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Frank Deramus’ death from AIDS in 1991 became national news. Three years earlier, his life insurance company had known that the Mississippi prosecutor was HIV positive but failed to tell him. Frank’s widow, Jody Deramus, sued Jackson National Life Insurance for breach of duty to her and her husband. But a federal judge in Mississippi threw out the action, concluding that Mississippi law did not require the insurance company to inform the family of the medical results. Now Jody Deramus finds herself in D.C. Superior Court, where she has filed a legal malpractice claim against her former lawyers — New York’s now-defunct Donovan, Leisure, Rogovin, Huge & Schiller. Deramus claims that the firm gave her bad advice and ran up $400,000 in unnecessary legal bills. She is seeking $16 million in damages. The case is scheduled for a Nov. 6 trial before Judge A. Franklin Burgess Jr. “This has been a horrible tragedy that has gone on for years,” says Deramus, who is now represented by John Perazich of Washington, D.C., and Michael Miller and J. Christopher Ide of Alexandria, Va. Paul Terrence O’Grady, a Falls Church, Va., lawyer who represents the 68 attorneys named in the suit, says that the firm’s legal work was up to speed and that the bills were fair. “This is a case of lose to the insurance company, sue your lawyers,” O’Grady says, pointing out that Deramus only paid the firm $42,000 for expenses because the case was handled on a contingency basis. In 1988, Frank Deramus sought an increase in his life insurance policy from $500,000 to $800,000, a process that required Deramus to submit to medical tests. Jackson National informed the 48-year-old lawyer that he had been rejected for “medical reasons.” Deramus, who a month later began feeling sick, tried to find out what the tests revealed, but Jackson National would not tell him. According to his wife, Deramus sought help from several doctors, but none tested him for HIV. Eighteen months after Deramus underwent the tests for his life insurance policy, doctors at Johns Hopkins University finally found the answer. (Jody Deramus was immediately tested, but her results were negative.) Nine days before he died, Deramus received a report from Jackson National informing him he had tested positive for HIV in the 1988 exam. Jody Deramus hired Steven Hoffman and Mitchell Rogovin at Donovan Leisure to sue Jackson National. She also filed a pro se medical malpractice suit against several medical providers who failed to diagnose his illness. According to Jody Deramus, Hoffman and Rogovin convinced her to dismiss the actions against the health providers and told her that the Jackson National claim was by far the strongest action. According to the complaint, her lawyers told her she could later sue the medical providers if she lost against Jackson National. In September 1995, Jody Deramus did lose her case. By this point, the statute of limitations for suing the medical providers had expired. In her complaint, Jody Deramus alleges that Donovan Leisure failed to adequately research her case and inform her of deadlines. She also claims the firm failed to tell her that they lacked experience handling medical malpractice cases. Jody Deramus is also challenging the amount of legal bills she paid, claiming that Donovan Leisure engaged in needless and expensive discovery and hired experts who were irrelevant to the matter. Deramus says she has hired Washington, D.C. lawyer Frederick Cooke Jr. to determine whether Donovan Leisure overcharged her. Donovan Leisure has argued in court papers that it advised Deramus to drop the case against the doctors only after investigating the facts and the law, concluding that it would have been a difficult case to win and that it was better to have the doctors as allies against Jackson National. Hoffman says he told Deramus that the statute of limitations would prevent her from refiling a claim unless it turned out that Jackson National had told the doctors about Frank Deramus’ condition. Rogovin died in 1996.

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