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Anderson v. Artola

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Valdosta Division

November 8, 2019

MARY WEAVER ANDERSON, individually and as the surviving spouse of THORNTON ANDERSON, Plaintiff,



         Before the Court is the motion of Daniel B. Snipes and Taulbee, Rushing, Snipes, Marsh & Hodgn, LLC, to establish an attorney's lien. (Doc. 11). Upon consideration of the motion, and after holding an evidentiary hearing on November 5, 2019, the Court orally granted the motion and awarded Mr. Snipes and his law firm a lien in the amount of $86, 111.11.[1] This order memorializes the Court's ruling.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises from the untimely death of Thorton Anderson following the collision of two tractor trailers. On July 31, 2018, at approximately 6:20 a.m., Mr. Anderson, was driving a tractor trailer northbound on Interstate 75 near mile marker 46 in Cook County, Georgia, when Defendant Ariel Artola, who was driving a tractor trailer owned by Defendant Top Freight Logistics, Inc. (“Top Freight”) and insured by Defendant Progressive Mountain Insurance Company (“Progressive”), collided with Mr. Anderson's tractor. (Compl. ¶¶ 9-10, 15-16). The collision caused Mr. Anderson's tractor to catch fire. (Id. at ¶ 16). Mr. Anderson died as a result of the injuries he sustained in the crash and subsequent fire. (Id.).

         On August 3, 2018, Mr. Daniel B. Snipes, who maintains his legal practice in Statesboro, Georgia, received a telephone call from another local attorney requesting that he meet with a potential client. Mr. Snipes and his associate Leslie Cushner met with Plaintiff Mary Weaver-Anderson, the widow of Thornton Anderson, that afternoon. Mr. Snipes outlined how he could assist Plaintiff pursue any claims she may have relating to her husband's death and provided her with a copy of his standard contingency fee agreement. Plaintiff contacted Mr. Snipes again on August 6, confirming that she wished for Mr. Snipes to represent her, and the two met in person on August 7 to formalize the contract. (Doc. 11, p. 9-13).

         Mr. Snipes promptly began working to obtain an inspection of Defendants' tractor trailer. Between August 6 and August 21, 2018, Mr. Snipes made numerous telephone calls trying to locate the subject tractor trailer and to arrange for an inspection. At some point, Mr. Snipes spoke with Lisa Weiner, an adjuster with Progressive, who informed him that her insured would not agree to an inspection. Ms. Weiner soon retained Clint Fletcher, an attorney with the law firm of Carlock Copeland, to represent the interests of Progressive. Mr. Fletcher also was unable to assist Mr. Snipes in securing an inspection.

         Mr. Snipes learned that the tractor trailer was being stored at a wrecker yard located in Lenox, Georgia. Mr. Snipes received a call from the wrecking service on August 21, alerting him that Defendant Top Freight had requested a copy of the bill so that it could move the tractor trailer. On August 22, Mr. Snipes filed a lawsuit in the State Court of Cook County for wrongful death. (Compl., Doc. 1-5, p. 1-12). As a part of the Complaint, Mr. Snipes additionally sought a temporary restraining order to prevent Top Freight from removing the tractor trailer prior to Plaintiff gaining access to the vehicle for inspection. (Compl. ¶¶ 31-44). An order granting the motion for temporary restraining order was entered on August 23, 2018. (Doc. 1-5, p. 15-16). Mr. Snipes thereafter hired Collision Specialists, Inc. to conduct an inspection of the tractor trailer. The inspection took place on September 12, 2018, and was attended by both Mr. Snipes and Mr. Fletcher for Defendants. Mr. Snipes met with Plaintiff the day of the inspection to discuss the status of the case. The restraining order was lifted on September 26, 2018. (Doc. 1-5, p. 21-22).

         Shortly after the inspection, Mr. Snipes learned through Mr. Fletcher that the insurance company planned to assign new counsel for each of the three Defendants. Mr. Snipes then had separate conversations with David Nelson for Defendant Artola; Chris Harrison for Defendant Top Freight; and Kevin Shires for Defendant Progressive. According to Mr. Snipes, during each of these conversations opposing counsel represented that Progressive was prepared to tender the policy limits for the case in the amount of $750, 000. Mr. Snipes informed the other attorneys that until some limited discovery was conducted to determine whether any other entities or assets should be pursued, his client would not be able to accept the offer. While Plaintiff denies ever having a conversation with Mr. Snipes about the possibility of the insurance company tendering policy limits, Mr. Snipes documented in a letter to her dated October 31, 2018, that he explained to her during a September conversation why they should not immediately accept the offer. (Doc. 15-1). Notably, Plaintiff testified that she did recall having a conversation with Mr. Snipes about locating all available insurance coverage, and she agreed with that strategy.

         Sometime in early October 2018, Plaintiff grew dissatisfied with Mr. Snipes' representation. She testified that on October 8, 2018, she sent Mr. Snipes an email terminating their contract and requesting a copy of her file. Mr. Snipes stated that the e-mail was filtered into his “junk” e-mail, and he did not locate the October 8 e-mail until after a final conversation with Plaintiff on October 30 or October 31.[2] In the interim, Mr. Snipes identified a separate uninsured motorist (“UM”) policy through Progressive. Jason Darneille, an attorney retained to handle the UM policy, informed him that Progressive was prepared to tender the $25, 000 policy. Before the check could be issued, Plaintiff terminated Mr. Snipes and hired new counsel.

         On October 25, 2018, Mr. Snipes received a letter from Craig Brown, an attorney in Tallahassee, Florida, who advised Mr. Snipes that he represented Plaintiff. (Doc. 11, p. 15). Mr. Snipes responded to Mr. Brown by letter dated October 26, 2018, stating that he had filed suit on behalf of Plaintiff in Georgia, a state in which Mr. Brown is not licensed to practice. Mr. Snipes further emphasized that he had already invested a great deal of time and resources in the case and that he had received a verbal tender of the policy limits for the primary liability policy as well as for at least one UM policy. Mr. Snipes expressed his intent to pursue an attorney's lien in the event that any other attorney filed an entry of appearance on behalf of Plaintiff. Plaintiff did hire Mr. Brown some time around October 24, 2018. However, because Mr. Brown is not licensed in Georgia, he located Mark Issa and Miguel Castro in Atlanta, Georgia, who filed a Notice of Substitution of Counsel in the State Court of Cook County on November 8, 2018. (Doc. 1-5, p. 30). The case was removed to this Court by consent on November 14, 2018. (Doc. 1).

         Mr. Snipes learned about Mr. Issa's involvement in early November 2018. The two attorneys exchanged e-mails on November 2, 8, and 28, at which time Mr. Snipes provided Mr. Issa with the pleadings, service documents, and other records and invoices he had relating to the case. Mr. Snipes did not provide his personal notes or research. He also did not provide a copy of any inspection report because at that time no report had been prepared.

         After assuming representation of Plaintiff, Mr. Issa conducted his own investigation of the case, contacted defense counsel of record, and made a formal demand. On November 30, 2018, Progressive made an official, written tender of the full available liability coverage in the amount of $750, 000 to resolve Plaintiff's claim. Mr. Issa also accepted the $25, 000 tender of the UM policy, for a total settlement of $775, 000. Mr. Issa thereafter completed the necessary probate work to establish Mr. Anderson's estate and to handle the disbursement of any settlement proceeds to the minor children involved.

         No discovery ever took place in this case. On November 15, 2018, the day after the case was removed to federal court, counsel for Defendant Artola filed a motion to stay the case pending the resolution of the criminal proceedings initiated against Artola as a result of the underlying collision. (Doc. 5). The Court granted the motion and stayed the case through April 6, 2019. (Doc. 10). The parties notified the Court that the case had settled on April 16, 2019. Mr. Snipes filed the present motion along with a Notice of Attorney's Lien on August 22, 2019. (Docs. 11, 12). Plaintiff filed no opposition to Mr. Snipes' motion.

         II. ...

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