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Wyatt Tarrant Combs Sued For $80 Million in Legal Malpractice Suit

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Hans G. Poppe
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According to the West Virginia Business Litigation Blog, Wyatt Tarrant & Combs, LLP of Lexington is being sued for $82 million by a former client. Wyatt Tarrant represented A.T. Massey , a coal mining company, in a lawsuit brought against it by Harman Mining president Hugh Caperton. According to a United Mine Worker's Press Release, here are the essential facts of the underlying litigation between Massey and Harman Mining. "Massey purchased Wellmore Coal in 1997 and wasted no time breaking Harman Mining's 10-year metallurgical coal supply contract with Wellmore. The breaking of the contract drove Harman Mining quickly into bankruptcy and caused 120 UMWA miners to be displaced. To his credit–and against long odds–Harman Mining president Hugh Caperton chose to fight Massey in court, and after a four-year struggle, he prevailed to the tune of $6 million. A press statement put out by Harman Mining's lawyers shortly after the verdict cast the victory as "David beating Goliath," and the UMWA agrees. The win made things doubly sweet for Harman Mining, which, on August 1, prevailed against Massey when a Boone County jury awarded it $51 million in damages because of Massey's contract interference." Evidently, Massey's CEO, Don Blankeship, is not a very popular guy, especially with the coal miners. The same press release stated "Have you ever heard Massey CEO Don Blankenship bragging about his large posse of high-priced lawyers and how he won't hesitate to sic them on anyone he deems a threat to the company. Well, for UMWA members, it was great to see Blankenship's posse get beat badly last week by the little guy and his much smaller posse of lawyers." Maybe the press release is correct about Blankenship. The West Virgina Business Litigation blog reports "A.T. Massey filed this Legal Malpractice Complaint alleging "claims for negligence, breach of contract, and breach of fiduciary duty/conflict of interest, and claimed that the defendants failed to have a lawyer admitted to practice in Virginia sign the notice of appeal, which resulted in the dismissal of the appeal by the Virginia Supreme Court. Further, Massey alleged that the defendants changed language in its petition for appeal without Massey’s knowledge and for the purpose of making a legal malpractice claim more difficult to assert. Specifically, Massey alleged that the petition in draft form asked that the Supreme Court “reverse and remand” the verdict and “reverse and render final judgment.” But in the final version, only the “reverse and remand” language was included. According to the complaint, if the defendants had properly filed the notice of appeal and not changed the language in the petition for appeal, “the Virginia Supreme Court would have reversed the judgment of the trial court due to its erroneous rulings at trial and entered final judgment in Wellmore’s [one of the plaintiffs] favor.” Typically, in a legal malpractice case, the plaintiff has to prove that it would have prevailed in the underlying matter but for its counsel’s malpractice, which is the so-called “case within a case” requirement. So Massey has to prove its assertion that it would have been successful before the Virginia Supreme Court. Massey claimed that its lawyers knew that the Virginia verdict “would have a direct and preclusive effect” on the Boone County, West Virginia action. Massey has asked that the defendants pay the verdicts in the two cases, plus the pre- and post-judgment interest from both actions, all of which totals at least $82 million. Massey also seeks reimbursement of its attorney’s fees and expenses, and punitive damages as a result of the defendants’ alleged intentional conduct in changing the language in Massey’s petition for appeal" Hans Poppe

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