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A federal appeals court has reinstated the legal malpractice suit against one of Canada’s largest law firms, Gowling Lafleur Henderson, by a long-time firm client who accused the firm of representing both sides in a dispute over expansion of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came to no conclusion about the dispute but said that CenTra Inc., a 20-year client of Gowling, had the right to have a jury hear the case. CenTra and its Michigan-based parent company, Detroit International Bridge Co., own the Ambassador Bridge, which spans the Detroit River linking Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. CenTra sought expansion by construction of a second, parallel bridge over the river, but Windsor wanted to block the move. Both employed the same law firm, Gowling Lafleur Henderson, according to the opinion, CenTra Inc. et al. v. Estrin, 07-1680. Gowling represented CenTra from 1985 to 2006. During that time the firm and attorney David Estrin sometimes took positions adverse to CenTra, with both sides’ knowledge and acceptance, according to the court. Estrin began representing the city of Windsor in 2002 and eventually that general representation gradually turned adverse to CenTra over two plans for the bridge, the court said. The opinion says that CenTra allegedly was not aware of any of Gowling’s and Estrin’s work on behalf of Windsor opposing the bridge plan in 2005 and 2006. CenTra sought Gowling’s help in 2005 to create a $700 million to $800 million bond offering to finance the twin Ambassador Bridge. A short time later, Windsor wanted Gowling help to oppose the bridge plan, the ruling says. According to CenTra, as a result of a letter from Estrin to the Coast Guard opposing construction of a twin bridge, the Coast Guard demanded an environmental assessment from CenTra that would cost the company $500,000 on the U.S. side of the bridge and another $300,000 on the Canadian side. CenTra sued the firm in 2006 in federal court in Michigan, claiming breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duties and legal malpractice. The trial judge dismissed the case, holding that CenTra had given implied consent to any conflict of interest in simultaneous representation. The court concluded that CenTra was aware that Gowlings previously had represented parties, including Windsor, directly adverse to the company. The appeals court overturned the decision and sent the case back for trial. Estrin did not return a call and e-mail message requesting comment, nor did the firm’s managing partner in Toronto, Peter Lukasiewicz. The appellate attorney for Gowling, Eugene Driker of Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker in Detroit, could not be reached for comment. CenTra’s attorney, Craig L. John of Dykema Gossett, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said, “It is a mystery to me how this happened.” Even after CenTra asked Gowling to stop representing Windsor, Estrin continued to work for the city to block the second bridge while another partner was working to get financing for the span on behalf of CenTra, he said. “And their conflict check didn’t pick it up,” he said. John said Gowling refused to give up the work for Windsor and instead “fired my client,” CenTra.

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