97-year-old woman struck by mail truck — $355,000 settlement

Type of action: Personal injury

Injuries alleged: Facial fractures and right clavicle fracture

Special damages: Medical bills totaling $115,161.88

Verdict or settlement: Settlement

Amount: $355,000

Attorney for plaintiff (and city): W.F. Drewry “Drew” Gallalee, Richmond


Description of case: Plaintiff, age 97, lived alone in her home and was at her mailbox on the street when a U.S. Postal Service mail truck backed up and struck her. Plaintiff suffered facial fractures and a right clavicle fracture. Plaintiff’s fractures healed without the need for surgery given her age, and she made a full recovery. A claim was made against the U.S. Postal Service under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Counsel for plaintiff filed a Standard Form 95. The case was later settled with the adjuster at the U.S. Postal Service National Tort Center prior to suit being filed.

W.F. Drewry “Drew” Gallalee, plaintiff’s counsel, provided case information. [022-T-085]

Delivery driver injured while delivering railcar wheel sets — $303,920.24 verdict

Type of action: Railroad negligence

Name of case: Riddick v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co.

Court: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Norfolk Division

Case no.: 2:21-CV-00297

Tried before: Jury

Name of judge or mediator: Judge Roderick C. Young

Date resolved: 5/12/2022

Verdict or settlement: Verdict

Amount: $303,920.24

Attorneys for plaintiff (and city): John M. Cooper and Bill O’Mara, Norfolk; Bailey L. Gifford, Virginia Beach

Description of case: On May 30, 2019, the plaintiff, Raymond Riddick, was working as a truck driver for UPS delivering and receiving wheel sets (the steel wheels on which railcars roll) from Norfolk Southern. Each wheel set weighs approximately 3,500 pounds. This process involves a Norfolk Southern employee using a forklift outfitted with a special device called a cradle to move the wheel sets on and off the tractor trailer. When placing the wheel sets onto the trailer the Norfolk Southern employee operating the forklift must ensure that the flanges are in the flange ways. While this is occurring the UPS employee is responsible for securing the wheel sets onto the trailer. The UPS employee only has approximately 1.5 feet on the edge of the trailer to work. It was uncontested that the Norfolk Southern employee must receive a signal from the UPS employee before releasing the wheel set onto the trailer.


On the date of injury, the plaintiff arrived at the Norfolk Southern 38th Street Car Shop in Norfolk right at shift change. Two Norfolk Southern employees, a carman and a stockman, were assigned to stay after their shifts ended and assist Riddick. No proper job safety briefing was conducted prior to the loading of the wheel sets, as required by Norfolk Southern regulations. The two Norfolk Southern employees decided to use two forklifts to speed up the process, which is permitted but not frequently done. A Norfolk Southern employee released a wheel set without getting the signal from the plaintiff. The plaintiff fell off the trailer in an attempt to get out of the way of the 3,500-pound wheel set rolling his way.


Contributory negligence was an issue, as it was disputed whether the Norfolk Southern employee missed the flange way or there was a chain improperly in the flange way that caused the wheel to become dislodged and roll off the side of the trailer. Questions from the jury indicated that contributory negligence was a concern.


The Norfolk Southern employees left the premises without reporting the incident. When Riddick reported the incident to the railroad supervisors, he indicated that he had sustained an injury to his right elbow. Norfolk Southern classified this incident as a “close call.” Riddick finished the job and drove the wheel sets to South Carolina before seeking medical attention. He ultimately had surgery on his right elbow and arm to repair nerve damage caused by the fall. The hand surgeon said that the result was better than expected. The plaintiff’s past medical bills totaled approximately $88,000. The lost wage claim in this case was a source of contention given the plaintiff’s limited work history.

After approximately six hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict against Norfolk Southern in the amount of $303,920.24.

Bailey L. Gifford, counsel for the plaintiff, provided case information. [022-T-083]

Jury rules in surgeon’s favor in $5M med-mal matter — Defense verdict

Type of action: Medical malpractice, wrongful death

Injuries alleged: Wrongful death

Name of case: Suzanne C. Wacker, Administrator of the Estate of Paul Clinton Wacker, Deceased v. Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center, Inc., et al.

Court: Norfolk Circuit Court

Case no.: CL20-6479

Tried before: Jury

Name of judge or mediator: Judge David W. Lannetti

Date resolved: 3/31/2022

Demand: $5,000,000

Verdict or settlement: Verdict

Amount: $0 (defense)

Attorneys for defendant (and city): A. William “Bill” Charters and C. Thea Pitzen, Norfolk


Description of case: Plaintiff alleged that the defendant orthopaedic surgeon (Dr. F) was negligent in connection with the treatment of her husband upon his presentation to the emergency department (and subsequent admission to the hospital) with complaints of pain, weakness and numbness concerning for spinal cord injury. Plaintiff’s expert alleged that the orthopaedic surgeon was negligent in failing to personally examine the patient at the time that he was consulted and recommended cervical and thoracic spine MRIs. The patient suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest while undergoing an MRI later that day. He was revived and transferred for neurosurgical evaluation and intensive care but ultimately died several days later.

Plaintiff claimed that if Dr. F would have personally examined the patient, he would have observed the acuity of the situation and been able to obtain an MRI earlier and perform surgery that would have avoided the patient’s death. Defense experts testified that Dr. F’s actions and recommendations as a consulting specialist were appropriate and that there was nothing further Dr. F could have done without the results of an MRI. Defense experts further testified that the cause of the patient’s arrest and subsequent death was oversedation that was unrelated to the patient’s cervical cord compression. Following about two hours of deliberation, the jury rendered a defense verdict.

Defense counsel provided case information.


Law firm’s restitution reduced in theft appeal

The Court of Appeals of Virginia has reduced a $125,000 restitution award granted to a law firm after its real estate paralegal pled guilty to embezzling nearly $650,000.

The circuit court awarded the restitution for several expenses the firm alleged were caused by the embezzlement, including insurance costs, forensic accounting fees, bar sanctions and “anticipated future costs.”

But Judge Daniel E. Ortiz said that some of those costs “were too attenuated because the Commonwealth failed to prove the costs were directly related to [the] crime or the firm had independent duties related to account management and employee supervision.”

To resolve tension between the “but for” and the “attenuation” restitution analyses, Ortiz looked to proximate cause to determine whether the damages or losses were directly caused by the offense.

Ortiz was joined in the opinion by Judge Wesley G. Russell Jr. Judge Stuart A. Raphael concurred but disagreed with the proximate cause rationale.

The July 26 opinion is Tyler v. Commonwealth (VLW 022-7-280).

Stephen K. Armstrong, a criminal defense attorney with Armstrong Law in Chesterfield, agreed with the court’s reduction.

“The firm had a duty to both actively monitor and/or supervise any activity involving funds (firm accounts) and especially IOLTA and client trust fund accounts,” he said in an email to Virginia Lawyers Weekly. “The fact that nobody at the firm reviewed the bills OR the bank statements for years is baffling, if only for the sake of general monetary oversight.”

He added that he thinks “it was incumbent on the firm to take on the additional expenses, not only in an effort to prevent future situations, but to ‘restore the firm to its pre-crime’ status.”


Catherine Tyler began working for the law firm Dygert, Wright, Hobbs & Hernandez in 2003 as a bookkeeper and later became its real estate paralegal.

Around 2012, Tyler began embezzling funds. The firm didn’t discover this until January 2020 because, as one of the attorneys testified, nobody at the firm reviewed the bills or bank statements.

By that time, Tyler had drained most of the firm’s accounts and stolen a $300,000 payoff check intended for a real estate client.

Due to the complexity of its accounts, the firm hired a forensic accountant who determined that Tyler embezzled nearly $650,000.

Tyler pled guilty to one count of embezzlement. The firm requested restitution for the embezzled amount and for expenses totaling about $125,000.

Those expenses included: new checks, office locks, and overdraft fees; malpractice and real estate insurance; legal fees defending against a client lawsuit, handling the firm’s lawsuit against Tyler, and other unspecified fees; forensic accounting; Virginia State Bar sanctions and audits; and anticipated future costs.

The circuit court awarded the firm $125,808.25 for restitution of expenses over Tyler’s objection and denied reconsideration, prompting her to appeal.

Proximate cause

Ortiz explained that restitution provisions have been interpreted to give trial courts significant discretion in using restitution as a remedial tool, but that discretion is limited in two ways.

Restitution “‘must be reasonable in relation to the nature of the offense, the background of the offender and the surrounding circumstances’ [and] must be for loss or damage directly caused by the defendant’s offense.”

The judge said the Supreme Court of Virginia applied the “directly caused by” language to prevent restitution being ordered for losses that were too attenuated in a 2007 case which barred the recovery of costs incurred to prevent future criminal activity.

Ortiz also noted a 2016 opinion from the Court of Appeals of Virginia, which held that “loss or damage is not too remote if a defendant’s offense is a ‘but for’ cause of the harm.”

However, he said, “‘but for’ causation-in-fact … might impose unlimited liability … for a large number of remote or insignificant causes in time and space,” which creates some tension with the attenuation issue.

The court resolved this tension by borrowing “aspects of proximate cause to inform a restitution award analysis.”

The use of a proximate court analysis, “would give trial courts freedom to draw on experience, common sense, and other legal principles in deciding whether a loss or damage was directly caused by the defendant’s offense.”

“Tyler’s criminal conduct proximately caused the insurance costs because the firm’s failure to oversee its accounts and Tyler could not independently cause the harm it suffered and did not act as an intervening cause between Tyler’s acts and the harm.” – Judge Daniel E. Ortiz

Restitution available

Here, the court found that Tyler was the but for cause of $922.02 in office expenses. If she hadn’t embezzled money, compromised accounts and kept her office key, the firm wouldn’t have needed to change accounts, buy new checks, pay overdraft fees or change locks.

Even though the expenses were prompted by a concern that Tyler would reoffend, they were expenses to restore the firm to its pre-crime status, rather than measures taken solely to prevent future crime.

The opinion also concluded that insurance costs of $14,060.50 — including tail coverage after the firm’s malpractice insurer refused to reinsure it — were directly caused by Tyler.

“Tyler’s criminal conduct proximately caused the insurance costs because the firm’s failure to oversee its accounts and Tyler could not independently cause the harm it suffered and did not act as an intervening cause between Tyler’s acts and the harm,” Ortiz wrote.

The court found that the legal fees for defending the suit brought by a client were directly related to the embezzlement, as was the suit the firm brought against Tyler and the firm’s forensic accounting fees, because the firm “could not have continued as a functioning business without unraveling the extent of Tyler’s crime.”

Too attenuated

Some costs were too attenuated, though. Ortiz said there was no proven connection between Tyler’s embezzlement and the unspecified legal fees. An award for $10,367.50 had to be reversed.

Further, the court found that Tyler’s conduct didn’t directly lead to the Virginia State Bar fees and anticipated future audit costs because the firm had an independent duty to monitor and reconcile its accounts and supervise Tyler that did not flow from her offense.

In total, the court reversed $49,583.80 of the $125,000 restitution award.

New national ‘Reaching Rural’ initiative launched

The Rural Justice Collaborative has a new training and coaching opportunity for rural communities and stakeholders. 

The “Reaching Rural: Advancing Collaborative Solutions” initiative is a one-year program grounded in the value of “for rural, by rural” and features learning from rural practitioners and facilitating engagement across rural communities. Its goal is to strengthen cross-sector partnerships to respond to the impact of substance use in rural communities.

Judge Michelle M. Rick of the Michigan Court of Appeals, a member of the Rural Justice Collaborative, said the Reaching Rural initiative is available to rural agency leaders or mid-level professionals working in counties, cities or tribes as justice, public safety, public health or behavioral health practitioners.

The program, cosponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Association of Counties and the State Justice Institute, is looking for individual practitioners or cross-sector teams from the same community or region who are interested in adopting bold solutions and reimagining how diverse organizations and agencies with different missions can engage with one another to address the persistent challenge of substance use and misuse in rural communities, according to a press release.

Participation is limited to up to 20 individual practitioners and up to 10 cross-sector teams. Those chosen to participate will receive coaching and participate in skill-building workshops as well as virtual and in-person learning experiences over the course of the year.

Participation in the program includes:

  • Travel and per diem costs to participate in an orientation, a field visit to observe the implementation of evidence-informed practices in a rural setting, and a closing session at the end of the 12 months. This is not a grant opportunity.
  • Monthly mentorship and guidance aimed toward your local needs.
  • Monthly assignments that help you apply core concepts to your local community or region.
  • Access to a diverse network of rural peers, innovative rural communities, and technical assistance providers.
  • Formal recognition for completing the planning initiative.

An informational webinar on the Reaching Rural initiative will be held Aug. 31 at 2 p.m. Those interested can register at http://s.iir.com/Reaching_Rural or email questions to [email protected]

The deadline to apply for the program is Sept. 30 at 5 p.m.

Plaintiff sustained back injury in accident, requiring surgery — $250,000 verdict

Type of action: Personal injury

Injuries alleged: Displaced and herniated lumbar disc, requiring surgery

Name of case: Godoy Chavarria v. Mitter

Court: Fairfax County Circuit Court

Case no.: CL2020-0012161

Tried before: Jury

Name of judge or mediator: Judge John M. Tran

Date resolved: 5/26/2022

Special damages: $269,000 in medical bills

Demand: $100,000

Offer: $30,000

Verdict or settlement: Verdict

Amount: $250,000

Attorney for plaintiff (and city): Jennifer Leffler, Fairfax


Description of case: The plaintiff was rear-ended while stopped at a red light on Route 7 in Fairfax County in September 2018. There was very minor damage to both vehicles. EMS was called to the scene and the plaintiff was transported to the emergency room for high blood pressure and neck pain. A week after the accident, the plaintiff sought treatment from a chiropractor for generalized back pain, including mild to moderate pain in her neck and lower back. After seven weeks of chiropractic treatment, the plaintiff stopped seeing the chiropractor because she felt it was no longer helping her lower back pain. Two months after the accident, the plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for intractable lower back pain. An MRI revealed a displaced lumber disc with nerve impingement. The plaintiff received extensive treatment over the next year and a half, including physical therapy, injections and medication. In June 2020, the plaintiff underwent a transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion and lumbar laminectomy.

The plaintiff is a housekeeper with no history of lumbar issues. However, the defense expert opined that she had pre-existing degenerative disc disease. The defense admitted liability and that the plaintiff’s initial ER treatment and chiropractic treatment was reasonable, but they argued that the treatment for accident-related injuries had concluded before her hospital admission in November 2018.

The only exhibits the plaintiff offered into evidence were her expert’s CV and the medical bills.

Jennifer Leffler, plaintiff’s counsel, provided case information. [022-T-084]

Virginia law professors, judge elected to American Law Institute

Three Virginia law school professors and a Virginia federal judge have become members of the American Law Institute.

The ALI announced that Aditya Bamzai of the University of Virginia School of Law, James Y. Stern and Lynda L. Butler of the College of William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law and United States District Judge M. Hannah Lauck have been elected to the institute as part of the 60-person class of new members.

Bamzai joined the University of Virginia School of Law faculty in 2016, where he teaches administrative law, civil procedure, computer crime and conflicts of law. He has argued before numerous federal courts of appeal, including the U.S. Supreme Court in Ortiz v. U.S. in 2018. Prior to joining the UVa. faculty, he served as an attorney-adviser in the Office of Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Defense and worked in private practice. According to UVa., Bamzai is the 32nd member of the UVa. law school faculty currently affiliated with the ALI.

Stern joined the College of William & Mary faculty in 2013, where he has taught intellectual property, property and torts. He has been published in legal journals including the Harvard Law Review and the Michigan Law Review and has been cited by numerous courts. Stern previously served as deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. As an attorney, he participated in litigation involving intellectual property in various capacities.

Butler is currently the Chancellor Professor of Law, Emerita, and Director of the William & Mary Property Rights Project at the College of William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law. She previously practiced law in Washington, D.C. and was a visiting professor at Ohio State University. Butler served as interim dean for the William & Mary Law School from 2008 through 2009.

Lauck has served as a judge in the Richmond Division of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia since 2014, the first woman to hold that position. Prior to becoming a district judge, Lauck served as a U.S. magistrate judge in the Eastern District for nearly a decade and taught at the University of Richmond School of Law. In 2019, the Virginia State Bar Criminal Law Section awarded Lauck the Harry L. Carrico Professionalism Award.

Founded in 1923, the ALI’s website describes the institute as “the leading independent organization in the United States producing scholarly work to clarify, modernize, and otherwise improve the law.”

According to the ALI website, the institute “elects individuals who reflect the excellence and diversity of today’s legal profession.” Potential new members, who can be judges, lawyers or law professors, are nominated confidentially by a current ALI member.

Virginia’s ‘Go To Lawyers’ for intellectual property named

Virginia Lawyers Weekly is pleased to introduce the next group of honorees in our program recognizing the leading lawyers in a particular field of law.

The field of practice for this “Virginia’s Go To Lawyers” section is intellectual property law.

Now in its third year, the “Go To Lawyers” program recognizes leading lawyers in a particular practice area. Earlier this year, we celebrated the commonwealth’s Go To Lawyers for employment law and business law.

A “Go To Lawyer” is:

  • A lawyer who is an expert in his or her field, well-versed in the nuances of the case law, statutes and regulations clients will encounter.
  • A lawyer who is experienced and enjoys a record of success, with many cases and/or transactions that give testimony to the quality advice he or she can provide.
  • A lawyer to whom other lawyers make referrals because of his or her expertise and accomplishments.
  • A lawyer who can think creatively and identify all options for a client.
  • A lawyer you would name when a friend from another state calls and says she has a client who needs some legal help in a given part of our state.
  • A lawyer you might call yourself if you needed legal help in his or her field.

Virginia’s “Go To Lawyers” for intellectual property law for 2022 are:

  • Robert A. Angle, Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders, Richmond
  • Dawn-Marie Bey, Bey & Cotropia, Richmond
  • Elizabeth Burke, Jones Robb, McLean
  • Shawn Cage, Buchanan, Ingersoll, Rooney, Alexandria
  • Zachary D. Cohen, ThompsonMcMullan, Richmond
  • Donghua Deng, Nixon & Vanderhyde, Arlington
  • Thomas Dunlap, Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig, Leesburg
  • Maya Eckstein, Hunton Andrews, Richmond
  • Paul Harrity, Harrity & Harrity, Fairfax
  • David Johnson, Offit Kurman, Tysons
  • Hean Koo, Pillsbury, McLean
  • Stephen Kunin, Maier & Maier, Alexandria
  • Joshua F. P. Long, Woods Rogers Vandeventer Black, Roanoke
  • Dana McDaniel, Spotts Fain, Richmond
  • Stephen Noona, Kaufman & Canoles, Norfolk
  • Peter Riebling, Riebling Law, Vienna
  • Mari-Elise Paul, Stites & Harbison, Alexandria
  • Lucy Jewett Wheatley, McGuireWoods, Richmond
  • Edward White, Williams Mullen, Richmond

Honorees will be profiled in a special section in the Sept. 26 print and digital issues of Virginia Lawyers Weekly.

Please join us in congratulating these outstanding lawyers specializing in all aspects of intellectual property law.

‘Insulting words’: Woman can sue ex for defamation

Where a woman alleged that her ex-boyfriend sent false and defamatory emails to her government employer after their relationship ended, her defamation and insulting words claims survive his motion to dismiss.

Judge Norman K. Moon of the Western District of Virginia found that the alleged statements, “specifically those saying Plaintiff misused Government property (her phone) to send him ‘harassing messages’ and conveying that she had ‘trespassed’ on his property, were capable of a defamatory meaning.”

Moon concluded that the plaintiff had “stated a plausible claim of defamation under D.C. law and a claim of insulting words under Virginia law,” but he dismissed her false light and intrusion upon seclusion claims.

The July 26 opinion is Tika v. Jack (VLW 022-3-314).

J. Lloyd Snook, of Snook & Haughey, P.C., in Charlottesville, represented Jack. He is optimistic that the insulting words claim will ultimately fail because while “the judge cited a Virginia case from 1950 to support his ruling, the general law about insulting words has progressed since then.”

He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Cohen v. California, which held that profane language on a protestor’s jacket was protected by the First Amendment and unlikely to breach the peace.

In Snook’s experience, “Virginia judges have tended to find insulting words aren’t actionable unless they’re likely to immediately breach the peace.”


Selamawit Tika dated Jonathan Jack for two months. According to Tika, their relationship soured the day she asked him to stop talking about politics and race in front of her children.

Later that day, Jack used WhatsApp to send Tika 26 messages she described as “insulting, vulgar, vile and nasty.”

The next day, Tika went to Jack’s residence to retrieve her belongings. When Jack refused to give her anything, Tika left. The following day, she messaged Jack with a negative Airbnb review about him.

Despite Tika saying that she would not text him again and blocking his number, Jack later responded “cease and desist — stop texting me.” Tika didn’t respond.

Later that evening, Jack emailed Tika’s federal government employer with accusations that she had used her government-issued cellphone to send harassing messages, despite his repeatedly asking her to stop.

The next day, while Tika was on a long-planned vacation to visit family in Ethiopia, Jack sent another email to her employer with screenshots of their private communications.

He again accused Tika of harassment and claimed she had trespassed on his property, citing the prior day’s events at his home.

One of the screenshots he sent showed a message in which Tika said he could “generate as many numbers as you want [a]nd delete after pass[ing] your messages across. So you’re holding onto some online one time numbers in your block list hehe. So blocking is really nothing.”

Jack said that message was the “final straw” that convinced him to email her employer because he was afraid for his daughter’s safety.

But according to Tika, Jack’s daughter doesn’t live with him and wasn’t there when she visited.

Jack also sent other screenshots that showed Tika talking about intimate subjects, such as lingerie, pornography and prostitutes.

Tika said the partial messages Jack disclosed were intended to suggest that “she [had] no boundaries, that she lack[ed] good judgment, that she [was] sexually promiscuous, morally and ethically compromised, and mentally unstable.”

Tika said that reading the email to her employer made her cry uncontrollably. She became anxious and fearful for her job and began to suffer from panic attacks.

She filed suit against Jack for defamation, false light/invasion of privacy, intrusion upon seclusion, conversion, and insulting words.

“Defendant’s contrary statement to Plaintiff’s employer that Plaintiff used her government cell phone to send him harassing messages is not made ‘substantially true’ by Plaintiff’s admission that she sent ‘one’ innocuous text message to him that her ‘personal phone had crashed and she would not be able to text him that moment.’ Nor does Plaintiff’s admission that she went to Defendant’s home to gather her belongings, render it ‘substantially true’ that, as Defendant conveyed, Plaintiff was ‘trespassing’ on his property.”

– Judge Norman K. Moon


Jack argued the emails didn’t include false statements, or at least included statements he believed to be true, like his statement that plaintiff had been using her government cellphone to send harassing messages.

But Moon said, at this stage in the case, he had to accept the truth of Tika’s allegations that she neither harassed Jack nor trespassed on his property.

Jack next claimed that Tika’s allegations and admissions demonstrated that the messages he sent were “substantially true” and that at most there were “slight inaccuracies” in his email.

He pointed to Tika’s admission that she called or texted him multiple times, including once with her government cellphone, to argue that he could have viewed that behavior as harassment.

Moon disagreed.

“Defendant’s contrary statement to Plaintiff’s employer that Plaintiff used her government cell phone to send him harassing messages is not made ‘substantially true’ by Plaintiff’s admission that she sent ‘one’ innocuous text message to him that her ‘personal phone had crashed and she would not be able to text him that moment,’” Moon wrote. “Nor does Plaintiff’s admission that she went to Defendant’s home to gather her belongings, render it ‘substantially true’ that, as Defendant conveyed, Plaintiff was ‘trespassing’ on his property.”

Moon also rejected Jack’s argument that his statements were simply statements of opinion and that his use of the heading “Harassment of Taxpayer” in the first email made it constitutionally protected speech.

The judge said the heading could be “reasonably read in conjunction with the body of the email” which accused Tika of harassment.

In addition, the second email “added further factual content to his use of the term ‘harassment’ … by conveying that Plaintiff had trespassed on his property.”

Moon concluded that “the alleged defamatory statement in context contained or implied provably false statements of fact, which added factual content to Defendant’s allegation that Plaintiff had ‘harassed’ him — taking those statements out of the realm of an unactionable opinion.”

Finally, the judge found that Tika had plausibly stated a claim for defamation per se because Jack’s statements called into question “Plaintiff’s fitness for her position.”

Insulting words

Under Virginia Code § 8.01-45, “insulting words” are those “which from their usual construction and common acceptance are construed as insults and tend to violence and breach of the peace.”

Jack argued that the statute only penalized words made in face-to-face confrontation with a clear and present danger of violence.

But the Supreme Court of Virginia “has explicitly acknowledged written statements may be actionable as insulting words,” Moon pointed out.

“The Court agrees with the weight of authority that ‘written communications may serve as the basis of an insulting words claim, at least where the words are otherwise insulting and tend to violence,” the judge concluded.

Remaining claims

Moon dismissed Tika’s false light and intrusion claims under D.C. law, because she could not meet the requirement that “the matter [be] made public, by communicating it to the public at large, or to so many persons that the matter must be regarded as substantially certain to become one of public knowledge.”

‘Just send the guy to California’

Cousins Herman and Paul Petrillo

On March 23, 1939, a Philadelphia jury returned a guilty verdict against Herman Petrillo, captivating the nation in what had been dubbed “the Great Arsenic Murder Trial.”

Charged with the murder of Ferdinand Alfonsi, Petrillo was the first to be tried and sentenced to death. His co-defendant, Stella Alfonsi, would be tried later for her role in her husband’s painful death. With numerous other trials remaining, the public would not be disappointed.

The main players in the “You’re tired of your spouse, allow us to aid you” ring included cousins Herman and Paul Petrillo and Morris “Louie the Rabbi” Bolber, who when not teaching Hebrew school and training young Jewish students studying for their bar and bat mitzvahs, was arranging various murders.

The owner of a tailor shop in Philadelphia, Paul Petrillo spoke with, and learned from, the many clients who frequented his shop. From those selling insurance to the poor immigrants in the immediate area, he quickly discovered that money could be made with little effort.

Soon he was selling life insurance policies and collecting his clients’ weekly 50 cent installments. His younger cousin Herman far less subtlety joined Paul in his lust to make a quick buck. Not bothering to engage in any semblance of legitimate work, the conniving conman Herman employed whatever illegality suited his needs, with arson and counterfeiting topping his crimes of choice.

The authorities were soon onto Herman. When an insured house under his wife’s name mysteriously burned down, Herman was charged with arson. Despite being connected to a cache of dynamite, he was acquitted.

Leaving the courtroom, Herman both mocked the fire marshal — “What d’ya think now, flatfoot?” — and then traveled to the insurance company to collect the $3,000 in insurance proceeds.

With the success of his efforts, Herman proposed expanding his horizons to include his cousin, suggesting they kill those for whom Paul held policies, or in Herman’s quaint vernacular: “Just send the guy to California.”

Paul demurred, more due to his distrust of his cousin’s reckless ways than the wisdom of his suggestion.

Morris Bolber

Not one to be slowed, Herman befriended a disabled 50-year-old vagrant, Ralph Caruso. Finding him a place to stay, Herman arranged with the insurance agents who hung out in Paul’s tailor shop to sell the illiterate Ralph life insurance policies that Herman paid for, along with the rent, and made himself the beneficiary.

Accumulating a sizable nest egg of $3,000 in insurance, Herman decided the time was right to send Ralph to California via a local river. With a cohort, Salvatore Sortino, Herman drowned Caruso, who was found the next day.

When Herman tried to cash in, suspicions arose. The insurance companies balked, agreeing only to pay funeral expenses. Herman begrudgingly agreed, but in double-billing the companies on the amply padded funeral expenses, he walked away with a not-too-shabby $700, or about $13,000 in today’s money.

Some months later, he replicated the scheme by killing John Woloshyn, on whose life John’s wife, Marie, had purchased several policies. That Herman was sleeping with Marie made his suggestion to purchase the policies fairly persuasive.

The police concluded that John was the victim of a hit and run, which it most assuredly was, but not in the traditional sense. Herman, his 250-pound friend “Jumbo” Valenti, and John traveled in Herman’s car to an after-hours joint. There, Jumbo proceeded to hit Woloshyn over the head with a lead pipe and dragged him in front of the car, at which point Herman proceeded to run him over several times.

The Russian-born Morris “Louie the Rabbi” Bolber rounded out the group. Rotund and sloppy in dress, the 40-ish-year-old Bolber held himself out as a scholar, mystic and wise man who spoke several languages. Married with four children, he even advised Salvatore Sortino, who aided in the killing of killing Ralph Caruso.

Sortino, suffering from a run of bad luck, sought to change his fortunes. Bolber told him to put an egg under his arm for nine days. It must have worked, as Sortino came back for additional advice.

Given mutual connections and a fondness for the occult, Bolber and Paul Petrillo became close friends and partners in crime, with each catering and exploiting the superstitions of the local populace.

Over the next few years, as word spread that Petrillo and Bolber had magic in their veins, women sought out the pair, seeking advice as to how to address different marital problems. Petrillo and Bolber provided life insurance as well as magic powders. The packets contained arsenic that the wife, as dutifully instructed, put in her husband’s food or drink.

Some of the wives were merely dupes, doing as told and relying on the healing power of those providing the advice. But others were neck deep and fully aware of what they were doing: ridding themselves of a problem and making some decent money in depression-hardened times.

The ringleaders always got their cut of the insurance money. Indeed, at times they took the entire amount, leaving the widow both husband-less and even poorer.

The murder of Ferdinando Alfonsi broke open a case that quickly mushroomed. Ferdinando, a cement contractor who saw his business disappear during the depression, became a day laborer to help provide for his attractive and angry wife, Stella, and their two young sons. Befriending Herman Petrillo, Ferdinando leapt at the opportunity for easier, more lucrative work, moving counterfeit money and stolen goods.

Stella had good reason to be mad, bitter that her father sold her at age 17 to Ferdinando, who was 10 years older, for $2,000. She was young and pretty and liked to have a good time. And she certainly did not need the company of her loveless husband, with whom she fought and occasionally left once for four years.

Herman Petrillo, who liked the ladies almost as much as his criminal ways, saw an opening and quickly ingratiated himself with her. With two life insurance policies in hand, Herman knew what had to be done, as did Stella.

Paul Petrillo

If offing a good friend presented a moral dilemma, it was quickly solved when Herman decided to have someone else do the killing. He recruited an ex-con, George Myer, on the good word of another ex-con.

Unfortunately for Herman, Myer was also an informant. Hoping to ingratiate himself with the feds, who wanted Herman for his counterfeiting ways, Myer brought them in. Soon, Myer and undercover agent Stanley Phillips were dealing with Herman, plotting murder and counterfeiting schemes.

Needless to say, the Phillips-Myer team had no interest in knocking off Ferdinando and continually put off the hit, meeting frequently with Herman to endlessly discuss how best to do it. Eschewing the tried-and-true arsenic route, Herman went over what worked so well in the past — a trip to a river or a hit-and-run accident combined with the equally lethal lead pipe to the head. With much dithering and little happening, Herman grew tired of the wait.

When Myer and Phillips later met Herman at a bus station in New Jersey to pick up bogus money, Ferdinando’s name again came up. This time, though, Herman told them not to worry about it.

As Ferdinando writhed in pain, his eyes bulging and his insides exploding, his seemingly loving wife dabbed at his forehead to comfort him. He mercifully died.

While an arrested Stella clammed up, Herman, surprisingly, opened up, selling everyone but himself down the river. He told of all the people who were “Petrillo-ized,” including Rose “the Kiss of Death” Carina, who killed three spouses and was in the process of killing no. 4, and Carina “the Wicked Witch of North Philadelphia” Favato, who killed her husband, then murdered her teenage stepson and a third victim, the husband of a neighbor.

With the body count at 20, the ADA could not keep up with the litany of victims and defendants. Soon, several of the defendants were talking.

Over the course of 1939, there were trials and pleas for a mass of women, nearly all of whom were uneducated, unattractive and unassuming. All, that is, except Stella, who was smart, cunning and shrewd.

When Stella didn’t like her court-appointed attorney, she demanded and got a new one, Raymond Pace Alexander, who was highly respected and extremely competent. He was also Black and would be the first of his race to try a capital case.

Stella’s trial, which was substantial yet circumstantial, started in October. The insurance agent testified about meeting with Stella but that she would not allow him to meet with her husband. The treating doctor told of Stella not wanting her very ill husband to go to the hospital. Myer outlined the plot to kill the victim. The toxicology results indicated a deadly amount of arsenic. And Carina Favato, now a cooperating witness, testified that she got the poison from Herman and gave it to Stella.

Despite the onslaught of evidence knocking them to the ground, Alexander and his client rose to the occasion. Alexander stressed the unworthiness of some of the state’s obvious unsavory witnesses; that Stella (unlike many of the other defendants who made incriminating statements to the police) never admitted to anything; and persuasively and fortuitously that the insurance policies had recently lapsed prior to Ferdinando’s death due to non-payment, thus eliminating a motive for the killing.

Moreover, the comely defendant held sway. “A picture of poise, ebony-haired Stella Alfonsi took the witness stand yesterday,” one newspaper reported. Even a lengthy and withering cross-examination did not derail her.

The verdict: not guilty.


When all was said and done, the cast of characters could have come from an engrossing film noir, highlighting sordid backgrounds, human frailties, and tales hardly worthy of belief.

Justice, for the most part, prevailed with Paul and Herman Petrillo dying in the electric chair, and Bolber receiving a life sentence instead of death for his cooperation. He died in prison in 1954. 

Some of the women got off, including Rose “the Kiss of Death” Carina, also brilliantly represented by Alexander, whom she stiffed on his fee.

The above column is based on “Poison Widows” by George Cooper and other internet sources. R. Marc Kantrowitz, a retired judge, can be contacted at [email protected]