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Nearly a decade after two Miami lawyers signed a $34 million Benlate settlement with the DuPont Co., the Florida Bar now alleges the attorneys committed an array of ethical violations while striking a deal that resolved dozens of product liability cases in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. In two complaints filed last month by the Bar, Louis V. Vendittelli and Phillip J. Sheehe are each charged with violating a dozen rules of professional conduct while representing two Homestead tree growers in their litigation against DuPont in 1994. Sheehe and Vendittelli are charged with concealing the details of the settlement agreement from two clients and, as a result, pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The complaints also allege that the two lawyers later knowingly misled the court about details of the settlement. The Bar claims the attorneys violated a rule of professional conduct that states that a lawyer “shall not engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.” The case was filed by Randolph Max Brombacher of the Bar’s office in Miami. He declined to discuss the complaints. Sheehe and Vendittelli have denied any wrongdoing in papers filed with the Bar and in public statements. According to Sheehe, he worked only on trial matters in the lawsuit against DuPont while Vendittelli orchestrated the settlement. “The statements in regard to me are absolutely false,” Sheehe said. “This complaint alleges things that occurred in the settlement negotiations, and I had no involvement whatsoever in the settlement negotiations. If the Bar had done any investigation into this they would know that.” When asked about Vendittelli, who did not return calls for comment, Sheehe said he would let Vendittelli “speak for himself.” The two are partners of Sheehe & Vendittelli in Miami, a two-person firm that focuses on commercial litigation. Gerald B. Wald of Murai Wald Biondo & Moreno in Miami, who is jointly representing the two attorneys, said the two lawyers intend to vigorously contest the allegations. Wald said he was surprised the Bar would bring identical allegations against both lawyers when each played different roles in the case. “I don’t think Mr. Vendittelli had any direct communication with DuPont at all,” Wald said, referring to the settlement negotiations. The complaint is the latest twist in more than a decade of litigation over Benlate, a DuPont-made fungicide that hundreds of farmers alleged to have caused widespread damages to crops, plants and trees. The company removed the product from the market in 1991. The Wilmington, Del., company has consistently denied that Benlate caused any damages, but it has paid out more than $1 billion in verdicts and settlements to farm and nursery owners. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Eugene J. Fierro has been appointed as referee in the Sheehe case. Circuit Judge Maria Espinosa Dennis has been appointed in the Vendittelli matter. Each referee will schedule a hearing in coming months and must issue a report by Feb. 23. Depending on report’s outcome, the Florida Supreme Court will then determine what discipline, if any, should be imposed on the two attorneys. The Bar filed its complaint with the Supreme Court on Aug. 1. It did so after the Bar’s grievance committee, headed by Julie Braman Kane of Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables, found probable cause that Sheehe and Vendittelli violated Bar rules. The case dates back to 1992 when Dale and Carolyn Smith, who owned Native Hammock Nursery, and James H. Davis, who owned Davis Tree Farms, hired Sheehe and Vendittelli to represent them in litigation against DuPont. Their cases were filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court along with those from 59 other plaintiffs who had similar claims. From December 1993 to May 1994 a case involving Native Hammock Nursery and four other plaintiffs — but not including Davis Tree Farms — was tried before then-Circuit Judge Jonathan T. Colby. According to the Bar complaint, on the eve of the verdict being announced, Sheehe and Vendittelli engaged in settlement negotiations with DuPont. Vendittelli faxed DuPont’s general counsel, Jerry Ashby, a letter ratifying an agreement that would include four of the five plaintiffs at trial and some 55 other plaintiffs with pending cases. It was agreed the 59 plaintiffs would settle for $34 million. Native Hammock Nursery and Davis Tree Farms were omitted from the deal. Native Hammock opted out of the proposed settlement because it believed an offer of $1 million was too low. According to the letter, which is now referred to in the Bar complaint as the “Ashby letter,” Vendittelli and Sheehe agreed to withdraw from representing Davis Tree Farms. However, the Bar alleges, they did so without informing the court or the client about their intentions. Indeed, it was not until a week later that the lawyers informed Davis, who owned Davis Tree Farms and was in the hospital with cancer, that they could no longer represent him due to “irreconcilable conflict” and “unreasonable financial burden.” Dale Smith of Native Hammock Nursery says his attorneys told him that he could win $7 million in damages from the jury, and at least $2.35 million by settling. The night before the verdict announcement, Smith rejected the $1 million offer as too low. In a letter to Smith and his wife, Vendittelli advised the couple to accept the $1 million. “While I know it is lower than you expect to get, it takes into account the vagaries of the jury system and the appellate system,” the lawyer wrote. But according to the Bar complaint, what the lawyers did not tell the Smiths is that under the terms of the Ashby letter, the $34 million earmarked for all of the lawyers’ clients would still be paid in whether Native Hammock Nursery agreed to settle or not. In other words, if Native Hammock did not settle, the two lawyers would be able to pocket more of the settlement proceeds. The Smiths have said they may have decided differently if they had known the two lawyers had a financial interest in whether they settled or not. When the jury delivered its verdict after the settlement talks, it decided in DuPont’s favor, leaving the Smiths with nothing. They have since filed a malpractice lawsuit against the lawyers and continue to press their decade-old claims against DuPont in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. According to the Bar complaint, the next ethical violations committed by the attorneys occurred on June 9, 1994, when $33.1 million was disbursed by DuPont to be paid to the clients — minus attorney fees and costs. A separate payment of $898,164 was sent directly to the attorneys. Sheehe and Vendittelli did not disclose the payment, which according to the Bar complaint constituted a reimbursement from the opposition. The Bar alleges that while the lawyers failed to disclose the payment, they also billed the Smiths — their only hourly-fee paying clients — for $550,000 that ostensibly had been paid by DuPont. Davis Tree Farms, the other client omitted from the settlement, later retained Coral Gables lawyer Roland St. Louis to resume its case against DuPont. In August 1996, St. Louis secured a $30 million settlement. The agreement was part of a larger $59 million settlement DuPont paid to a number of other plaintiffs from around Florida. A day after the deal, according to the Bar complaint, Sheehe and Vendittelli filed a charging lien in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, claiming that they were entitled to a portion of the Davis settlement for attorney fees and costs. At a February 1997 hearing on their fee request, the Bar says the two attorneys knowingly failed to disclose their receipt of the $898,000 payment from DuPont. Ironically, this is not the first time plaintiff attorneys have been charged with unethical conduct in a Benlate case with DuPont. Following the $59 million settlement with Davis and others, it was learned that his attorney, St. Louis, had accepted an undisclosed $6.4 million payout from DuPont. The Bar, according to a source close to the case, has a pending investigation into that settlement as well. In addition, several plaintiffs in the settlement filed suit in Gainesville against St. Louis and DuPont for failing to disclose the secret deal. That case was resolved in a confidential settlement in January.

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