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A Philadelphia jury on Wednesday awarded $40.8 million — including more than $32 million in punitive damages — to a Duane Morris lawyer and his wife in a suit that said their now-deceased son was falsely accused of murder by a pair of lawyers and three other men. Jay and Barbara Lambert claimed in the suit that their son John Lambert, who died at age 27 from a drug overdose, was falsely accused by attorneys Samuel Malat and Fred Ambrose of being the killer of Kimberly Ernest, the Philadelphia jogger who was murdered and dumped in a stairwell. Malat and Ambrose represented Richard Wise, who, along with Herbert Haak, was acquitted of the Ernest murder. The Lamberts claimed that Malat and Ambrose fabricated the accusation that their son was the “prime suspect” in Ernest’s murder to bolster Wise’s chances of winning his federal civil rights suit. Also named as defendants in the suit were Wise’s father, Leonard Wise, and two investigators, Stephen Stouffer and Albert Tyree. Ambrose disappeared in April 2001, just before he was scheduled to give a deposition in the Lamberts’ suit, and did not attend the trial. Malat represented himself and Leonard Wise at trial but was barred from presenting any defense due to violations of court discovery orders, according to the Lamberts’ lawyer, Mark B. Sheppard. Sheppard told the jury that Ambrose had concocted a theory — one he said Ambrose knew was false — that John Lambert was the real killer of Ernest and that Wise was the victim of a grand conspiracy to protect John Lambert because his father was a Duane Morris partner. Although there was no truth to the theory, Sheppard said, Ambrose suggested to the media that Lambert had powerful connections to city government because former Duane Morris partner Marjorie O. Rendell, who is now a federal appeals judge, is the wife of Edward Rendell, who was mayor at the time and a former elected district attorney. Ambrose repeatedly called news conferences and gave interviews to the media, Sheppard said, and each time Malat was aware of what Ambrose was doing and what he was going to say. The suit said Malat “encouraged … Ambrose to proceed with additional news conferences and news interviews.” Sheppard said the jury’s verdict showed that the jurors believed the lawyers had “crossed the line.” “Lawyers can be zealous, but they can’t malign whomever they want … in an effort to prevail on behalf of a client,” Sheppard said in an interview after the verdict. The trial, before Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Alan Tereshko, began on Monday and was over quickly due to court rulings that precluded the defendants from presenting any defense, Sheppard said. Sheppard said Tereshko directed a verdict on liability in favor of the plaintiffs and that the jury’s deliberation was limited to damages. The jury deliberated about three hours and its verdict decided three separate lawsuits. The first suit, filed on behalf of John Lambert’s estate, accused all five defendants of defamation. The other two suits were filed on behalf of Jay and Barbara Lambert and alleged claims of civil conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The eight-member jury awarded $8.5 million in compensatory damages: $5 million to Jay Lambert, $1.5 million to Barbara Lambert and $2 million to their son’s estate. Sheppard said the compensatory awards are assessed against all five defendants jointly and severally. In the punitive damages area, the jury made 15 separate assessments, awarding a total of $32.3 million. Ambrose was hit the hardest. The jury said he should pay $21 million in punitive damages — $8 million to Jay Lambert, $7 million to John Lambert’s estate and $6 million to Barbara Lambert. Malat was told to pay $11 million: $3 million each to Barbara Lambert and her son’s estate and $5 million to Jay Lambert. The jury said Leonard Wise should pay $50,000 in punitives: $25,000 each to Jay and Barbara Lambert, but none to the estate. Stouffer, the investigator, was hit with a total of $225,000 in punitives — $100,000 to Barbara Lambert; $75,000 to the estate; and $50,000 to Jay Lambert. According to the lawsuits, Leonard Wise began telling numerous people in 1997 that John Lambert had murdered not only Ernest, but several other women. The suits say Stouffer and Tyree repeated those statements during their investigation, sometimes telling the relatives of murder victims that John Lambert had murdered seven women. And in June 1998, the suit said, Ambrose stated in open court — in a proceeding in which neither he nor his client had any interest — that John Lambert was the “prime suspect” in Ernest’s murder. After the hearing, the suit said, Ambrose and Leonard Wise made the same “false charges” to the media, and accounts were broadcast on television and carried in newspapers. Ambrose later sent letters to two Philadelphia judges — Alex Bonavitacola and Alan K. Silberstein — that said John Lambert was the “individual actually responsible” for the murder of Ernest, the suits said. Malat could not be reached for comment on the verdict late Wednesday night.

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