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Henderson, Texas-In the age of tort reform, plaintiffs’ attorneys are used to turning away clients whose suits cost more to litigate than can ever be recovered at trial. So why would a lawyer accept a case in which a client sought $77.55-an amount of money that might pay for 15 minutes of an attorney’s time? Partner James Holmes of Henderson’s Wellborn Houston said he proudly accepted such a case in 1997. And years later, he and his east Texas firm ended up paying $25,000 in trial costs and legal fees out of their own pockets to recover that $77.55 for their client. The firm did not charge the client anything for the additional representation. Holmes explains that by representing Robbie L. Linton, he was making good on a promise his firm made nearly two decades earlier. On Jan. 29, Linton, a former oil field worker injured on the job 20 years earlier, won a verdict for $77.55- the cost of two prescriptions an insurance carrier refused to cover. “This is the funniest tragic thing I’ve ever seen,” Holmes said. Holmes notes that Wellborn Houston founding partner Rex Houston represented Linton in a 1986 workers’ compensation claim against his employer after Linton injured his back while climbing a step onto an oil rig. At the time, the firm had six lawyers. Back to 1987 In 1987, Houston ultimately won an administrative award from the Industrial Accident Board in which Linton’s employer’s insurer was ordered to pay Linton $34,000 in lost earning capacity and cover his work-related injury medical costs for life. Houston, working on a 25% contingent fee, was paid $8,500 for his representation of Linton. But in the late 1990s, Linton had trouble getting Traveler’s Indemnity Co. to pay his medical claims, including a $3,000 chiropractor’s bill and $77.55 for two pharmacy bills for pain medication. So in 1997, Linton called Holmes for help. “Mr. Linton comes to see me, and he hands me a letter dated 1987. It is typed on carbon paper on a manual typewriter and it is signed by Rex Houston,” said Holmes, a former insurance defense lawyer who joined Wellborn Houston in 1993. Houston is now retired from his 56-year-old plaintiffs firm. But the letter certified to doctors and pharmacists that Linton’s work-related injury costs were covered by insurance. “And it says if anybody needs any help, you call this law firm. And the client’s recollection is that Rex issued a promise in 1987: if this ever became a problem, that we would stand behind it,” Holmes said. “And at that point there was no way I was not going to take care of this man. So we began working.” Houston said that it used to be common practice for his firm to write letters for its workers’ compensation clients-a practice the firm ceased years ago. Wellborn Houston had generated $1 million annually in fees from workers’ comp cases, but after the Texas Legislature altered the workers’ compensation laws in 1991, the firm decided it would no longer represent workers’ comp clients, Holmes said. Now Wellborn Houston represents plaintiffs in complex litigation. Houston, 79, says he vaguely remembers Linton’s case but is familiar with the contents of the letter. “The letter was so he’d have a record of what his rights were, even if I were dead and gone,” Houston said. “It was just my job as a lawyer and taking care of them,” he added. “That’s all it was.” Linton said he kept the letter filed away for nearly 20 years. “They always treated me fair. So it didn’t surprise me a bit when they did what they did,” Linton said of Holmes and his firm taking his case in 1997. “What surprised me is what Traveler’s did.” Holmes says Traveler’s eventually paid for the chiropractor bill, but steadfastly declined to cover the $77.55 in pharmacy bills. Julie Tebbets, an associate with Colleyville, Texas’ Ayers & Ayers who represents Traveler’s, said that the company believes Linton’s current medical problems aren’t related to his 1986 injury.

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