066: The Countess of Monte Cristo

Stella Case No. 066, Originally Published: 8 October 2003

In 2001 Wanda Hudson, then 42, of Mobile, Ala., lost her home to foreclosure and, says her lawyer, Mallory Mantiply, the creditor tossed her possessions “into the street.” Hudson rented one of the 456 units at Parkway Storage, just two miles from her house, to store her belongings.

On November 7, 2001, Hudson paid for another month’s rent on her 300 square foot storage unit. Later that night she was inside. In making his rounds, Parkway Storage’s manager noticed the door was unlocked and slightly open. He locked it up and moved on. Hudson was still inside.

066: The Countess of Monte Cristo
Happily, Parkway Storage survived the lawsuit. (Screencap from their web site.)

Who wouldn’t yell and scream, pound on the door, and demand to be let out? But Hudson didn’t do that. Incredibly, she made virtually no attempt to let anyone know she was trapped. She subsisted on juice and canned foods that she had stored in the unit.

Parkway Storage’s attorney Bert Taylor said another storage customer whose unit was two spaces away went to her own storage space almost “every single day,” yet never heard a thing. “There was no yelling, no screaming, no beating on the doors, no nothing,” he said. “No one knew she was in there.” And she was there for a long, long time.

It wasn’t until January 9, 2002, 63 days after she was locked inside, when someone heard noises — not yelling or banging, just “noises” — from inside the locked unit and notified the storage company. The door was opened and Hudson, who is normally a “plump” 150 pounds, was in horrific condition: she weighed only 85 pounds, and her doctor says she was in “advanced starvation, unusual to find in medical circumstances in America today.” Her fingernails, normally several inches long, were said to be a foot in length. The smell inside was so bad that fire department rescue personnel donned gas masks before going in. Hudson was so disoriented she hadn’t realized she had missed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Sad indeed, but someone must be held responsible, right? Well, someone other than her, anyway: Hudson and her lawyer say Parkway Storage is solely responsible for her plight and sued the company for $10 million in Mobile County Circuit Court, claiming negligence.

During the trial, Hudson was “vague” in her testimony about why she was in the unit late at night, and why she didn’t hear the manager lock the door. She denied she was asleep, and denied she was living in the unit. She claims she was “looking for some papers” and just didn’t hear the door shut and lock behind her. She says “I screamed, I banged, I banged, I banged” whenever she heard anyone nearby. But, she said, everyone ignored her cries for help. Uh huh.

When Hudson testified she was not living in her storage unit, but rather lived with her sister, defense attorney Taylor asked her, “Was she expecting you that night?” Yes, Hudson said. Yet her sister was not concerned with Hudson’s absence of over two months — she never filed a missing person report.

Just a week before being trapped in her storage unit, Hudson was assessed by mental health authorities. They declared she posed “a real and present threat of substantial harm to herself and/or others.” They ruled that Hudson was unable to “physically take care of herself … allowing her physical condition to deteriorate to the point of threatening her health and well-being, making threats to kill herself.” Yet when it came to her lawsuit against the storage company, Circuit Judge Rick Stout ruled that evidence inadmissible; the defense couldn’t bring it up.

After a two-day trial, the jury was briefly deadlocked at 8 to 4 — but it was not revealed in whose favor. The judge reminded the jury of their “duty,” and two hours later they decided in Hudson’s favor and awarded her $100,000. The jury, however, was clearly bothered by Hudson not doing more to free herself: in addition to awarding her “only” one percent of the suit’s begged-for amount, they asked the judge questions about a person’s “own responsibility for his or her predicament” before they made their decision.

Surely Hudson’s mental situation provides an understandable — if rather bizarre — explanation for why she didn’t try to get help for over two months once she realized she was locked in her unit. Yet the jury wasn’t allowed to learn of that important detail, and felt sorry enough for her to award her substantial damages. Hudson was destitute enough that she lost her home, but was able to get a significant windfall (less whatever her lawyer took) by making someone else pay for her own negligence brought on by her mental problems.

In a court of law, that’s known as justice. In the court of public opinion, it’s known as something else entirely: a Stella Award.

Total elapsed time for the case: almost 20 months, not counting the time Hudson was in storage.

Sources

  • “Woman Sues DIP Storage Facility over Bizarre Ordeal,” Mobile Register, 26 September 2003.
  • “Woman Seeks $10 Million in Storage Facility Ordeal,” Mobile Register, 27 September 2003.
  • “Locked-up Woman Awarded $100,000,” Mobile Register, 30 September 2003.

Case Status

As noted, an award was granted by the jury. This case was a Runner-Up for the 2003 Stella Awards.

My 2021 Thoughts on the Case

A sad case indeed: in 2015 a “hyper-local” news blog noted that she was living at a Fairhope, Ala., library …again. “According to Chief Petties numerous private individuals, government agencies, churches and other charites [sic] have offered help over the past several years, but she refuses or always returns to homlesness [sic].” The system failed Hudson, but that isn’t something she should sue over.

Letters

Reader reaction regarding Case 064, about the would-be college student who sued when his Letter of Admission was revoked after he didn’t keep his grades up as the letter noted was required.

Pat in New Jersey: “This sounds to me like a classic case of student burnout. Mark might have salvaged his place in college if he had pleaded mea culpa and admitted to burnout as a consequence of killing himself in order to achieve at the level he did. Did parental advice play a part in this scenario? As soon as he got himself a lawyer, he dug himself a hole and buried himself in it. What college wants to accept a sue-happy student?”

Ken in Iowa: “A school that would take him and help his entire attitude is the U.S. Marine Corps, well respected for giving a person a hand up in life. And by the way, that is one old school tie that really works — take a look at the number of Marines who have achieved positions of great respect and power, way out of proportion to the number of people who served in the Corps.”

Plaintiff Edmonson’s lawyer had said the school’s recision smacked of “arrogance” because he had a perfect score on his SAT (a “rather laughable claim that an institution of higher learning would hold academic achievement against a student,” I commented).

Andrina in Oklahoma: “Just who is the arrogant one? UNC, or the kid? Isn’t it some kind of arrogance that he felt he no longer had to strive for excellence because he had been accepted? Isn’t it arrogance that he didn’t bother to check into any other schools in case UNC didn’t accept him? Just because he got a 1600 on the SAT? So what? My oldest son wants very much to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. To this end he is taking honors classes, is concurrently enrolled at Cameron University, is working on his Eagle Award in Boy Scouts, participates in cross-country track and ROTC. He also visits his local Marine recruiter who is supporting and encouraging him by putting him through a quickie workout so he can excel on the physical fitness assessment required by the Academy.

“He also enlisted in the Navy, for two reasons: 1) it’s his fallback if he can’t get a scholarship for school, and 2) it’s a help on his application, showing he’s committed to the Navy one way or another. He also requested and received an interview with Ft. Sill’s Commanding General to ask for a letter or recommendation to the Academy. He got the letter. And, in case that’s not enough, he’s working on a Naval ROTC Scholarship at University of Minnesota and has applied to the other military academies in case they are interested him if the Navy is not. He will not give up. As aggravating as my son can be, I’m exceptionally proud of him. ‘Classless in 2008’ should be ashamed of himself.”

No doubt, your son wouldn’t even think of suing if he didn’t get into the Academy. The difference in the attitude of these two boys is almost palpable.

Charles in Texas: “I, too, have been the victim of a high score on my ACT, but was refused entrance into university because I did just about as little as I could get away with in grade school. I graduated about 700 out of a class of 1000, with a ‘middle C’ average. I was bored with school, so I didn’t apply myself and flatly refused to believe my mom when she told me to work harder to get my grades up or I wouldn’t be accepted into college. I got the rejection letters and went to interviews where they told me they only wanted students that would work hard and keep up the reputation of the school. I wound up going to the local junior college before being admitted to the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Mark obviously has received a valuable lesson that many people don’t get until later in life — that there is no such thing as a ‘free pass’ based solely on one thing done well. I just kills me to think that there are people who believe that suing is a fix-all to a problem, no matter who or what caused it. I’m just not sure which is worse, the person that sues or the attorney who accepts the case.”

Then there’s this sort of upset reader:

Cathy, a grocery store stock clerk in North Carolina: “Right now I am very broke, and rather desperate for funds, just to get by. I hear the lawyer ads and start thinking of possibilities that might apply to me. It is almost irresistible! The offer of ‘free money’, with no investment on my part, I ‘only pay the lawyer, if I win’, is sure welcome! Any funds are! So who loses? The lawyers tell me that the companies are out to ‘rip me off’, so they deserve to pay! Works for me, since no matter how many hours I work, I can’t earn the bucks they are appearing to offer.

“I am a sane person, I really know better, yet the temptation has lead me to pick up the phone. Your Stella Awards has lead me to hang to phone up — for any complaints I might have are not attributable to any company, but the temptation is still there. So the stock holders will lose? No skin off my nose, since if they have the money to invest (I used to) then they are way ahead of me to start, so no great loss! I know that companies overcharge me everyday for others’ stealing, court cases, etc; so why shouldn’t I get in on the ‘gravy’ when I need it? I am not justifying those that follow thru, call the lawyers, and file cases; just saying that the lower I sink into everyday debt (not credit card, extravagant living — just trying to pay the local taxes, and utility bills), the more I understand the temptation that is presented every day. Most of the commercials appear during late night, when I am most apt to have awaken from nightmares of drowning in debt, or just can’t sleep for the same reasons. Just thought you might like to know that your newsletter helps to reinforce some of our standards — even in the middle of the night!)”

I’m sorry you’re struggling, Cathy, but you noted that you used to be much more flush, and used to invest. Did you want people to steal your money — the money you had invested — by filing frivolous lawsuits against the companies you invested in? Remember that most stockholders aren’t billionaires, but rather people just like you! They invest in mutual funds who buy stocks, or pension funds who buy stocks, to help normal, everyday people like you and me save for the future. As I’ve editorialized in the past week, juries and plaintiffs and judges and lawyers and everyone else have to remember that what’s wrong is always wrong no matter who pays for it.

David in Tennessee: “When you said ‘what’s wrong is wrong no matter who pays for it’, I believe that you may have forgotten about the many recent examples we have received from politicians here in The States where what’s wrong seems only to be wrong if you admit it’s wrong. After all, these same politicians are the ones who are writing our laws and regulations. It seems to me that we as a country are being sent a message that you’re not wrong unless you get caught and they can convict you. Maybe if more people who actually believe that ‘what’s wrong is wrong no matter WHO pays for it’ would get to their respective voting booths and send a message reading ‘You’re Fired’ to the lawmakers, ‘we the people’ might be able to convince some of these lawyers and juries that ‘what’s wrong is wrong no matter who pays for it’.”

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1 Comment on “066: The Countess of Monte Cristo

  1. I read your response to Cathy today, had to comment.

    I am sure that is not what she meant. However, a large portion of the population of the US today lives just one medical emergency from being in her financial position. And suddenly “easy money” looks attractive. And a “Stella” type case that might bring in a few thousand dollars at no risk to someone in a tight financial squeeze suddenly becomes attractive to someone who wouldn’t consider it if they were doing well.

    All because a lawyer made the sale that lined his pocket.

    Cathy had no cause for action, so any suit that she filed would be frivolous. She asked, “So who loses?” The courts (which taxpayers pay for). The company she sues (not all are giant: so many are actually small businesses, such as mine, where the money comes out of the owner’s pocket — and plenty of money at that, even when the suit is tossed out, because I have to hire a lawyer to protect myself. Even when it is a “big” corporation, the costs are passed along to consumers, or taken from the shareholder profits. And in the stock market, most funds are retirement funds. So instead of one big loser, there’s a large number of small losers. Such “losers” are also known as “victims” of frivolous lawsuits, and all the Cathys add up to something huge. What is “wrong” is not suddenly OK because the wrongness is spread out over a lot of people. -rc

    Reply

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