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A California plaintiff firm was set to reel in one-third of any settlement from a fisherman’s shipboard slip-and-fall case. Partners labeled the case a “slam dunk,” worth at least $700,000. Then the firm saw its catch get away. The fisherman, Euclides Manrique, fired Banning Micklow Bull & Lopez, promptly agreed to settle the case for $125,000, and persuaded another firm — his previous counsel — to sign off on the deal. Then he left for his home country of Peru. The firm that signed the settlement with Manrique came away with the contingency fee that Banning Micklow had once expected for itself. Banning Micklow, an eight-lawyer admiralty firm with principal offices in San Diego and San Francisco, claims it’s entitled to the full contingency fee — and that the tuna company that settled with Manrique should be on the hook for it. This month, the firm sued Del Monte Foods Co., owner of the StarKist tuna brand and the boat on which Manrique worked, claiming it should have included Banning Micklow’s name on the settlement check. In the Feb. 3 complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court, the law firm accuses the company of “planning and executing a scheme” to interfere with its prospective economic advantage. “By cutting us out of the deal, the other lawyer got paid and the client got his money, and we lost the ability to have any leverage,” said Kurt Micklow, the firm’s managing partner, in an interview. Stephen Estey of San Diego’s Estey & Bomberger, whose firm collected “not much less” than a third of the settlement, says he offered to pay Banning Micklow for the “reasonable hours” it invested in the case. But the two firms disagree over how much each contributed. “It basically breaks down to how much work [partner William Banning] did on the case,” said Estey. “Banning was only on the case for less than six weeks.” Micklow counters that Estey has been “completely unreasonable.” He claims that his firm worked for three months and did the investigation necessary to prove liability. “We really did all of the work and basically contributed all of the value to the case.” Manrique claimed he suffered severe back injuries in 2000 when he slipped on an oil leak in an engine room aboard a tuna fishing vessel owned by StarKist, later bought by Del Monte. He hired Estey, who was working at the time with another San Diego attorney, and in December 2002 they filed the fisherman’s complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. But Manrique couldn’t settle on a lawyer. Four months later, he hired Banning Micklow. Then he changed his mind again, sending the firm a succinct form saying he wanted to end their relationship. About two weeks after that, he independently reached a handshake deal with Del Monte’s insurance adjuster. When the adjuster told him he needed an attorney to finalize the agreement, he contacted Estey (whom he called “Lawyer Steve” in testimony), who signed the deal that day. Banning Micklow fought the change of counsel tooth and nail and questioned whether Manrique had been exploited. “The purported settlement was consummated through a deliberate ‘end-run’ around plaintiff’s counsel and was completed on terms which come nowhere close to adequately compensating plaintiff,” Banning Micklow lawyers wrote. Banning Micklow challenged the change of counsel in federal court. But U.S. District Judge Barry Moskowitz concluded the fisherman had fired his attorneys voluntarily. Manrique testified — via video-conference from Peru — that he’d broken things off with Banning Micklow because the firm kept encouraging him to follow a doctor’s suggestion to have back surgery, a plan that frightened him. Now, Banning Micklow is going after Del Monte, claiming that it flouted the firm’s lien for attorneys fees. “The beauty of somebody ignoring our lien is they become liable for our fees, and we don’t need to go wrangle with the other lawyer,” said Micklow. The firm’s case is bolstered, he argues, by Levin v. Gulf Insurance Group, 69 Cal.App.4th 1282. In that 1999 opinion, the Second District Court of Appeal agreed with attorney Robert Levin that an insurance company intentionally interfered with his prospective economic advantage because it knew about his lien but left his name off of the payment for his former client’s trial judgment. A spokeswoman for Del Monte said that “there are no merits” to the firm’s claim and that the company is contemplating its own legal action. Banning Micklow is seeking $43,560, plus consequential and punitive damages in Banning Micklow Bull & Lopez v. Del Monte Corp., 438408.

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