Appeals panel: No proof personal injury lawyer Coffman, who was fired by client, deserved $33K in fees

By Scott Holland | May 8, 2019

Lake County Courthouse, Waukegan  

ELGIN — A state appeals panel determined a Lake County judge was correct to let an attorney whose client fired and replaced him collect just $9,000 in attorney fees, despite his request for $33,000.

Kent Damore, injured in a 2016 car crash involving an intoxicated driver, fired attorney Brian Coffman, of Coffman Law Offices, after Coffman recommended Damore accept a $100,000 settlement from State Farm Insurance despite $143,000 in medical expenses, according to court documents.

Damore then hired attorney John Kornak and six weeks later accepted the settlement. Coffman placed a lien on those proceeds, saying he was owed $33,000 in fees. Damore asked a judge to review the lien.

Ultimately, Lake County Circuit Judge Michael Fusz awarded Coffman $9,000, or $300 per hour for what should’ve been 30 hours of work. He also awarded Kornak $10,500 for 30 hours at $350 per hour.

A three-justice panel of the Illinois Second District Appellate Court ruled on Coffman’s appeal of that decision in an order issued May 6. Justice Ann Jorgensen wrote the decision; Justices Robert McLaren and Donald Hudson concurred. The order was issued under Supreme Court Rule 23, which restricts its use as precedent, except under very limited circumstances permitted by the Supreme Court rule.

In his appeal, Coffman cited a 1979 Illinois Second District Appellate Court ruling in Rhoades v. Norfolk & Western Railway Co.  He said that decision dictated the full contingency fee, worth a third of the settlement, is appropriate because it discourages clients from firing their attorneys at the last minute to avoid splitting the pot.

The panel disagreed, saying Coffman “failed to submit any documentation of time spent, declined to testify, lacked candor with the court and made errors of law prior to discharge,” Jorgensen wrote.

The panel noted Coffman negotiated settlements with Damore’s medical providers and that his $143,206 in bills represented a 70 percent reduction from his initial obligation. Further, the $100,000 was the maximum allowable under the other motorist’s State Farm insurance policy.

However, Coffman also took Damore’s direction and sued the other driver and his passenger, despite the passenger not being a co-owner of the vehicle that struck Damore and despite knowing the other driver didn’t have assets subject to a court-mandated collection, should Damore prevail in court.

Coffman said he spent 450 hours working on Damore’s case, but the panel said he never submitted a timesheet to that effect. The justices noted Coffman also declined to testify as Fusz considered his request for $33,000.

“I have to say I am, frankly, offended by what I see as a completely false statement with respect to the number of hours (Coffman) claims he put in on this case,” Fusz wrote. “He is either not being truthful or he has the legal ability of a first-year law student if he put in 450 hours on this case without taking a single deposition, without answering written discovery, and with one court appearance. And I will say that based on my 14 years on the bench, that’s probably more troubling than any other fact in this case.”

Fusz also noted Kornak pressed defending attorneys to respond to written discovery, deposed the other driver and his passenger and completed an investigation into whether there was a possibility of recovering damages under dram shop laws, an area where Coffman misapplied statutory limitations, leading Damore to question if the settlement was his best offer.

The panel said the evidence Fusz reviewed showed reaching the settlement should’ve taken about 60 hours of legal work, noting Fusz spent 18 years as a personal injury attorney and that he got Kornak to agree Coffman should be credited for about 30 hours, especially in regard to negotiating the medical bills under the Health Care Lien Act.

Finding Fusz did not abuse discretion, the panel affirmed his ruling.

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Circuit Court of Lake County Coffman Law Offices, P.C. Illinois Second District Appellate Court State Farm Insurance

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