Justices asked to take legal malpractice case

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Supreme Court is being asked to take a legal malpractice case in which an Indianapolis law firm got hit with an $18 million verdict two years ago.

Attorneys representing law firm Fillenwarth Dennerline Groth & Towe filed a petition for transfer with the state's highest court Monday in Frederick W. Dennerline III, et al. v. Jim Atterholt, Insurance Commissioner of the State of Indiana, No. 49A04-0610-CV-557. This move comes following the Indiana Court of Appeals ruling in May that upheld the verdict handed down by a Marion Circuit Court jury in August 2006.

The case stems from a failed health plan that left 8,200 Hoosiers with unpaid medical bills. The jury found the firm liable for failing to notify trustees about growing financial losses in the Indiana Construction Industry Trust, which was created by a dozen construction-related companies to cover non-union employees. During trial, partner Dennerline was shown to have knowledge of the financial woes and the jury determined that amounted to legal malpractice.

On appeal, the firm raised six issues that included preserving error about a legal malpractice expert's testimony, and whether the trial court abused its discretion in ruling on discovery motions and one of the four legal theories used relating to legal-malpractice liability. The majority affirmed on all the issues, but Judge Carr Darden dissented on one issue regarding the jury's finding on Dennerline's 100 percent fault. He noted the insurance department should not receive what he saw as a "windfall" but added the state agency should be able to collect any legal costs, including attorneys' fees and interest, for prosecuting this action and any unsettled claims.

The intermediate appellate court in mid-July denied a rehearing petition, and Hammond-based Eichhorn & Eichhorn, which represents Dennerline and the firm, sent the transfer petition to the appellate clerk's office by certified mail Monday. The clerk's office had not listed it on its docket by this afternoon.

In the 21-page petition obtained by Indiana Lawyer, attorneys urge the justices to consider four questions for transfer: whether the liability claim presented at trial and relied on by the Court of Appeals is preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and unsupported by evidence; whether the judgment and non-party defendant settlements exceed the provable damages without statutory authorization; whether Dennerline's due process rights were violated by the use of a liquidation proceeding order in establishing the damages amount; and whether the trial court committed reversible error in prohibiting discovery and allowing a witness a week before trial.

Since the verdict, the 45-year-old firm has given the insurance commissioner rights to sue its legal malpractice carrier, ProAssurance and parent company ProNational Insurance, in a separate federal civil suit. Filed in June, that pending case accuses the company of refusing to settle the case and alleges bad faith and breach of contract. The insurance company has filed a motion to dismiss that case because the state courts' appellate review isn't complete and that document points out that a transfer request was coming in the state appeal; the federal judge hasn't issued a decision on that.

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  1. This is ridiculous. Most JDs not practicing law don't know squat to justify calling themselves a lawyer. Maybe they should try visiting the inside of a courtroom before they go around calling themselves lawyers. This kind of promotional BS just increases the volume of people with JDs that are underqualified thereby dragging all the rest of us down likewise.

  2. I think it is safe to say that those Hoosier's with the most confidence in the Indiana judicial system are those Hoosier's who have never had the displeasure of dealing with the Hoosier court system.

  3. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  4. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  5. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.