ILNews

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. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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