BELTON — A Bell County jury assessed more than $18 million in damages Friday night against the three remaining co-defendants in a protracted lawsuit involving the Purser family.
After more than a day and a half of deliberations, the jury of seven women and five men assessed the brunt of the damages against Killeen personal injury attorney Jerry Scarbrough. They awarded the Purser family $11.9 million from Scarbrough alone.
Co-defendant Mary Denise Steele had her damages set at about $4 million. The Purser family was awarded about $2.2 million from Melissa V. Deaton.
The jury found unanimously that the three committed fraud by failing to disclose secret recordings of the family’s former patriarch, Gary W. Purser, who died in July 2011.
The verdict ended a two-week lawsuit that exposed some of the inner workings of the Purser family, which holds several real estate holdings and development companies in Killeen. The jury found that Deaton and Steele took advantage of Gary W. Purser, who gave them at least $76,000 in the final years of his life.
They also found Scarbrough acted unethically in representing Deaton in a suit against the Pursers that alleged JoAnn Purser, now a Killeen Independent School District school board member, assaulted and threatened Deaton.
Visiting judge Alan Mayfield sanctioned Scarbrough several times during the case, fining him $54,000 for hiding evidence and sharing the private medical records of Gary W. Purser. The sanctions will be applied to the family’s legal bills, which total more than $1.2 million.
After Mayfield read the verdict, JoAnn Purser cried and hugged family members, including Gary W. Purser’s sister, Elizabeth Tipton. JoAnn Purser, Gary “Bubba” Purser Jr., Sue Van Zanten, Tipton and Helen Purser were all awarded damages. Helen Purser was awarded the most damages, including $2.25 million for mental anguish alone.
Scarbrough said he will appeal the verdict.
“This thing will last 10 minutes in appellate court,” he said. “Mark my words, it will be gone. Zero.”
Neither Steele nor Deaton were in the court when the verdict was read. Steele had not been seen at the courthouse since she abruptly left during closing arguments Thursday.
The defendants also were found to have damaged the family by making defamatory statements against five of them.
Since Scarbrough joined the case, he repeatedly accused the family of murdering Gary W. Purser, alleged elder abuse and called JoAnn Purser and Gary “Bubba” Purser Jr. drug addicts in court.
Gary W. Purser suffered from dementia in the years leading up to his death. Lawyers argued that it was because of his mental state that Steele and Deaton were able to ingratiate themselves upon the powerful patriarch.
The family acted to prevent him from interacting with the women by placing a GPS on his truck, intervening twice and finally by limiting his access to the family’s finances when his wife, Helen Purser, sued him for divorce.
The couple ultimately reconciled.
Throughout the trial, the two women maintained their relationship with Gary W. Purser was merely a friendship. However, the jury heard recordings of Steele, Deaton and Gary W. Purser in which the women spoke of sexual fantasies and suggested he transfer property deeds to them and place a safe in Deaton’s home.
Those recordings remained hidden from the defense until a third party gave them to Precinct 4 Bell County Commissioner John Fisher, who passed them on to the Pursers’ lawyers.
Though their lawyers had the recordings in their possession, the Pursers’ attorneys requested them from Scarbrough several times. Scarbrough said outside of court Friday that he never had the recordings, and that they were used as a way to trap him.
Included in the recordings is a conversation between Scarbrough and his wife in which he speculates that he would win millions in his lawsuit against the Pursers.
Scarbrough filed for bankruptcy June 25. However, the Purser family has already begun fighting his attempts to exempt assets from any debtors.
On Tuesday, they won a restraining order against Scarbrough and a corporation registered to him and his wife.
The Pursers’ lawyers allege the company is a sham created only to shield Scarbrough’s assets, which include at least three properties valued at about $200,000, court documents state.
Scarbrough’s future as an attorney could be in jeopardy. From the trial’s outset, the family has focused their ire mainly on him with an ultimate aim to go after his law license.
Temple attorney John Redington was originally named as a co-defendant. The Pursers’ lawyers dismissed all charges against him Wednesday.
Any complaint against Scarbrough would have to be lodged with the State Bar of Texas. Friday’s judgment would not play into any hearings.