswered questions.
Despite his insistence that Cacey’s death was no more than a “household accident,” crime scene evidence indicated otherwise, and Steven was arrested and held without bond. After a five-day trial last November, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and recommended life in prison. He will be sentenced March 9.
Testimony from the criminal trial played a key role in the civil case. Because the defendant did not file a responsive pleading, the trial proceeded on damages alone. Judge Alfred D. Swersky presided.
During the one-day civil trial, jurors were provided with a number of transcripts of witness testimony from the criminal proceedings, including an account from the medical examiner who performed the autopsy. She had described, in graphic detail, the blunt force trauma injuries to Cacey’s head, and determined the sledgehammer blows to be the cause of death.
“All injuries were inconsistent with a ladder, or a man on a ladder, falling on her,” Burnett said.
Burnett also showed jurors the transcript of testimony from a rather surprising witness. While Steven was in jail awaiting trial, investigators learned he had been seeing another woman during his marriage to Cacey. At the criminal trial, Steven’s mistress testified that the affair had been going on for seven years.
Cacey’s family had been unaware of the extramarital relationship prior to the trial. According to Burnett it was a blow to the family and caused a great deal of embarrassment.
Burnett also noted that Steven had taken out an accidental life insurance policy less than a year before Cacey’s death. But he said Steven had been cooperative in disclaiming his rights to the proceeds under the slayer statute.
Plaintiff’s counsel did not question the defendant during the civil trial. Instead, they chose to let the evidence speak for itself. The murder weapon was brought into the courtroom. Jurors were also shown photos of the crime scene and autopsy.
Burnett relied on an iPad to showcase much of the evidence. He recently bought the popular Apple tablet after reading an article on its virtues as a trial tool. With Slater’s help, he loaded the exhibits – which included two videos – onto the TrialPad application. At trial, Burnett said the set-up was as simple as plugging an HDMI cable into the courtroom TV and hitting the play button.
“I was thrilled with it,” he said. “It was a sharp contrast to the struggle the commonwealth’s attorney had [with the video display] during the criminal trial.”
The courthouse staff was also impressed. Staff members claimed it was the first time they’d seen an iPad used in a Loudoun County courtroom, Burnett said.
No attorneys entered an appearance on behalf of the defendant. Steven, who was present at trial, did not offer any witnesses, but testified on his own behalf. He continued to insist that his wife’s death was an accident, and spoke of what a wonderful person she had been.
Cacey had no children, but maintained a close relationship with her mother, brothers and niece and nephews. Cacey’s mother and brothers attended the criminal trial, where they were confronted with gruesome evidence from the crime scene. Because they did not want to go through such a painful and overwhelming experience again, they chose not to be present during the civil proceedings, Burnett said.
Cacey’s niece and nephew testified on the family’s behalf. Burnett, who was initially concerned that the plaintiffs would not be appearing, said the pair made powerful witnesses. They expressed the heavy toll the criminal trial took on their family.
In his closing statement, Burnett asked the jury for $15 million as a reflection of the grief and anguish associated with the horrific nature of the crime. Burnett said he pursued such a large judgment in hopes that Steven may have an untapped source of wealth, such as money inherited through a family trust. “Who knows what we’ll be able to discover,” he said.
Burnett said he’s also investigating the laws surrounding social security benefits, and believes Steven may be entitled to a survivor benefit. Cacey had worked as a graphic artist with international engineering and consulting firm for nearly 30 years, and was making a yearly salary of around $90,000 at the time of her death.
The company, in her honor, established the Cacey Combs-LaFleur Spirit Award, which is intended to recognize an employee’s extraordinary acts of kindness.
According to Burnett, the plaintiffs feared that Cacey would be remembered for how she died rather than how she lived. He said the civil trial emphasized how special she was, and focused more on her life than on what her husband did.
Burnett said the jury, as a community, generated the record verdict in response.
“I hope it gives the family a sense of comfort,” he said.