We have said it before, do not put into writing anything you do not want to see blown up and used against you as an exhibit at trial. A recent Colorado verdict shows why this is so important. The firm of Anderson Hemmat & Levine was sued for legal malpractice after settling a client’s personal injury automobile case for $92,000. The client alleged she was pressured into settling the matter, and that inadequate attention had been paid to her case. Last week, a jury rendered a verdict in excess of $2 million, which included $1.5 million in punitive damages. The punitive damage award appears to be, in large part, a reflection of an e-mail in which Chad Hemmat, Esquire, one of the firm’s partners referred to his client, Daniell Goff, as a “toothless cootie.” The “toothless cootie” remark was made in an e-mail to one of Mr. Hemmat’s colleagues, despite the fact that Mr. Hemmat had not met Ms. Goff.
From the different accounts of the verdict, it would appear that the “toothless cootie” remark was central to the plaintiff’s case in the legal malpractice action. It seems unlikely that a jury would have rendered a punitive damages award of nearly three times what they determined the actual damages were, if not for the e-mailed insult. Keep in mind that you never know when something you have written in a case may be used as evidence in a subsequent case. Best practices requires that you do not write it if you do not want a jury to see it.