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. People have heard of Magna Carta, and not the Provisions of Oxford & Westminster. Not that anybody really cares. Today, it might be considered ethnic or racial bias to talk about the "Anglo Saxon common law." I don't even see the word English in the blurb above. Anyhow speaking of Edward I-- he was famously intolerant of diversity himself viz the Edict of Expulsion 1290. So all he did too like making parliament a permanent institution-- that all must be discredited. 100 years from now such commemorations will be in the dustbin of history.

  2. Oops, I meant discipline, not disciple. Interesting that those words share such a close relationship. We attorneys are to be disciples of the law, being disciplined to serve the law and its source, the constitutions. Do that, and the goals of Magna Carta are advanced. Do that not and Magna Carta is usurped. Do that not and you should be disciplined. Do that and you should be counted a good disciple. My experiences, once again, do not reveal a process that is adhering to the due process ideals of Magna Carta. Just the opposite, in fact. Braveheart's dying rebel (for a great cause) yell comes to mind.

  3. It is not a sign of the times that many Ind licensed attorneys (I am not) would fear writing what I wrote below, even if they had experiences to back it up. Let's take a minute to thank God for the brave Baron's who risked death by torture to tell the government that it was in the wrong. Today is a career ruination that whistleblowers risk. That is often brought on by denial of licenses or disciple for those who dare speak truth to power. Magna Carta says truth rules power, power too often claims that truth matters not, only Power. Fight such power for the good of our constitutional republics. If we lose them we have only bureaucratic tyranny to pass onto our children. Government attorneys, of all lawyers, should best realize this and work to see our patrimony preserved. I am now a government attorney (once again) in Kansas, and respecting the rule of law is my passion, first and foremost.

  4. I have dealt with more than a few I-465 moat-protected government attorneys and even judges who just cannot seem to wrap their heads around the core of this 800 year old document. I guess monarchial privileges and powers corrupt still ..... from an academic website on this fantastic "treaty" between the King and the people ... "Enduring Principles of Liberty Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. There are two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day: "No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land." "To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice." Inspiration for Americans During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution ("no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.") is a direct descendent of Magna Carta's guarantee of proceedings according to the "law of the land." http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/magna_carta/

  5. I'm not sure what's more depressing: the fact that people would pay $35,000 per year to attend an unaccredited law school, or the fact that the same people "are hanging in there and willing to follow the dean’s lead in going forward" after the same school fails to gain accreditation, rendering their $70,000 and counting education worthless. Maybe it's a good thing these people can't sit for the bar.

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