Paralyzed county worker sues, calls attorney's fees excessive
Published: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 8:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 8:40 p.m.
A fight is underway over an $8 million settlement awarded in July to a former Alachua County Public Works employee who was left paralyzed after an on-the job accident almost exactly one year earlier.
Emanuel Baker, who has yet to see any of the $8 million settlement, is suing Gainesville attorney Chris Chestnut to invalidate a contract between him and his family and The Chestnut Firm that guarantees the firm 40 percent of the settlement amount and exceeds the limits of Florida Bar rules without special permission by a judge.
The suit also accuses The Chestnut Firm of charging excessive attorney expenses, including a chartered jet and overnight stays at the Four Seasons Hotel, according to a complaint filed in Alachua County Court on Aug. 12.
The local law firm Rush and Glassman is representing Emanuel Baker in the newly filed suit. Chestnut responded Monday by filing a petition asking the court to approve his 40 percent contingency fee and more than $470,000 in expenses.
The public court documents did not list the settlement amount, but rather stated that it “far exceeds three million dollars ($3,000,000).”
In a County Commission meeting on Tuesday, the $8 million figure was revealed as commissioners discussed the possibility of placing a lien on the settlement for up to $1.3 million, which the county says it paid on behalf of Emanuel Baker either directly or for medical bills.
In Baker’s lawsuit, Chestnut is being represented by prominent plaintiff’s attorney Willie Gary, who says Rush and Glassman is being opportunistic and trying to take a piece of a settlement they didn’t work for.
“It’s a shame these lawyers are being Johnny-come-lately, no doubt looking for a fee they didn’t earn,” said Gary in a phone interview with The Sun. I don’t think it’s the clients as much as it is the lawyers who are giving the Bakers advice not worth its salt.”
Gary went on to say that the Baker settlement was hard-fought, with Chestnut taking a chance and investing a significant amount of money into a case other lawyers turned down. While the settlement amount reached between Baker and AT&T is eye-catching now, Gary says at the beginning the case was anything but.
According to news reports at the time, on July 2, 2012, a utility pole snapped and struck Baker, 58, in the head. Baker had no pulse when emergency medical workers arrived, but after two to three minutes of CPR, he was able to be transported to UF Health Shands Hospital in critical but stable condition.
After numerous surgeries at Shands and months of physical therapy in Atlanta, Baker remained a quadriplegic, documents said.
The county paid worker’s compensation benefits to Baker, but it was Chestnut, Gary said, who developed the theory of liability against third-party defendants AT&T and Osmose Utility.
On July 21, 2012, Chris Chestnut entered into a contract with the Baker family to represent them in a lawsuit against AT&T and Osmose Utility that would allege negligence based on the theory that the snapped utility pole was faulty. The contract guaranteed Chestnut 28 percent of any settlement or court-awarded monies recovered in addition to expenses related to the case.
On Sept. 1, 2012, according to court documents, Baker’s wife signed another contract guaranteeing Chestnut 40 percent of any amount recovered from the lawsuit, in addition to case-related expenses.
The new lawsuit filed by the Baker family alleges Chestnut fraudulently induced Jessie Baker, the wife of Emanuel Baker, into signing the first contract, by offering to reduce the contingency fee percentage from 33 1/2 percent to 28 percent as a favor because the parties had a prior friendly relationship, even though Florida Bar rules dictate that such an across-the-board fee would be considered excessive without prior court approval.
While on Monday Chestnut filed a motion to get the court to approve his fee agreement, the rule calls for the client, rather than the attorney, to file the petition for the increased fee agreement either prior to or with the filing of the lawsuit.
The suit further alleges that Jessie Baker was in a “fragile state, at the bedside of her husband” of more than 30 years, “unsure of whether he would live or die” when Chestnut presented her with the second contract.
Speaking on behalf of Chestnut, Willie Gary said the second contract was put in place once it became clear AT&T would not concede fault and was going to force the case to go to court and would require significantly greater time and financial investment than initially thought.
“He (Chestnut) conducted 49 depositions in less than one year,” Gary said. “He had to forgo other opportunities to work on this case.”
In an interview with The Sun, Robert Rush reiterated an allegation made in the suit, stating that 95 percent of the work done for the Bakers was not done by Chris Chestnut, but rather by Evan Small, a more junior attorney who worked for the firm. While it’s not unusual for junior attorneys to do large volumes of work under the supervision of a senior attorney, Rush pointed out that Small left the Chestnut firm in recent weeks.
In a phone interview with The Sun, Small declined to comment specifically about the new Baker suit, stating, “my leaving The Chestnut Firm was the result of a number of philosophical differences between Chris and myself and not in any way related to the issues between the Bakers and Chris.”
In reference to the claim that more than $470,000 in expenses billed to Baker was excessive, including $13,000 for a charter jet, Gary explained that the expenses helped get the settlement accomplished and was a fraction of the ultimate amount recovered. Gary also took part in the settlement negotiations and owns a private jet, but declined to comment specifically about the details related to the flight in question.
“When you take on giants of the likes of AT&T, they have the money to fly their experts in and get their lawyers in place,” Gary said. “That’s why a lot of little people never get a fair shake, because lawyers don’t have the money to deal with these giants. Chestnut borrowed this money at no interest to the client.”
The Chestnut firm has not released any of the settlement funds to the Baker family, pending resolution of the county’s possible worker’s compensation claim and the resolution of the contract dispute with the Chestnut firm.
Staff writer Morgan Watkins contributed to this report.