A Denver jury has awarded a verdict of more than $2 million, including $1.5 million in punitive damages, to a former client of Anderson, Hemmat & Levine in what amounts to a legal malpractice case against the prominent personal-injury law firm. Daniell Goff claimed that the firm's lawyers pressured her to settle her car-accident case for far less than it was worth and that Chad Hemmat, one of the firm's founding partners, referred to her as a "toothless cootie" in an e-mail to another attorney.
Monday's verdict came after a week-long trial, during which Goff attorney Patric LeHouillier attempted to portray AHL as a "settlement mill" that proclaims its dedication to "Justice for Victims" in numerous commercials and billboards but devotes little attorney time to meeting the needs of its injured clients. AHL's attorneys countered that the firm worked hard on behalf of Goff and her husband, who were injured in a 2008 auto accident, and that the couple fully agreed to a negotiated settlement with the other motorist's insurance company.
Goff's share of the settlement came to $92,000, but much of that was spent on medical bills, expenses and the law firm's one-third contingency fee. She contends that Hemmat's firm failed to uncover an umbrella policy that could have provided greater compensation and dissuaded her from taking the accident case to trial. The jury decided that her actual damages in the action against AHL amounted to $674,000 -- and then assessed another $1.5 million in punitive damages against the firm.
Hemmat says his firm will appeal the verdict. "This isn't anywhere near over," he says. "We feel the jury was led to confusion by information where context wasn't permitted by the court. We do feel partially vindicated, that the jury acknowledged that we by no means committed any sort of fraud."
AHL's attorneys had strongly objected to showing the jury private e-mails exchanged between Hemmat and another of the firm's attorneys on the day of the settlement conference, in which Hemmat described the Goffs (whom he'd not yet met in person) as "toothless cooties" -- and the defendant in the case as a robot. Hemmat maintains that the sarcastic dialogue was attempting to convey how the parties might be perceived by an Arapahoe County jury if the accident case went to trial and was not indicative of any contempt for his clients, or any effort to pressure them into a settlement.
"It's hard to get folks on a jury to understand that when we're trying to make an assessment, it can be crass and crude amongst us," he explains. "It's not meant to hurt anybody. It was purely concerns we had about the presentation of our client and the defendant.... Those were unfortunate words, but they were never part of the care and counseling of this client."
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Goff attorney LeHouillier declined to comment on the case. Hemmat notes he had an ethical obligation to supply the e-mails to the other side and hired a "special IT guy" to find them. He expects that the punitive damages will be reduced to correspond with the actual damages and that Judge Edward Bronfin's decision to admit the e-mails into evidence, despite their "inflammatory" nature, will be an issue on appeal.
"I wish I hadn't said those words," Hemmat says. "But the judge has an obligation to call balls and strikes correctly."
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