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It’s a free-for-all over fees from Chick Kam Choo, the euphoniously named wrongful-death suit that’s been on court dockets in Houston since 1978, didn’t go to trial until 2000 and settled for $2.7 million in January. At least seven plaintiffs’ lawyers from Houston and one from Woodville, Texas, claim a stake in the fees, which total about $1.2 million, depending on how expenses are calculated. John O’Quinn, a partner in O’Quinn & Laminack, says he’s entitled to the entire fee from Chick Kam Choo, et al. v. Exxon Corp., et al. So does sole practitioner Newton B. Schwartz Sr. And C. Benton Musslewhite Sr., the Houston lawyer who has represented the plaintiffs since 1977, says he deserves a share. So does his son, Charles B. Musslewhite Jr., who helped try the suit. Richard Sheehy and Gary Polland, who were hired for appeals and settlement negotiations, also are vying for a piece with Joseph C. Blanks, an East Texas lawyer who worked on the litigation in the 1980s. The judge, Brent Gamble, says the fee dispute “cries out to be settled.” “What I’m not going to do is position this case for another 20 years of appeal,” Gamble, of the 270th District Court, told lawyers at a hearing on April 6. “It’s not because I don’t want to try it, but … enough is enough.” Chick Kam Choo went to trial in February 2000, 22 years after Musslewhite first filed a wrongful-death action on behalf of the family of Leong Chong in federal court in Houston. The shipworker was killed in March 1977 while working on an oil tanker berthed in a Singapore harbor. After appeals ran out in the federal suit, Musslewhite filed Chick Kam Choo in state court in Houston in 1984. After trips to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988 and the Texas Supreme Court in 1994, and a lull for two years when the file apparently was lost in a storage warehouse, a state court jury returned a $12.7 million verdict in the plaintiffs’ favor in February 2000. Gamble issued a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, then later vacated it; and with appeals poised to extend the tortuous life of the litigation for several years, the suit settled in January 2001. The family still hasn’t received any money; Gamble ordered the $2.7 million into the court’s registry while the fee fight carries on. A trial on the intervention that O’Quinn & Laminack filed against Benton Musslewhite and Schwartz is set for May 14, although multiple motions for summary judgment are pending, and Gamble has ordered the lawyers to mediate the dispute. “It’s really a terrible example of lawyers fighting over money,” notes Benton Musslewhite, who tried the suit with Schwartz and his son, but without O’Quinn and his firm. “Suffice it to say, there’s probably people claiming 300 percent of the fee,” Blanks says with little exaggeration. But settlement may or may not happen, considering the complicated relationships among O’Quinn, Schwartz and the Musslewhites. Benton Musslewhite, for instance, has joint ventured suits with O’Quinn, and separately with Schwartz, over many years. He and Schwartz still work on litigation together — including at least two suits filed against O’Quinn on behalf of former clients. In 1998, O’Quinn and Benton Musslewhite were exonerated in a State Bar of Texas grievance suit that alleged they unethically solicited clients. Charles Musslewhite was charged, too, but he testified for the Bar and after the trial agreed to a 30-day suspension and two years of probation. O’Quinn says he’s washed his hands of Benton Musslewhite. “He keeps gettin’ me in trouble with the Bar,” O’Quinn says. “I just decided I needed to not be involved with him in cases.” SPLIT THE BABY Chick Kam Choo has been Benton Musslewhite’s baby for more than 23 years, but because so much time has passed and so many other lawyers have gotten involved, he may not get a penny in fees. Musslewhite’s 1977 contract with Madame Choo and the five daughters of Leong Chong gives him a 45 percent contingent fee. Expenses are supposed to come from the client’s share of any judgment, according to pleadings in the intervention. But O’Quinn is asking Gamble to grant a summary judgment giving his firm the entire fee because of a bankruptcy court order. A 1997 agreement in Musslewhite’s Chapter 11 calls for O’Quinn to reap the benefits of several of Musslewhite’s suits — including Chick Kam Choo — until he pays off a debt to O’Quinn. “It is black letter,” says Edwin McAninch, O’Quinn’s lawyer in the intervention. At the same time, Schwartz contends he’s entitled to all the fees because he funded the suit after the clients dismissed O’Quinn. Musslewhite alleges O’Quinn isn’t entitled to the fee because the clients dismissed O’Quinn for good cause — abandonment — and they negotiated a new contract with him and Schwartz. Disputing Schwartz’s claim to the entire fee, Musslewhite says he is entitled to 46 percent and Schwartz should get the other 54 percent, after fees for Musslewhite’s son and two appellate lawyers, Sheehy and Polland, are taken out. Charles Musslewhite, also a sole practitioner, says he is due 10 percent. Polland, a partner in Polland & Cook, seeks 7.5 percent, as does Sheehy, a shareholder in Sheehy, Serpe & Ware. Blanks, a solo practitioner in Woodville, seeks 10 percent of the fee for work he did assisting Musslewhite with the suit during the mid-to-late 1980s, including the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988. A TURNING POINT The suit hit a turning point in August 1999. Musslewhite was working with Samuel Palermo, a partner in O’Quinn & Laminack, preparing Chick Kam Choo for a November 1999 trial. Musslewhite and Palermo were planning to go to Singapore to take depositions, including the deposition of an eyewitness to the accident, but O’Quinn wouldn’t pay for the trip. With a November 1999 trial setting looming, Musslewhite got Schwartz to fund his trip. Musslewhite alleges that after he got to Singapore, the clients decided O’Quinn had abandoned them and they hired him and Schwartz. In an August 1999 letter to O’Quinn, Choo and her daughters told O’Quinn they no longer needed or wanted his services and wrote he breached his fiduciary duty by refusing to go forward with the depositions. O’Quinn has said Musslewhite persuaded the clients to write the letter, an allegation Musslewhite denies. O’Quinn says the clients didn’t have good cause to discharge him. But in November 1999, Gamble signed an order removing O’Quinn & Laminack, O’Quinn, and Palermo as attorneys of record, and substituting the Musslewhites and Schwartz. According to an August 1999 fee agreement, Schwartz agreed to put up $59,000 in expense money and he and Musslewhite would split the fees on a 54 percent/46 percent basis. Later, Charles Musslewhite got 10 percent of the fee, and Schwartz agreed to put in more money, taking 1 point in the fees in return for each $1,200. Schwartz says he’s entitled to the entire fee because expenses totaled more than $160,000, and in a deposition in February, Schwartz testified he doesn’t believe he should waive any fees. “I wouldn’t waive 1 percent of those fees. I may give it voluntarily to the clients afterward, but I’m insisting on the full 45 percent of the fees right now and John O’Quinn getting nothing,” Schwartz said. Musslewhite says O’Quinn gave him little choice but to seek money from Schwartz. “I don’t like the deal that Newton made with me — and I told you I don’t like it — but the fact is that I had just that short period of time to get somebody to do it and he was willing,” Musslewhite testified during a deposition in February. McAninch, a partner in O’Quinn & Laminack, contends Schwartz’s agreement to put up expense money and get all the fee in return constitutes a usurious loan. “Even commodities traders and loan sharks never had it so good,” he wrote in a third amended plea in intervention. Schwartz says he did more than fund the suit — he testified he also did some legal work and was responsible for taxiing the clients to the trial almost every day. Musslewhite is hopeful the fee fight will settle. Schwartz isn’t optimistic it will. “It absolutely should, but you’ve got O’Quinn’s ego,” Schwartz explains. “He doesn’t need the money. I don’t need the money … but Benton does.”

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