A jury in Maine this week found that Schlichtmann's former friend and colleague, Thomas Sobol of Danvers, abandoned his clients in order to pursue a more lucrative case against the Poland Spring bottled water company.
At issue was a scuttled settlement against Nestle Waters of North America, owner of Poland Spring. Two members of the client's legal team, Tom Sobol and Garve Ivey, violated their representation agreements and published all of the confidential case materials on a website, and then replaced their clients in a rush to sue Poland Spring. Their actions were dispicable, wasteful and harmful to their clients and Poland Spring. Stories are popping up from Seattle to Maine and I've included some excerpts from the Portland Press Herald, which broke the story, below.
Lawyers who were accused of dumping one set of clients to get involved in a more lucrative case were ordered to pay $10.8 million Wednesday by a jury in U.S. District Court in Portland.
The unanimous 12-member jury found that lawyers from Seattle-based Hagens Berman violated their duty of loyalty to three small water bottlers that were on the verge of settling a claim with Nestle Waters North America, the owner of Poland Spring Water Co., in June 2003.
A little history:
Led by Jan Schlichtmann, a personal injury lawyer who was portrayed by John Travolta in the 1999 film "A Civil Action," the legal team, the bottlers and an environmental activist representing the consumers met with Nestle during a series of mediation sessions in the spring of 2003.
In negotiations, Schlichtmann reached a proposed deal to settle all potential cases; the agreement would have been worth $39 million. But Hagens Berman's lawyer Thomas Sobol complained that the consumer portion of the deal was weak and, along with another member of the legal team, filed class-action lawsuits on behalf of consumers in five states.
A few good comments:
Even though he was no longer part of the case, Schlichtmann said he feels vindicated by the verdict.
"They trashed me and they trashed the clients, but the jury saw it right," he said by phone from Boston. "It was all a bunch of lies. They had no right to sabotage us."
[John F. Kennedy, Jr.] Kennedy, whose company will use much of the proceeds from the case to benefit public water users, said Sobol was not out to protect consumers.
"This was not a case of the attorneys taking care of consumers," Kennedy said in a telephone interview from New York. "This was a case of the attorneys grabbing everything they could for themselves."
Kennedy and Schlichtmann said they were willing to settle with Nestle before filing a lawsuit because they knew there were legal weaknesses in their case that would have made them unlikely to win in court.
The proposed agreement called for $2.5 million for consumers, $2.5 million in charitable contributions and a promise to monitor water quality at Poland Spring sources. It also called for Nestle to buy spring water for the next 10 years from Carrabassett and Glenwood Farms that would be sold as Poland Spring.
Lori Ehrlich, who would have been the consumer representative, testified that she supported the settlement but Sobol filed consumer lawsuits anyway with new clients.
This development below should give you some indication of the seriously egregious behavior of these lawyers:
The case raised questions about whether a lawyer can owe a duty to a class of people before a lawsuit is filed on its behalf. The large verdict will get national attention and will likely change the way lawyers operate in these cases, said Chuck Harvey, a Portland lawyer and former chairman of the Board of Bar Overseer's Grievance Commission, which hears public complaints about lawyers.
Harvey said the fact that the case will go back to a jury for punitive damages is "very rare," because most legal malpractice cases involve claims of simple negligence and ordinary damages.
"This will send the message to the plaintiff's bar that they have to be very careful," he said.
It's a good cautionary tale for lawyers who put their own interests in front of the interests of their clients.