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Settlement may be largest of its kind: State agency resolves federal lawsuit that began with legal malpractice claim

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An Indianapolis law firm has been holding its breath for two years. Ever since getting hit with a potentially devastating $17.9 million jury verdict on a legal malpractice claim in state court, the 45-year-old law firm Fillenwarth Dennerline Groth & Towe hasn't been able to put the focus on its daily client business without acknowledging that dark storm cloud hovering overhead.

Now, the storm cloud has dissolved.

In what may be the state's largest-ever liquidation return of its kind, the Indiana Department of Insurance has reached a $16.5 million settlement with Alabama-based ProNational Insurance to end a fourmonth-old federal lawsuit alleging bad faith and breach of contract for how it handled the legal malpractice claim against Frederick Dennerline and the firm.

"This is a big relief," partner William Groth said about the settlement. "The last couple years have been pretty difficult from an emotional standpoint; there's been a lot of bitter tears and uncertainty. The judgment has been a big distraction, but that's now all concluded and that distraction is removed."

ProNational was the malpractice insurer for the law firm when a situation materialized. At the time, Fillenwarth Dennerline represented the failed Indiana Construction Industry Trust that had provided health-care coverage to 8,200 non-union construction workers before going bust in 2002. Those Hoosiers were left with unpaid medical bills, and the insurance commissioner went after all the defendants - including Dennerline, who'd served as outside counsel for the health plan and had knowledge of the failing trust.

About 80 other defendants settled with the state agency, but Dennerline proceeded to trial. ProNational declined to settle for the $1 million limit that Dennerline wanted. A jury in August 2006 found Dennerline and the firm liable and assessed a $17.9 million verdict that the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed this past spring.

Earlier this year, the law firm assigned its rights to the insurance commissioner and paid $50,000, releasing it from any obligation to pay the multi-million dollar verdict. The U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana, suit immediately followed in June.

The agreement came about 4:30 p.m. Oct. 10 in Jim Atterholt v. ProNational Insurance Co., No. 1:08-cv-0834-DFH-WTL, which accused ProNational of declining multiple opportunities to settle the state court claim. The suit claimed the company breached its obligation to pay the claims and engaged in a "malicious, willful, oppressive, and unfounded" manner in failing and refusing to settle.

Indianapolis attorney Joe Chapelle with Barnes & Thornburg, who represented ProNational, said he and the company are pleased with the $16.5 million settlement.

"This is not to be construed to mean that there was any finding by the department of bad faith," he said. "We are pleased with the outcome, and the company is pleased to be able to put this behind them."

He maintained that ProNational does not have a "no-settle" policy - a position made following the federal suit filing in the summer.

At that time, Chapelle said that his client insures about 1,000 attorneys or firms in Indiana and offers coverage up to $5 million. In the past five years, about 67 percent of the cases against attorneys have been resolved without any payments from dismissals, summary judgments, or defense verdicts, he said. About 27 percent have been settled, and about 7 percent have evaded judgment, he said. 

"We do not have a no-settle policy," he said. "That's something someone would throw out there on these types of complaints."

Of about 20 suits filed nationally in the past decade where ProNational was a defendant, federal dockets show that about six involved the insurer getting sued for medical malpractice claims. None of the others appear to involve legal malpractice, except for this current case and the previous one that was filed but dismissed in 2005 by Fillenwarth Dennerline. Records show most were dismissed, with some involving joint stipulation of dismissal from both parties following settlement. Some records were sealed or not available online.

Cohen & Malad attorney Irwin Levin, who represented the state insurance agency and was on the original legal malpractice action against the firm, said this federal settlement negotiation came down to balancing the trust fund needs with a potentially ongoing appeal and federal suit.

"We negotiated and took a tough stance, and it came down to how long we wanted to litigate," Levin said, noting this settlement ended the federal suit and a transfer request pending on the state legal malpractice claim before the Indiana Supreme Court.

Levin added that to his knowledge, this is the highest amount ever returned from a liquidation action without a guaranty fund in the state. An additional $7.7 million in settlements already paid by other defendants makes a combined total of more than $24 million to be paid into the trust.

The Department of Insurance described this recovery as remarkable, noting that it hadn't expected to recover this amount. The money will be used to reimburse about 80 percent of out-of-pocket expenses paid by member companies, their employees, and healthcare providers that should have been paid years ago by the trust. A payout date is set for Dec. 15; members, employees, and healthcare providers are able to submit reimbursement claims to a special deputy liquidator, Indiana Insolvency Inc.

In the meantime, Groth and others at the firm are just happy to be able to look past this suit that has been all engulfing. The firm's malpractice rates have dropped, the client base continues expanding from those loyal clients who endured the past two years, and Groth said the firm has more work than ever. The firm has changed insurance carriers and no longer goes with ProNational. 


Previous ProNational coverage:

"Justices asked to hear law firm case" - Sept. 3, 2008
 
"Suit filed against insurer" - July 9, 2008

"$18 million verdict clouds law firm's future" - Sept. 20, 2006"This was our only experience with ProNational, and it wasn't a pleasant one.We don't know if it's consistent to how they operate with everyone, but they didn't settle when we wanted them to," Groth said, adding that he hopes this $16.5 million amount will teach ProNational and other insurers a lesson.

"We hope this will cause them to put the insureds' interests ahead of their own financial interests," he said. "Maybe it'll make them pay more attention to the emotional and financial consequences of refusing to settle, particularly when that insured is a law firm and there's no cap on liability, as there is on medical professionals." •
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  1. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

  2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

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