Henry T. Courtney and Sara Courtney-Baigorri (J. Albert Diaz)
HENRY T. COURTNEY AND THE COURTNEY LAW FIRM, PETITIONERS, V. JOAN HALL-EDWARDS, ETC., RESPONDENTS
Case No.: 3D13-2662
Date: March 12, 2014
Case type: Attorney fees
Court: Third District Court of Appeal
Author of opinion: Judge Linda Ann Wells
Lawyer for petitioners: James C. Blecke, Haggard Law Firm, Coral Gables
Lawyers for respondents: Loriellen Robertson, Law Office of Robertson & Hunter, Key West; Gustavo Gutierrez, Gutierrez & Gutierrez, Miami
Panel: Judges Wells, Richard J. Suarez and Barbara Lagoa
Originating court: Miami-Dade Circuit Court
It’s safe to say elephants have nothing on lawyers in the memory department—at least when it comes to the work they’ve done.
A Coral Gables attorney and his firm will finally be paid $114,250 for their labors in the late 1990s that helped bring about a $19 million settlement for the family of a teenager killed in a Ford Explorer rollover.
The Third District Court of Appeal on March 12 quashed an order denying fees to attorney Henry Courtney and the Courtney Law Firm. He filed the 1999 product liability suit that started the litigation and worked on the case for two years before Joan Hall-Edwards, the mother of victim Lance Crossman Hall, discharged him.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey would not give Courtney—”a fine lawyer” in her words—a penny because his “contributions … were dwarfed by the subsequent efforts of successor counsel.”
“The last verdict occurred twelve years and four trial attempts later, resulting in settlement,” she noted.
The Third District drew a different conclusion from the case’s history.
Considering all that Courtney did, including preserving the crash vehicle, interviewing witnesses, crafting discovery and educating experts, “petitioner’s efforts were of some significance and entitled him to a fee award,” Judge Linda Ann Wells wrote.
The court criticized the lawyers Hall-Edwards employed after Courtney, saying, “The fact that this case did not resolve earlier or easier falls squarely on subsequent counsel’s shoulders and serves [as] no basis for denying petitioner a fee award.”
The case was remanded for entry of the $114,250 fee that the parties stipulated was reasonable. Joining Wells were Judges Richard Suarez and Barbara Lagoa; the latter sat on a 2009 Third District panel that also criticized the estate trial lawyers’ tactics.
Stability and handling problems with 1990s Explorer SUVs touched off a surge of litigation over deaths and serious injuries from rollovers.
(It should be noted that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cleared the Explorer after a preliminary investigation of rollovers in 2000. The probe was instigated by Bridgestone-Firestone, whose tires, once standard on Explorers, were blamed for tread separation, a contributing factor in some of the crashes.)
In 1997, Lance Hall was a passenger in a 1996 Explorer whose driver fell asleep. The vehicle went out of control and rolled over, ejecting and killing Hall. He was 17.
Courtney had developed a specialty in this area of product liability, traveling around the country to explore various strategies and handling several cases.
“It’s not like it was a new thing,” he said in an interview following the Third District ruling.
Joan Hall-Edwards consulted with her family attorney Gustavo Gutierrez of Gutierrez & Gutierrez in Miami. According to Courtney, Gutierrez contacted him and later other lawyers to represent the estate in its lawsuit against Ford. Gutierrez did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Courtney worked on the Hall case with his daughter Sara Courtney Baigorri. In 2001, two years after they filed the lawsuit, Hall-Edwards fired them.
“She just decided that she didn’t want us and went with somebody else,” Courtney said.
The trial court order denying fees to Courtney suggests Hall-Edwards chose Bruce Kaster and Richard Denney because they were active in multidistrict litigation involving Firestone and Ford.
They “knew where key witnesses and key documents were located and how to access them,” Bailey wrote. After they entered the Hall case, it was “aggressively prosecuted on specific defect theories.”
Kaster of Kaster & Lynch in Ocala markets himself online as “the tire industry’s ‘Public Enemy Number One.’”
Denney is with Denney & Barrett, “auto accident attorneys” based in Norman, Okla. Neither lawyer could be reached for comment by deadline.
All the aggression Kaster and Denney deployed seemed to misfire in 2007 when they lost on appeal a $60 million award they had won from Miami-Dade jurors.
Ford argued the trial judge allowed testimony that the automaker caused “hundreds” of Explorer rollovers without making the plaintiff establish they were “substantially similar” to the accident that killed Hall.
The Third District agreed and ordered a new trial. References to “other incidents involving Ford were not isolated in nature and in fact became a feature of the case,” starting with the plaintiff’s opening statement, Judge Angel Cortiñas wrote for the panel.
Two years later a different panel quashed a pretrial court order deeming the Ford Explorer a “public hazard” under Florida Statutes Section 69.081. The order would have prevented Ford from protecting trade secrets and other confidential documents related to the Explorer.
Judge Vance Salter observed that the estate’s counsel, “who include lawyers and firms involved in many other lawsuits against Ford, wasted no time in disseminating the order.
“The statute was intended to preclude the concealment of specific information about a ‘public hazard,’ not simply to provide a tactical pejorative for counsel to use in other cases,” Salter wrote.
The panel that awarded Courtney his fees March 12 described the estate’s trial lawyers with something less than admiration.
Charging liens protect an attorney’s rights, the court stated, and added, “That is especially so where, as here, it appears that the subsequent ‘more aggressive’ lawyer’s behavior needlessly prolonged the matter.”
After the $60 million verdict was overturned, it took six years to get a retrial “because under subsequent counsel’s guidance the case had gone astray,” Wells wrote.
Courtney said he sees no basis for an appeal of the Third District’s ruling and he doesn’t expect the estate to seek one. He isn’t certain, however.
“They’ve been doing appeals for 12 years, so who knows?”