A German company that offers commercial and personal insurance services has sued a Greenwich solo practitioner for $1.8 million, claiming legal malpractice related to a car accident that paralyzed a client.
Wurttembergische Versicherung AG sued the J. Michael Lewis Law Offices and its principal, J. Michael Lewis, over its representation in an insurance claim brought by Safeco Insurance Co. of Illinois. Safeco sought coverage for damages incurred while defending and settling a civil action in Washington state.
The lawsuit—filed Friday in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut in Bridgeport—claims Lewis committed legal malpractice during the course of making coverage recommendations and asserting defenses, drafting correspondences and raising arguments in litigation.
“That malpractice significantly increased the exposure to Wurtt and caused Wurtt to incur loss and unnecessary attorneys’ fees defending the litigation,” the lawsuit states.
Wurtt, along with two other insurers, issued a professional liability insurance policy to Safeco with a $25 million liability limit and a $10 million per-loss retention. Wurtt subscribed to 20 percent of the limit of liability under the policy.
In 2007, Safeco-America sued Wurtt and the two other insurers seeking coverage under the policy for defending and resolving a bad-faith action, LeMasters v. Safeco Insurance Company of America in a court in Los Angeles. The lawsuit stems from a personal injury motor vehicle claim in which one man was left a quadriplegic.
The victim in the case, Trevor Pullen, later brought a personal injury action against the driver, Henry LeMasters, which was defended by Safeco. After unsuccessful attempts to settle, Pullen ultimately prevailed at trial and obtained an approximately $17 million judgment against LeMasters. LeMasters thereafter executed a partial assignment of his rights against Safeco to Pullen.
Wurtt retained Lewis in connection with the LeMasters claim. In January 2013, Safeco-Illinois notified Wurtt of the Washington state case, Miller v. Kenny and Safeco Insurance Company of Illinois. This action was also related to a personal injury car accident.
Wurtt retained Lewis to provide a coverage determination for the Miller claim. The lawsuit states Lewis’ “subsequent negligence and malpractice resulted in Safeco-Illinois increasing its settlement during the Miller claim litigation to approximately five times its initial settlement offer.”
Wurtt and one of the other insurers ended up settling with Safeco-Illinois for $15.3 million with Wurtt paying $3.83 million, according to the lawsuit. Safeco-Illinois initially indicated the Miller claim could be resolved for $10 million among all three insurers, but the lawsuit states that was based on Lewis’ advice. The suit states that part of the malpractice claim is tied to Lewis providing its client with incorrect information, which cost the insurance firm millions of dollars.
“Wurtt’s share of that rejected offer would have been $2 million. After the court’s findings that Wurtt (through Lewis) violated Washington’s Insurance Fair Conduct Act and Consumer Protection Act as a matter of law, Safeco-Illinois demanded approximately five times its initial settlement demand to insurers on the basis it was entitled to recover litigation costs, interest and treble damages,” the suit says.
Wurtt states Lewis claimed he had “expertise in insurance coverage law and insurance litigation. As such Lewis had a duty to exercise the knowledge and skill ordinarily possessed by other specialists in the same area of law.”
In addition to asking the court for at least $1.83 million, Wurtt also asks that U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill order Lewis to repay all fees billed in connection with the Miller litigation.
As of Wednesday, Lewis had not assigned an attorney to represent him in the lawsuit. Lewis did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Wurtt is represented by Thomas Blatchley of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani in Glastonbury.