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COA affirms $17.9 million judgment against firm

January 1, 2008
Two years ago, a jury hit an Indianapolis law firm with a $17.9 million verdict after it found the firm liable for a failed health plan that left 8,200 Hoosier with unpaid medical bills.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed an appeal from that general jury verdict and judgment in favor of the state's insurance commissioner, Jim Atterholt. The 37-page opinion, which includes a two-page dissent from Judge Carr Darden, comes in Frederick W. Dennerline III, and Fillenwarth Dennerline Groth & Towe v. Jim Atterholt, Insurance Commissioner of the State of Indiana as Liquidator of Indiana Construction Industry Trust, No. 49A04-0610-CV-557.

A Marion Circuit Court jury handed down the $17,991,043 verdict in August 2006 after a six-day trial. The jury found the then 43-year-old firm completely liable for not notifying trustees about growing financial losses in the Indiana Construction Industry Trust, created by a dozen construction-related companies to cover nonunion employees. The health plan went insolvent in 2002 after two executives were imprisoned for embezzling money from the plan. While the Indiana Department of Insurance settled with all other original defendants sued, the law firm was the only one of about 80 defendants to fight the state and go to trial, attorneys said at the time.

The firm raised six issues on appeal 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 appellate panel majority - authoring Judge Terry Crone and Judge Melissa May - affirmed on all the issues.

"We agree with the Commissioner that the $17.9 million verdict is supported by ample evidence that the ICIT's demise was caused by Dennerline's failure to advise the trustees of their duty under Article 14.01 of the trust agreement to 'cease and terminate' the trust ..." Judge Crone wrote.

"In sum, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Dennerline's motion to correct error as to fault allocation," the opinion states. "Accordingly, we affirm in all respects."

But in his separate opinion that agreed with the majority on all but one issue raised, Judge Darden dissented regarding the jury's finding on Dennerline's 100 percent fault.

"Essentially, I am unable to support the approval of what I believe to be a windfall to a State agency," he wrote, noting that he supports the argument that Atterholt lacks authority to recover the $7.6 million previously collected through liquidation. He added that the agency should be able to collect any legal costs, including attorneys' fees and interest, for prosecuting this action and any unsettled claims.
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