Thursday, January 28, 2010

Robles v. Chalilpoyil (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 27, 2010)

It's a SLAPP appeal, and those are always slightly interesting. Especially when they involve California attorneys as defendants.

The appellant here is actually an expert witness who the plaintiff's lawyer allegedly had to boot off a case (and get a continuance of the trial date) because he had falsely testified at a deposition. Apellant wants the case dismissed on an anti-SLAPP motion, the trial court says no, and the Court of Appeal affirms.

But what was even more interesting to me than the underlying (alleged) false testimony was the allegation -- and, upon first glace, the claim seems plausible -- that the expert and the attorney tried to market a product to the defendants they were suing; a product that they came up with in the course of representing the client. The lawsuit was about a person -- John Robles -- who (allegedly) burned to death when his (presumably motorized) wheelchair ignited. So the family members then sued Golden State Medical Supply Co., Pride Mobility Products Corp., and others alleging a product defect. Plaintiffs hire Salinas attorney Thomas Wills to represent 'em, and the lawsuit progesses. My sense is that the theory of the underlying case is that the battery on the scooter/wheelchair must have ignited and killed Robles. In an ugly death.

So a regular old -- and pretty darn good -- lawsuit. Which only gets more interesting not only when Wills allegedly has to move to continue the trial because he just learned that his expert had falsely testified at his deposition, but also because Wills allegedly goes to his clients before trial and tells 'em that he and the expert want to market a product that they developed designed to avoid similar injuries in the future, and would they please sign a waiver of all rights to the thing. Shortly thereafter, the case (allegedly) settles for a million bucks, but plaintiffs don't want the settlement, Wills withdraws (and files a lien), defendants file (and win) a motion to enforce the settlement, and the lawsuit against Wills and the expert is thereafter filed.

My reaction to which included the thought: "Did Wills really ask the plaintiffs to waive any claims to a product he and the expert developed based on the litigation?" Because if he did, my initial reaction to such conduct would not be a positive. I admittedly don't know all the contours of intellectual property law in this regard. But an attorney who develops a product with an expert that both originates and derived from the underlying litigation seems like it might be partly the property of the client. And definitely creates a problemmatic conflict of interest, especially if the attorney might be (or might well want to) market the product to the exact same people -- the defendants -- with whom he's currently trying to negotiate a settlement.

Which in turn got me thinking: What kind of lawyer is this Thomas Wills guy?

So I looked it up. He's a California lawyer, with a J.D. from Monterey College of Law. But he's not just Thomas Wills anymore. He's Judge Wills. Appointed to the Superior Court 18 months ago.

Interesting stuff all around.