Madison - St. Clair Record

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Edwardsville law firm ordered to respond in legal malpractice suit over $785K jury verdict


By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Jun 26, 2019

Madison County Circuit Judge David Dugan granted Midwest Sanitary Service’s motion to compel an Edwardsville law firm and two attorneys to answer interrogatories in a legal malpractice suit alleging negligent representation resulted in a $785,000 jury verdict.

In a June 20 order, Dugan ordered defendants Sandberg Phoenix & von Gontard, John Gilbert and Narcisa Symank to answer the interrogatories and request for production by Aug. 5.

Plaintiffs Midwest Sanitary Service, Nancy Donovan and Bob Evans Sr. filed an amended complaint Feb. 25, alleging the defendants were retained as counsel on April 20, 2015 in a trial where former employee Paul Crane Jr. alleged he was wrongfully terminated.


Crane filed his suit in March 2014 (14-L-501). He alleged he worked as a truck driver for the Wood River company. He claimed he observed Midwest employees engaging in “unauthorized and illegal dumping and/or storage of toxic waste and other substances hazardous to the health and well-being of the public.”

On Nov. 18, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency sent Midwest a letter noting the “numerous environmental violations” after Crane reported photos of the alleged violations to state regulators. Crane was terminated the same day.

Sandberg Phoenix took the defense over from the plaintiffs’ prior defense counsel in Crane’s case.

The trial began Nov. 9, 2015.

The one-week trial in Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth’s court ended on Nov. 17, 2015, after jurors returned a verdict awarding Crane $160,000 in compensatory damages and $625,000 in punitive damages for a total of $785,000. Evans and Donovan were only found to be liable for compensatory damages.

Then on July 15, 2016, Crane was awarded $225,000 for his attorney fees.

The plaintiffs in this case allege Gilbert responded in an email, “They will get nothing, of course, when the appellate court overturns the judgment.”

Donovan, Evans and Midwest Sanitary Service claim Gilbert reassured them that the appellate court would rectify “this miscarriage of justice.”

According to the Rule 23 decision by appellate justice Thomas Welch, the defendants sought a new trial following the verdict after a juror reached out to Midwest and the defendants’ counsel, suspecting juror misconduct and speculation based upon a testimony that had been excluded for improper disclosure.

According to the juror’s affidavit, the jury had concluded that a voicemail complaining of Crane’s behavior must have been fabricated because the customer never testified at trial.

Ruth denied the motion. Midwest, Donovan and Evans appealed.

However, the Fifth District Appellate Court affirmed the jury’s verdict and Ruth’s handling of the trial on May 26, 2017.

“Generally, a verdict may not be impeached by testimony or affidavits relating to the motive, method, and process of jury deliberations,” Welch wrote.

The appellate court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding “jurors were not influenced and prejudiced by the juror misconduct to such an extent that they would not, or could not, be fair and impartial.”

In their complaint against Sandberg Phoenix, the plaintiffs allege their counsel failed to list all witnesses intended to be called at trial, resulting in six witnesses for defense being barred.

They allege the defendants failed to identify a voice mail recorded message from a Midwest customer regarding a lost or destroyed document in response to a request to produce, resulting in a “missing evidence” instruction given to the jury. They also allege the defendants failed to object to jury instructions.

Then while the case was pending in the appellate court, the plaintiffs claim the defendants failed and refused to discuss potential settlement with opposing counsel. The defendants allegedly simply responded with “No” and failed to discuss or even inform their client.

The plaintiffs are represented by Ripplinger & Zimmer LLC in Belleville.

The defendants are represented by HeplerBroom LLC in Edwardsville.

Madison County Circuit Court case number 18-L-811

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Organizations in this Story

HeplerBroom Ripplinger & Zimmer Sandberg Phoenix & Von Gontard PC

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