After an eight-day trial, the jury in a legal-malpractice case awarded nearly $2 million to a British wildlife filmmaker who lost her job with National Geographic over forged signatures on visa documents prepared by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart and a former lawyer there.
The total includes $125,000 the jury tacked on Thursday following a short trial on punitive damages.
Lead plaintiffs attorney Linley Jones said her client, Karen Bass, was vindicated after four years of grinding litigation.
“We feel great,” said Jones. “We think this establishes for Ms. Bass the wrongdoing by Ogletree Deakins. It speaks volumes for what she went through.”
Jones said she also will seek about $250,000 in post-judgment interest because the defendants turned down an offer to settle the case.
Ogletree and former associate Brandi Knox are represented by Carlock Copeland & Stair partners Joe Kingma and Shannon Sprinkle and associate Matthew Gass.
Kingma declined to comment Thursday.
During closing arguments Wednesday, Jones said Bass lost her job with National Geographic because of “falsehood and forgery” she ascribed to Ogletree and Knox.
Jones said Bass suffered financially and professionally when National Geographic learned that four years of Bass’ visa applications included the forged signature of one of its officers. National Geographic terminated Bass shortly after the revelation.
The unauthorized signature was written by Knox.
The alleged forgeries and lack of oversight by Knox’s superiors at Ogletree did “real damage,” said Jones, costing Bass her position at National Geographic and scuttling opportunities for other projects.
“Some projects never got made,” said Jones, and National Geographic has still not rehired her, though Jones said she is well-regarded there.
Bass was fortunate to have found an Asia-based media company that was willing to hire her, Jones said.
“Who would want to get caught up in all this baggage?” asked Jones, representing Bass with Linley Jones Firm senior associate Angela Forstie.
Jones suggested the jury award total damages of more than $3 million, plus punitive damages.
Kingma said Knox had admittedly made “mistakes” and that the firm was agreeable to paying Bass ”reasonable” damages for several months when she was unable to get a visa and was out of work, as well as for her “aggravation.”
But, he said, Bass should not be delivered a windfall worth millions of dollars for that mistake.
“You’ve heard a lot about forgery in this case,” said Kingma. “Why are they calling it forgery? Because Ms. Bass wants to demonize Brandi. She wants you to think she’s a horrible person.”
“This was a misunderstanding, not some capital crime,” said Kingma. “She didn’t take any money. She made a mistake.”
The case began in 2010 when Bass was hired to work on National Geographic’s “Wild America” television series. Because she had to travel to the U.S. frequently, she and National Geographic retained Knox in 2011—then an associate with Littler Mendelson—to help secure an O-1 work visa for people possessing particular talent in the arts, sports, business or athletics.
Knox discussed the petition with Megan Edwards. National Geographic’s senior vice president and associate general counsel.
According to Bass’ account, Knox forged Edwards’ signature on the petition and sent it to the U.S. State Department.
The defense said Knox simply signed the petition on Edwards’ behalf and filed it. After moving to Ogletree, she continued to sign Edwards’ name for the next three years as the time came to renew the visa.
In 2014, the visa processing center contacted Edwards with questions about the visa, and she said she had not signed the renewals. Bass was terminated the same day.
In 2016, Bass and her production company, Karen Bass Media, sued Ogletree and Knox in Fulton County Superior Court, asserting claims including legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, negligent representation and fraud.
The defense team challenged Bass’ damage claims, arguing that she has worked for other outlets and that her reputation was apparently unharmed. Bass, defense lawyers pointed out, was awarded an Emmy after her dismissal from National Geographic and was inducted into Britain’s Royal Geographical Society.
Late Wednesday afternoon the jury awarded nearly $1.8 million, including $565,000 in general damages.
The jury apportioned 2 percent of the liability to Bass.
After Thursday’s trial, Bass said the series of events had been like an “emotional roller-coaster.”
“It’s like I said on the stand,” said Bass. “If you make a mistake, you apologize, you remedy it, and you move on. That never happened.”