Money for nothing?

January 25, 2010
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There’s an interesting case playing out in Kentucky involving a dispute over attorney’s fees. Two lawyers, who didn’t work on the bad-faith claim against a doctor’s insurer, argue they should get a cut of the fees because they originally signed up the plaintiff when she sued her doctor for medical malpractice.

William McMurry and Mark Bryant each want 15 percent of the $1.7 million in attorney’s fees stemming from a suit against Debbie Daniels’ doctor’s insurer for refusing to engage in settlement discussions.

Daniels originally went to Bryant, asking him to represent her in her medical malpractice claim against her doctor; he referred her to McMurry. She signed a contract with him to pursue a claim for damages for medical negligence. But 6 months later, Daniels claimed McMurry told her it would be too time-consuming and expensive to handle her case. Hans Poppe, who had worked with McMurry’s firm but had left by this point, told Daniels he’d represent her.

He got a settlement for the malpractice claims and sent a cut to the two attorneys. Poppe didn’t tell McMurry or Bryant that he was going to pursue the bad-faith claims against the insurer. Poppe claimed he didn’t say anything because it would violate attorney-client privilege.

Now McMurry and Bryant have sued to get what they believe is their cut of the attorney’s fees won in the bad-faith suit. They argue the suit is tied to the original medical malpractice suit.

Kentucky ethics rules allow a referring lawyer to collect a finder’s fee as long as it’s a reasonable fee and the referring lawyer remains responsible for any legal malpractice in the case, according to a University of Kentucky law professor.

The issue then becomes whether the bad-faith case was pursued separately. The case went to trial Jan. 22 and is expected to end today.

Poppe told a Louisville newspaper that the two attorneys are like bank robbers trying to “parachute in” and claim a stake in the fee, and that he fears their demands “unfortunately adds to the negative stereotype of lawyers looking for something for nothing.”

What do you think about Poppe’s comments? Is he right that these attorneys are trying to get money for work they didn’t do, or are they rightfully entitled to the fees? Are McMurry and Bryant really reinforcing a negative stereotype of lawyers?
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  1. Bill Satterlee is, indeed, a true jazz aficionado. Part of my legal career was spent as an associate attorney with Hoeppner, Wagner & Evans in Valparaiso. Bill was instrumental (no pun intended) in introducing me to jazz music, thereby fostering my love for this genre. We would, occasionally, travel to Chicago on weekends and sit in on some outstanding jazz sessions at Andy's on Hubbard Street. Had it not been for Bill's love of jazz music, I never would have had the good fortune of hearing it played live at Andy's. And, most likely, I might never have begun listening to it as much as I do. Thanks, Bill.

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