Law firm sues to collect fees in Pan Am crash case Clients followed ex-partners to D.C.

October 02, 1991|By Brian Sullam

A bare-knuckles fight has broken out between a prominent Baltimore law firm and three partners who left the firm earlier this year over the expected $4 million in legal fees stemming from damage cases involving the Pan Am crash in Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.

The law firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston filed suit against its former partners, Read McCaffrey, James Lekin and James Deveney, accusing them of unethical conduct by taking clients when they defected to the Baltimore office of the Washington law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow in February.

In return, the three lawyers accused their former firm of "rank greed."

The suit alleges that Mr. McCaffrey -- who represents the families of six of the 16 Pan American Airways crew members who died when a terrorist bomb exploded in the plane, as well as 396 people injured on the ground when the plane crashed -- unethically contacted these clients before leaving the firm and enticed them to drop Whiteford as their law firm.

Mr. McCaffrey is suing Pan Am and its insurance companies on behalf of his clients. If there is a settlement, which could amount to millions of dollars for the families of those killed or for the survivors who were injured in the crash, Mr. McCaffrey would receive a portion -- usually one-third -- of the money recovered.

The suit filed by his former firm also alleges that Mr. McCaffrey did not notify Whiteford, Preston & Taylor that he was representing the Scottish ground claimants and secretly worked on those cases at his home.

Moreover, the suit alleges that Whiteford is entitled to the bulk of the fees that are ultimately realized.

Mr. McCaffrey, who had been with Whiteford for 18 years, denied the allegations.

"This is about the most ridiculous lawsuit that has been filed," he said in an interview yesterday. "I have practiced law for 20 years and I am not about to jeopardize my professional reputation by engaging in the stupid acts alleged in the suit." He said he and his colleagues were careful not to engage in unethical activities in terms of contacting Whiteford clients. He added that the former Whiteford partners were willing to share some of the fees that are ultimately realized.

"We recognize that work was done while we were at Whiteford," he said. "The question is how much was done and what portion of the fee Whiteford should receive."

He pointed out that Whiteford received a fee of about $400,000 when it was able to settle the death benefits claims for the Pan Am crew members, but the largest fees are yet to come.

Those claims involve damages against the airline and its insurance companies.

"Right now there is no fee and it may be between six and 18 months before there is any recovery," Mr. McCaffrey said.

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