Lawyer's pricey malpractice testimony draws big legal crowd

Steve Gonzalez Feb. 28, 2008, 1:21am

Tom Keefe

Circuit Judge Dan Stack

An expert witness charging $1,000 per hour was the star attraction last week at the malpractice trial of law firm Thompson Coburn.

Over the previous three weeks, Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack had been lucky to have a single spectator in his courtroom to witness the legal malpractice case against Thompson Coburn.

That changed dramatically February 27, as Stack's third floor courtroom was jammed with legal professionals from every field: trial attorneys, probate lawyers, prosecutors, public defenders and even judges came by to witness the day's proceedings.

The expert witness, attorney Tom Keefe, took the stand to explain to jurors why, in his opinion, Thompson Coburn committed malpractice while representing Magna Bank. He said he agreed to appear to "make amends for the two-week brain fart" he had when he represented fellow lawyer Stephen Tillery in a case years ago and is donating his appearance fee to charity.

The trial originally began on Feb. 4 and was slated to last four to six weeks. But lengthy examinations by Rex Carr and the constant objections and fierce bickering are slowing progress in one of the most dramatic and complicated civil trials ever held in Madison County.

To Keefe, the case is not even as "complicated" as it has been depicted. He testified that Magna Bank had a fiduciary duty to the personal injury plaintiffs who set up structured settlements through Magna Bank and Jim Gibson's SBU, even though two separate courts ruled they did not.

Keefe also testified that Magna Bank took steps they did not need to do based on the advice Thompson Coburn gave the bank.

For example, Keefe said once SBU wanted to change banks, Magna was only required to send a notice to the structured settlement clients to inform them that another financial institution would be sending their monthly checks in the future.

He testified that Magna was never required by any court order to participate in finding a new trustee for SBU but did so anyway. Keefe also stated that if Thompson Coburn's lawyers knew Gibson was stealing money that was to be paid to the plaintiffs who used structured settlements, they had a duty to inform Magna.

Keefe is the fourth witness to testify in the trial that is now likely to last well into March. It is still not clear when Carr will wrap up his case and Thompson Coburn can begin their defense.

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