Jury awards $8 million in wrongful death case
A Northern Neck restaurateur was liable for his wife’s death in 2010 and his daughters should be awarded $8 million, a jury said Thursday.
After two hours of deliberations, a Westmoreland County civil jury found in favor of Sarah Thrift, the daughter of Sally Rumsey.
Thrift had filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Stephen C. Andersen, Rumsey’s husband.
Rumsey’s death was ruled a suicide by a state medical examiner, but Thrift challenged that opinion in her lawsuit, claiming Andersen’s “wrongful, negligent, intentional and/or malicious acts” caused Rumsey’s death.
The jury awarded $8 million to Sally Rumsey’s estate, which will go to her two daughters.
Thrift, 28, will receive $6 million and her younger sister, Schuyler Anderson, 21, will receive $2 million. Schuyler Anderson was not a party to the lawsuit.
Schuyler Andersen—Rumsey and Andersen’s daughter—testified on her father’s behalf.
Thrift’s attorney, Randy Singer, said they feel vindicated by the verdict.
“Verdict means the truth in Latin and the truth came out in court,” he said. “Our hope is that this family will all make peace with that truth.”
Rumsey, 49, was last seen at her home Feb. 5, 2010. Her body was found four days later covered in snow in the woods behind her home in Hague.
An autopsy report said that Rumsey froze to death. She also had high amounts of Ambien and alcohol in her system.
The suit claims Andersen did not search for Rumsey, who went missing during a snowstorm and waited two days to call the police to report her missing.
Thrift, Rumsey’s daughter from a previous marriage, claims that because Andersen’s actions resulted in her mother’s death, he should not be “receiving a financial reward, profit and/or betterment as a result of that death.”
Defense attorney John P. Harris III said it wasn’t the outcome he wanted and he was surprised by the amounts.
“It’s too soon to have a reaction,” he said about his client. “But his daughter [Schuyler] is crushed.”
The jury foreman, who wanted to remain anonymous, told reporters after court that they all agreed on the first vote after going over all of the evidence submitted.
“If there had been a quicker action done, there could have been a different outcome,” she said. “We all felt good about [their decision].”
The judge could set aside the jury’s verdict or reduce the amount of the award. The defense was given until the end of the month to file post-trial motions.
Andersen, 62, the owner of Good Easts Restaurant, gave his account of what happened the night his wife was missing.
He said he did not call the police right away because he would have to answer to her when she returned home.
“If my wife comes home and there’s all this police activity and publicity, my life is hell,” he testified. “Sally was very, very proud and there was a side of her that she didn’t want anyone to know about.”
He did admit that he lied to some family members about Sally’s whereabouts because he didn’t think their argument was any of their business.
He also said he didn’t have any regrets about any of his actions that day.
Schuyler Andersen testified that she initially thought her father killed her mother, but changed her mind after talking to him.
She told the jury that she and her mother didn’t get along and referred to her as “good mom–bad mom.”
She said her mother was good mom during the day and attributed bad mom to drinking.
“She was not very nice to me. Bad mom and I were not friends,” she said.
Based on that split personality, she said “I could see my mother killing herself, yes.”
In closing argument, Singer said “all he [Andersen] had to do was go outside and follow her tracks right to where she was or let the dogs loose and let them find her.”
He said the money awarded was fair and told him that the jury understood the special type of person she was.
“But what is the value of a mother’s compassion, advice, comfort, love?” he asked the jury to consider before they deliberated. “What does that mean for Sarah? Or for Schuyler? You can’t put a value on that.”
Harris began his case Thursday with hopes of convincing the jury that Rumsey killed herself.
“I think she thought she would take the alcohol and Ambien and it would be fast, but it wasn’t,” he said. “Sarah doesn’t want to think her mother would do that to her. Now she wants to play pin the tail on the donkey and pin it on someone else.”
Assistant Chief Medical Examiner Kevin Whaley testified that he was 99 percent confident that Rumsey committed suicide.
He said the police were not comfortable with his opinion and were pushing for something else.
He also testified that while he did review police reports, the inconsistencies at the scene had no bearings on his report.
Criminal charges were never brought against Andersen, but it’s still an active investigation, officials said.
“There’s a different standard for a criminal prosecution, but this allowed me the opportunity to see what evidence was available,” said Westmoreland Commonwealth’s Attorney Julia Sichol. “I haven’t made up my mind one way or the other.”
Portsia Smith: 540/374-5419