County wades into legal battle over injury settlement

In this June 26, 2012 file photo Emanuel Baker, then with Alachua County Public Works, prepares to connect a 100-foot hose to drain a retention pond at Summit Oaks in Gainesville. Baker was later injured when a power pole fell on him while he was working in Micanopy.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Su
Published: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at 2:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at 2:38 p.m.

The Alachua County Commission has entered the legal fight over a multimillion-dollar lawsuit settlement involving an injured county worker.

The county has filed a lien to recover $1.38 million it paid in workers' compensation benefits on behalf of Emanuel Baker, 58, who was paralyzed after a utility pole snapped and struck him in the head while he was working in Micanopy on July 2, 2012.

Last month, the law firm of Gainesville attorney Chris Chestnut reached an estimated $8 million settlement on behalf of Baker with AT&T and Osmose Utility, which owned and operated the utility pole.

That settlement, however, has been held up by a lawsuit filed Aug. 12 claiming that Chestnut charged excessive fees and expenses and used unscrupulous methods to get Baker's wife to sign a contract that guaranteed Chestnut 40 percent of any money recovered.

That amount is considered excessive under Florida Bar rules, absent prior approval by a judge.

The county's action prevents disbursement of the settlement money to Baker pending resolution of the lien, which is “accruing at a rate of approximately $100,000 a month,” according to the motion filed by Orlando Attorney Alan Kalinoski on behalf of the commission.

The motion also accuses Chestnut and attorneys for AT&T and Osmose Utility of seeking to avoid or compromise the lien by failing to notify the county of the lawsuit despite a formal request by Alachua County to be informed of any litigation.

On Monday, Circuit Court Judge Victor Hulslander ordered the settlement funds to be moved from the Chestnut firm's trust account to a restricted account.

The move follows a hearing last week in which Baker's new attorneys, Robert Rush and Daniel Glassman, requested the Chestnut firm no longer be allowed to hold the money while the fight continues over the contingency fee and expenses.

Attorneys for AT&T and Osmose were at the hearing seeking to enforce the confidentiality clause of the settlement, which already had been made public by the County Commission at a meeting earlier that week.

At the court hearing, Chestnut mentioned the $8 million amount.

The judge has not ruled on the confidentiality clause of the agreement or the validity of the contingency fee contract Chestnut entered into with the Bakers.

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