Victims' advocate Judy Buckles once said, "Madison County is the best when it comes to representing asbestos victims and their families." On Wednesday she filed a legal malpractice suit against two of the county's busiest asbestos litigators. misrepresented the actual costs advanced or incurred and recouped from Buckles settlements more money than was actually advanced by the firm on behalf of her case;
Buckles, whose husband died from mesothelioma in 1997, alleges her former lawyers entered into secret agreements with asbestos defendants to settle claims for absurd predetermined amounts of money when the "reasonable value" of mesothelioma claims were worth millions of dollars.
Asbestos lawyers Hopkins Goldenberg -- now known as Goldenberg, Heller, Antognoli, Rowland, Short & Gori -- John Simmons, William Miller and SimmonsCooper LLC were named as defendants in the lawsuit filed July 12 in Madison County Circuit Court.
Buckles is represented by Roy Dripps of the Lakin Law Firm of Wood River. Ironically, asbestos litigator extraordinaire John Simmons -- a defendant in this matter -- has worked "of counsel" for the Lakin firm.
Buckles is one of the founders of the now defunct Victims and Families United, which actively campaigned in the 2004 Illinois Supreme Court race. She became an advocate because she was tired "of hearing groups funded by Corporate America complain about justice in Madison County," according to a Feb. 17, 2004, Alton Telegraph article.
She hired Hopkins Goldenberg in 1997 after her husband, Charles Buckles, -- a boilermaker -- died from mesothelioma. SimmonsCooper took over for Buckles on July 27, 1999, after John Simmons left the firm to begin his own.
According to the suit, Hopkins Goldenberg and Simmons agreed that Simmons would handle all of the defendants that did not settle or go to trial after July 19, 1999. Hopkins Goldenberg is now known as Goldenberg, Heller, Antognoli, Rowland, Short & Gori.
She claims that Hopkins Goldenberg agreed with WR Grace & Co. to settle all mesothelioma cases for $20,000 and agreed to a moratorium on suits against WR Grace for three years.
Buckles also alleges Hopkins Goldenberg agreed to settle all the cases against Owens-Corning for $120,000 per case and subsequently through the National Settlement Project, $275,000 for people diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Attorney John Hopkins of Edwardsville said he could not comment on a pending case. Calls to John Simmons were not returned.
According to the suit, Buckles claims Hopkins Goldenberg failed to advise her of the secret agreements to "pre-settle" her husband's asbestos claims for a pre-determined amount of money.
She also claims that Hopkins Goldenberg employed unlicensed people, including a convicted felon who was employed as the office manager, to provide legal advice to clients concerning whether to settle their cases, to value cases and claims and to communicate legal advice to clients.
Buckles also claims the firm failed to properly investigate so that all of the potential defendants could be identified in time to sue within the statute of limitations.
She also claims she was induced to execute settlement agreements with various companies because the firm would provide her erroneous information concerning the settlement amounts.
According to Buckles, she was told Westinghouse wanted to settle with her for $15,000. She claims the settlement was actually $3,000, but that she was never given a reason for the discrepancy.
She also claims Hopkins Goldenberg entered into settlement agreements outside of the secret agreements, but that those amounts were also inadequate and insufficient to compensate her for the claims, losses and damages involved.
According to the complaint, the firms settled claims within the scope of representation but without informing Buckles of the settlements and/or without her informed consent concerning each of the bases for the proposed settlement and of the exact basis for each cost deduction made from the settlement including:
grouped together as a "General Discovery Ledger" costs incurred in connection with the firm's representing of other clients and without notice or authorization from Buckles, charged those costs to her case and took the money from her recovery;
fabricated, exaggerated, or otherwise manipulated the bookkeeping of advanced costs so that costs advanced on behalf of all of the firm's cases were artificially and wrongly ascribed to more valuable cases such as Buckles;
recouped from Buckles unauthorized costs generated by outside national counsel; and
recouped unreasonable and unnecessary costs generated by outside national counsel.
Buckles also alleges that group settlements were made on behalf of multiple claimants without obtaining the consent of each client.She claims the law firm unilaterally allocated the proceeds of group settlements so that the attorneys created an inherent conflict of interest by deciding how much of each settlement to give to each of their settling clients.
Buckles named two attorneys as defendants, William Miller and John Simmons.
She claims Miller was a partner and shareholder in the Hopkins Goldenberg law firm and as such the alleged negligent acts are imputed to him under the doctrine of respondeat superior.
Miller recently left the Goldenberg firm and started a solo practice in East Alton.
Buckles claims that since Miller had supervisory duties with regard to subordinate attorneys, he owed a separate duty to monitor her case and take appropriate action to ensure that the firm did not breach its duty to her.
She claims Simmons failed to use the degree of skill and care exercised by reasonably prudent and careful attorneys acting in the same or similar circumstances, including a duty of undivided loyalty, a fiduciary duty to advise her of all the relevant facts in her case and a fiduciary duty to pursue her legal claims zealously and expeditiously.
Charles Buckles was employed as a boilermaker at Amoco Oil in Wood River, Shell Oil in Roxana, Granite City Steel, Alton Powerhouse and Marathon Oil in Hartford from 1967 through 1995.
He also worked at SIUC, Texaco Oil, Kincaid Powerhouse, Baldwin Powerhouse, Monsanto and Springfield Powerhouse.
"Charles developed mesothelioma, a form of cancer that directly caused Charles to die a painful, lingering, horrible death as the cancerous tissues slowly but inexorably squeezed the air out of his lungs and fractured his rib cage through the sheer force of their expansion so that his body could no longer sustain the basic life task of breathing air, caused other metastatic tumors, and eventually killed him unmercifully," Judy Buckles' complaint states.
She is seeking damages from Goldenberg, Heller, Antognoli, Rowland, Short & Gori "in an amount greater than $50,000, and in any event an amount which is sufficient to fairly and adequately compensate Buckles, for her costs, and for such other and further relief as justice may require."
Buckles also is seeking damages in excess of $50,000 from William Miller, John Simmons and SimmonsCooper LLC.
"Not all lawsuits are frivolous, and behind every lawsuit is a real victim or family who is seeking justice and democracy," Buckles said in an interview with the Alton Telegraph in 2004.
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