Old, familiar faces will reappear in legal malpractice high drama

Steve Gonzalez Feb. 7, 2008, 11:43pm




Relics of Madison County's past are scheduled to reappear for a legal malpractice trial that will open old, painful wounds and be as dramatic as anything ever seen in an Edwardsville courtroom.

The heart of the matter is about the area's most notorious swindler James Gibson who stole millions from children and widows by making off with their structured settlement funds.

But legendary plaintiff's attorney Rex Carr -- who plans to call former Madison County judges Gordon Maag and Randall Bono and prolific personal injury attorney Thomas Q. Keefe as witnesses -- is trying to convince the jury to take pity on another victim in the "debacle," his client, Magna Bank (now Regions Bank).

Currently under way in Circuit Judge Daniel Stack's third floor courtroom, the case is expected to last four weeks.

Carr, who wants a 12-person jury to award millions to his client, got off to a peculiar start with jurors during opening arguments Wednesday.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, yesterday when you took your oaths, you became part of a Judicial Hellhole," Carr said.

He proceeded to tell the assembled members, including two alternates, that all of the judges, attorneys and juries in Madison County are corrupt.

Judge Stack stepped in by stating, "We are off the ('Hellhole') list," which caused the parties to giggle.

"How the hell did that happen?" Carr responded.

Two months ago the American Tort Reform Association, for the first time since its "Judicial Hellholes" reporting began, removed Madison County from the list because of various local reforms.

According to Carr, the "debacle" began in 1985 when Gibson took up the business of structuring settlements, under an agreement with a bank that Magna later acquired.

Personal injury lawyers who represented clients that received jury awards or settlements would advise their clients to enter into a structured settlement with Gibson's SBU.

Carr told jurors that Gibson used government bonds instead of an annuity, like most structured settlements at that time used, which made Gibson's pitch unique.

Carr told jurors that Gibson and Magna would pass out pamphlets at bar meetings in order to drum up business, and soon many lawyers began using Magna and SBU when they had a structured settlement.

He said that even he started to advise his personal injury clients to use structured settlements through SBU and Magna.

In 1993, Gibson told Magna Bank that pursuant to contract, he would terminate the agreement and take the money elsewhere.

Magna Bank refused to turn the money loose, so Gibson sued the bank.

St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert Hillebrand ruled that the agreement allowed termination. He granted summary judgment to SBU. Magna appealed to the Fifth District, when Gordon Maag was a justice, but the summary judgment was affirmed.

After several more years of litigation, Magna gave possession of the government bonds to Flag Financial, a shell corporation Gibson owned in Missouri.

And that, according to Carr, is when Thompson Coburn started to "screw up."

Carr claims that based on the advice of Thompson Coburn, Magna did not file an appeal with the Illinois Supreme Court because the law firm allegedly advised the bank that it had no grounds to resist SBU's termination of Magna's trusteeship and joined in a stipulation with SBU by apppointing Flag Finance as the successor trustee which allowed Gibson to have possession of the bonds.

Gibson eventually stole the money and purchased homes, cars and yachts.

On several occasions Carr labeled Gibson as a "son-of-a-bitch."

Victims of Gibson's swindle eventually sued Magna, causing the bank to settle claims that alleged the bank breached its fiduciary obligations to the injured plaintiffs.

But, Thompson Coburn's lawyer, Carrie Hogan of Jones Day in Chicago had a different story for jurors.

Hogan asked the jurors to remember that the plaintiff in the case was a banking conglomerate and not the injured plaintiffs Carr repeatedly mentioned during his opening arguments.

Hogan compared Magna's situation to the Titanic, and said by the time Thompson Coburn was retained to fix the situation, it was too late, the boat had taken on too much water.

"By the time Thompson Coburn was asked to help Magna, it was like giving a passenger a bucket and telling them to start bailing water," Hogan said.

She said the real cause of Magna's losses was a single event -- Gibson stealing money.

Hogan said Gibson "turned from a honest business man into a criminal" and that all the documents the bank signed were prepared by Gibson.

"He took bonds and liquidated them," Hogan said. "It was nothing my clients did, the ship was going down and there was nothing we could do to stop it."

She said Thompson Coburn never advised the bank to enter into the initial contracts with Gibson, and that was the real downfall.

Hogan also pointed out that the only people who will say Thompson Coburn is negligent are Carr and his experts -- Maag, Bono and Keefe.

She said that no one from the bank or trust company will testify to such a thing and that the suit, filed in 2004, was "manufactured" to recoup losses after settling litigation.

Hogan said the bank paid "too much" in settlements, but part of that strategy was to then sue her client for professional negligence. She promised jurors she would prove that.

She said she would call Carr to the witness stand and evidence would show that Carr did nothing to investigate Gibson or SBU, even though he advised his clients to enter into agreements with him.

Hogan said Carr made a significant amount of money from advising his clients to enter into the agreements and then told them that they faced no risk in doing so.

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