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Peter H. Weinberger, Esq. | May 9, 2014

Firm Culture, Reflected in a Verdict

Categories: News

Last month our firm hosted a special luncheon for colleagues, featuring a guest speaker who helped us to better understand the increasing importance of social media for networking in the legal industry. The concept of law firm “branding” came up often, and seems to have become a hot-button topic for many firms. The recent verdict in a case handled by the Spangenberg Law Firm exemplifies, I believe, the essence of our firm brand - dedication to each and every client and an ability to take any case to trial, even on cases when the claims and damages are difficult to explain. This was an interesting and unique case.

The Redlines, in their 70s, received a call from a law firm to set up a meeting to “review their trust.” The men who came over weren’t lawyers, they were insurance agents. The Redlines, over the course of several meetings, were led to believe that they were protecting their life savings through the creation of a trust and purchase of hundreds of thousands of dollars in annuities. In fact, they lost $212,000 in fees, taxes, and expenses resulting from a delayed Medicaid application—it was an insurance churn at their expense. The case turned on whether there was any attorney-client relationship when the Redlines never met with an attorney or signed a contract, whether the agents worked for the law firm or only for a now-defunct insurance agency, and how to calculate damages based in part on a delayed Medicaid application and trust law. There were multiple settled defendants, a pro se insurance agent, an empty-chair defense and a contribution action against the Redlines’ new estate attorney, and complex Medicaid and trust law issues.

Nick DiCello tried the case, which included many lay witnesses and four experts, for week in front of visiting Judge William Coyne. Despite the complexity of the case, the jury returned their $312,000 verdict in just over two hours, including their lunch break. The verdict was unanimous as to Legal Malpractice and Insurance Agent Negligence, as well as on counts for Intentional Misrepresentation, Breach of Fiduciary Duty, and Civil Conspiracy. The verdict included $100,000 in non-economic damages, rare in a legal malpractice case. The jury returned 100% of the damages in the closing argument against the remaining defendants, attorney Anthony Smith, the Karl & Smith law firm, and agent David Jeffries. (The claim against Attorney Smith and the Smith law firm was settled during deliberations for a confidential amount, although the jury was permitted to continue deliberating uninterrupted. Because of the conspiracy claim, there is joint and several liability.)

Besides the difficult legal issues, the case involved technical issues as well: presenting an out-of-state witness live via video conference at the last minute due to illness (which required setting up a video conference system in the Old Courthouse) and dealing with a pro se defendant who presented argument and questioned witnesses. Our attorneys were able to present dozens of pieces of evidence electronically for the jury during the trial and closing argument using the latest technology, from the trial table.

This is not a verdict that makes headlines because it is so large. But there is no question that it took as much dedication to the clients and desire to right the injustice of this fraud to take on (and take to trial) a case with so many challenges. I’m proud to see the Spangenberg legacy exemplified by our trial lawyers, and their resounding success in the courtroom.