The question for the Mississippi Supreme Court was whether the amount of damages owed to an injured employee for her attorney’s negligence should include the workers’ compensation benefits she missed.
The answer, the court decided last week, is “yes”, although the extent and duration of the injury has never been judged.
“Upon review, we find that the Court of Appeals failed to understand the impact of the law firm’s negligence on Chandler’s ability not only to testify, but also to prove her workers’ compensation claim,” wrote Judge James Maxwell for the majority in Turner & Associates v Lori Chandler. “When this practical reality is considered, we find that the trial court’s decision is sufficiently supported by the evidence and should stand.”
The case involved the law firm Bennie Turner, in West Point, Mississippi. In addition to being a lawyer, Turner was a well-known television broadcaster and one of only a dozen African-American state senators in the Legislature. He served in the chamber for 20 years until his death in 2012.
The Chandler case began in March 2008, when Chandler worked at Cooper Tire Co. in northern Mississippi. She was driving a forklift when another forklift collided with her, sending her to the emergency room the next day. The court opinion did not state the extent or nature of her injuries, but said they were sufficient for her doctor to place her under sedentary work restrictions.
Cooper fired the woman three days later, saying the company didn’t need help with secretarial work, the court’s opinion explained.
Chandler started physical therapy, but ended it after two months when she found out she was pregnant. In August of that year, she decided she needed legal representation and contacted the Turner firm. She testified that she met Turner’s daughter, attorney Angela Lairy, although Lairy later denied meeting the injured worker.
For reasons not explained in the court’s notice, the company did not file Chandler’s workers’ compensation claim within the two-year statute of limitations, dooming any chance of recovery. benefits, the Supreme Court noted. Seeing no action on her case, Chandler in 2011 contacted Turner’s other daughter, a case manager at the firm named Carolyn Karriem.
Instead of telling Chandler of the mistake of not filing the claim, Karriem falsely told Chandler that the company was negotiating a settlement with Cooper Tire.
“Not only was that false, Karriem actually forwarded a bogus $25,000 settlement offer,” Judge Maxwell wrote in the notice. Chandler rejected the “offer”, and over the next year Karriem continued to concoct false claims about settlement offers of increasing amounts. Around this time, Turner died and Lairy resumed practice, the court heard.
Shortly after, Karriem said Cooper Tire had agreed to a $100,000 settlement. She sent Chandler a bogus settlement agreement, which she signed.
After six months without a check in the mail, Chandler started asking questions. She soon discovered that there was no offer to settle and no claims had been filed. She hired a new law firm and sued the Turner firm, along with Lairy and Karriem, for malpractice.
The trial court judge awarded Chandler $50,000 in compensatory damages, based on her attorney’s calculation that she had been out of work for two years and should have been paid two-thirds of her salary for temporary total disability. The judge also awarded Karriem $100,000 in punitive damages.
On appeal, the Mississippi Court of Appeals denied compensatory damages, noting that Chandler had failed to support his injury claims with substantial medical evidence.
The high court found that the appeals court had erred and reinstated the $50,000 in compensatory damages, reducing the total amount in the case to $150,000.
“If this were a workers’ compensation case, we might agree with the Court of Appeals,” Judge Maxwell wrote. “But this is not a workers’ compensation case. This is a case of legal malpractice. And it was at least partly due to the law firm’s negligence – which is undisputed – that Chandler was unable to obtain the medical evidence required to be compensated by the Workers’ Compensation Board, if his claim had been properly filed.
The high court noted that Chandler explained that after the birth of her child in late 2008, she was unable to follow treatment for her forklift injury. Her doctor also gave her “the sleight of hand,” urging her to go through a workers’ compensation lawyer to finalize the claim, she testified.
“In other words, because of the uncontested negligence of Turner & Associates, Chandler lost not only the ability to file a workers’ compensation claim, but also the ability to prove his workers’ compensation claim. labor by sufficient medical evidence,” the Supreme Court said.
The court sent a question back to the trial court — whether Lairy, now Angela Turner Ford, is jointly liable for compensatory damages of $50,000.
Associate Judge Josiah Coleman dissented in the opinion, arguing that Chandler never proved his compensation claim had any merit.
Lawyers handling the case could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Mississippi Medical Malpractice