BELTON — Lawyers gave their final arguments Thursday in a lawsuit that has pitted a prominent Killeen family against a local lawyer they say slandered them and conspired to defraud them of millions.
The Purser family, which owns multiple real estate development companies in Killeen, sued Killeen personal injury attorney Jerry Scarbrough in a protracted lawsuit in which the family claims Scarbrough acted unethically.
Gary W. Purser, the father-in-law to JoAnn Purser, a Killeen Independent School District school board member and former city councilwoman, has been a focal point in the lawsuit that began as a wrongful termination claim against the Pursers in 2009.
The family alleges two women, Melissa V. Deaton of Temple and former Killeen resident Mary Denise Steele, conspired to con Gary W. Purser out of millions as his mental health declined in his final years.
Deaton and Steele are co-defendants with Scarbrough in the case. Scarbrough was named in the lawsuit after attorneys discovered recordings they say Scarbrough hid from them.
Scarbrough is now the Pursers’ main target in the case. The family’s lead attorney, Jeff Ray of El Paso, suggested the jury set damages against Scarbrough at $25 million. That would amount to half the size of the Pursers’ fortune, which lawyers have estimated at $50 million.
He asked the jury to assess $2 million each in damages from Steele and Deaton.
During closing arguments, Ray called Scarbrough’s actions in the case an embarrassment to the legal profession.
The family claims Scarbrough made false reports to police departments in the wake of Gary W. Purser’s death. Scarbrough contacted Killeen and Temple police and made accusations that the Purser family had murdered Gary W. Purser.
He also called justices of the peace and Gary W. Purser’s funeral home and told them to order an autopsy.
Scarbrough also is accused of hiding evidence from the Pursers’ attorneys. Only when a third party contacted the family did they become aware of recordings of conversations that were damaging to Steele, Deaton and Scarbrough.
Scarbrough also is accused of defamation. In open court, he called JoAnn and Gary “Bubba” Purser Jr. drug addicts.
Ray also put on evidence that Scarbrough and Deaton worked together to manufacture a death threat. Deaton claims JoAnn Purser threatened to kill her over the phone in October 2011.
However, phone records from the day of the alleged threat show that JoAnn Purser never called Deaton, and that Deaton spoke with Scarbrough just minutes before she called 911.
Before ending his argument, Ray played a segment of a phone call Scarbrough recorded days after Gary W. Purser’s death.
Scarbrough called a niece of the Purser family’s patriarch and claimed that he was Gary W. Purser’s lawyer and went on to suggest that the family abused him and was responsible for his death. “Everything out of his mouth is a lie,” Ray said.
Three months after Gary W. Purser’s death, Scarbrough had his widow, Helen Purser, deposed. In questioning described as abusive, Scarbrough asked Helen Purser about explicit details of their sex life.
“That’s malicious,” Ray said. “That’s not just malicious, it’s vicious.”
Ray said the jury should award severe punitive damages to send a message to the community, lawyers across the state, and to the Bell County Attorney and District Attorney to investigate for possible criminal charges.
Scarbrough’s attorney, David Fernandez, questioned the necessity of the Pursers’ lawyers to bill so many hours to the family. The family is seeking reimbursement for $1.2 million in legal fees.
Waving around an empty banker’s box, Fernandez noted that Temple attorney John Redington had been released as a defendant in the case. Fernandez said Redington should not have been involved to begin with.
Deaton’s attorney, Michael White, told jurors to make sure they know what message they are sending when considering the charges against his client.
“If you want to hammer her for hiring a lawyer (Redington) who referred her to a bad lawyer (Scarbrough), then do it,” White said. “Then justice becomes revenge.”
Steele, who represented herself throughout the case, told the jury her relationship with Gary W. Purser was only as a friend. She noted that she saw Purser only once in the last two years of his life.
She also told the jury to remember that at the end of the damaging recording between Steele, Deaton and Gary W. Purser, she told him that he needed to hire a lawyer that he trusted. Though the women had suggested Purser deed property to them to hide it from his wife, those were just words.
“Are you accountable for what you said if you didn’t follow through with actions?” Steele said.
Steele left the courtroom following her closing arguments and did not return for the rest of the day.
Deliberations will continue today in the 146th District Court with visiting Judge Alan Mayfield presiding.
Contact Philip Jankowski at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7553