The law firm of Anderson, Hemmat & Levine doesn't keep its light under a bushel. Commercials and billboards across the Front Range boast of how hard the personal-injury firm fights for its clients. The AHL website proclaims that "Justice for Victims Begins Here."
But a disgruntled former client is seeking another form of justice in a Denver courtroom this week, claiming that AHL is a "settlement mill" that pressured her to settle her auto-accident case for a fraction of what it was worth -- and that attorney Chad Hemmat referred to her and her husband as "toothless cooties."
The trial now under way in Judge Edward Bronfin's court exposes some of the grim economic realities of the personal-injury business, in which attorneys operating on a contingency basis -- usually a third or more of any settlement reached -- lure clients by touting their commitment to individual service and a track record of hefty cash verdicts. In practice, though, roughly 2 percent of such cases ever go to trial, and most clients have little contact with the attorneys who are negotiating their settlements with insurance companies.
The plaintiff, Daniell Goff, hired Hemmat's firm after she and her husband were injured in an auto accident in 2008. AHL filed a lawsuit against the other motorist, and Goff settled her claim in 2009 for a total of $92,000 -- including $12,000 set aside for shoulder surgery. But after expenses and attorney fees, she ended up recovering only about $20,000; the law firm's contingency fee amounted to $26,666.
In court filings Goff's attorney, Patric LeHouillier, contends that her case was potentially worth millions; that the firm hurried the settlement without considering their client's long-term medical needs; that AHL failed to uncover a million-dollar umbrella policy held by the driver's father, also an attorney, who'd been dismissed from the case; that AHL has tried only 19 lawsuits in the past ten years while settling 99.7 percent of its cases, including a whopping 678 cases closed in 2009 alone; and that the average case involves merely ten hours of attorney time. "Ms. Goff was never informed that the firm's business model involved a high volume of cases with little attorney participation," he writes.
Hemmat and his attorneys dispute many of LeHouillier's claims; for example, Hemmat testified yesterday that the 678 cases "closed" in 2009 represent many "open" files stretching back to 2003 and isn't a reflection of actual annual volume. They insist it was Goff's decision to settle the case and that she now has "buyer's remorse." They also suggest that her ongoing shoulder problems are the result of "repetitive over use resulting from years of manual labor" -- she and her husband used to rehab houses for real estate firms -- rather than the car accident, and that she was fortunate to get the settlement she did, given the ambiguity of her injuries and other issues with the case.
"There was no negligence, no malpractice, no fraud," Hemmat attorney Cecelia Fleischner told the jury.
Fleischner indicated that the mediator who presided over the Goff settlement negotiations would testify that the couple wasn't pressured to settle their case. But the jury will also have to decide how much weight to give a series of e-mails between Hemmat and an associate, Ethan McQuinn, on the day of the settlement conference. Hemmat hadn't even met the Goffs in person, yet that morning when he fired off a message to McQuinn about the case: "I don't think it's going to settle. But, my clients, I understand, are toothless koodies [sic] so not sure how much an Arapahoe jury of Marilyn McQuinns [Ethan's mother] will want to give them. Defendant, recall, is a robot."
McQuinn echoed the phrase in a response: "I don't have enough trial experience to know if her explanation that all money went to Vernon [Goff] would sell. They are toothless cooties though so I'm not hopeful."
Hemmat's attorneys filed a motion to try to keep the e-mails from being disclosed to the jury, insisting that they weren't relevant and would become "a sideshow that takes over the circus." The cootie references were simply "shorthand, sarcastic comments" reflecting a concern over how the defense might portray the Goffs if the case went to trial. But Judge Bronfin ruled that they could be presented, and LeHouillier brought them up in his opening remarks.
Fleischner explained that Hemmat was merely doing his job: "It's a lawyer's job to assess how someone is going to appear to a jury."
Other e-mails from McQuinn expressed puzzlement that the mediation was happening "so early" in the process -- but also relief that the case had settled before the defense obtained an independent medical examiner's report that could have taken the additional $12,000 for surgery costs out of the package.
LeHouiller has argued that the e-mails "evince an attitude of betrayal. The lawyers did not care what their clients wanted or needed but were simply out to make a quick buck on the backs of 'toothless kooties.'"
The verdict? Stay tuned. In the meantime, the AHL website continues to promise prospective clients that "your case, big or small, WILL be treated with professionalism, and you WILL ALWAYS be treated with respect."
For another hot legal trial, see Alan Prendergast's "Blackburned," about Mark Brennan, the lawyer who took on the Denver Fire Department