Sanctions: Allied Concrete attorneys want $900K in legal fees

The tragic day in 2007 when an Allied Concrete mixer crossed paths on Route 53 with the car of a young married couple, it took more than 25-year-old Jessica Scott Lester's life. Today her widower faces sanctions and possible perjury charges, and the career of the well-respected attorney who represented him has ended in shambles.

"Don't worry about sanctions," attorney Matt Murray wrote in an email to his client, Isaiah Lester, which was read in opening and closing statements by opposing counsel. "If we get sanctioned, after the trial, you'll have plenty of money to pay it."

After any elation and vindication Jessica Lester's husband and parents may have felt with the record $10.6 million wrongful-death verdict in December 2010, nearly a year later, the case has turned sharply.

A judge sliced Isaiah Lester's $8.58 million award almost in half and ordered monetary sanctions against Lester and Murray for spoliation of evidence during the trial, an amount the attorneys representing Allied Concrete's insurance company put at over $900,000.

Amid the dozen or so lawyers at the sanctions hearing September 23 in Charlottesville Circuit Court, one was noticably missing: Murray himself, former managing partner for Allen and Allen, the largest personal injury law firm in Virginia. Murray resigned from the firm July 6 and says he's retired from practicing law.

During the hearing to determine just how much Murray and Lester would have to pay– and whether Allen and Allen could escape liability for the $909,485.21 Allied Concrete's attorneys say the destroyed or withheld evidence cost the company's insurer in legal fees– Judge Edward Hogshire referred repeatedly to the "degree of deception" in the case.

"Nothing could be trusted," said Hogshire. "The process broke down because of the dishonesty."

According to a September 1 order from Judge Hogshire, the spoliation began in March 25, 2009, when Murray received a discovery request for the contents of Lester's Facebook account. Attached was a photo of Lester wearing a "I [heart] hot moms" t-shirt, and holding a beer can with other young adults.

Murray instructed a paralegal to tell Lester to "clean up" his Facebook page because, "we don't want blowups of this stuff at trial," the assistant, Marlina Smith, said in a deposition. She emailed that message to Lester the next day.

On March 26, 2009, according to the judge's order, Murray came up with a scheme to take down or deactiviate Lester's Facebook account so that he could respond that he had no Facebook page on the date the discovery request was signed.

When defense attorneys filed a motion to compel, Murray instructed Lester to reactivate the account. But in a December 16, 2009, deposition, Lester denied deactivating the account.

Murray is also accused of withholding the email from Smith instructing Lester to clean up his Facebook page when he was ordered to produce it shortly before the trial began. Murray falsely claimed after the trial that the omission was the paralegal's mistake, according to the court order.

At the sanctions hearing, attorneys for Lester and Murray complained that they'd received a huge pile of documents one day before the hearing, and that the fees that Allied Concrete's attorneys– from the D.C.-based powerhouse Patton Boggs– demanded included matters the judge had denied, such as the allegation of juror misconduct.

On that, Hogshire ruled that although Allen and Allen had given money to Meals on Wheels, which employed juror Mandy Hoy, it had not been proved that she had significant involvement with the firm or Murray.

Patton Boggs attorney Ben Chew called witnesses to support the $900K legal fee sanctions bill, and the court learned that McGuire Woods' Charlottesville-based insurance attorney J. Brian Jackson bills $475 an hour on high-exposure commercial liability cases.

Murray's attorney, Tom Williamson, brought in his own high-exposure insurance case attorney from Richmond, Gary Kalbaugh, who bills at a more modest $185 an hour. Kalbaugh testified that a Patton Boggs bill for $460,000 contained a couple of "red flag" items. "It's the largest legal bill I've ever seen," said Kalbaugh.

He calculated that the 1,455 hours billed is the equivalent of one lawyer working over eight months. "It seemed extreme," Kalbaugh says.

Attorney Chew contended that the bill, which covered attorney hours from March 2009 to December 2010, included only fees that were the result of spoliation, which the judge has ruled are sanctionable.

Over on the Lester side of the court, his and Murray's attorneys urged the judge to let Lester off the hook.

"An argument could be made that Mr. Murray alone should be responsible," said Murray's own lawyer Williamson.

Indeed, as Lester's new attorney, Malcolm McConnell, pointed out, "Some things Mr. Lester did were what his lawyer told him to do."

Allen and Allen had its own lawyer, who suggested that Murray went rogue, and the law firm shouldn't be held responsible for his actions.

"Everything Murray did was in the scope of his job," Chew rejoined.

Judge Hogshire, apparently weary of the case that has dragged on for years, has given the plaintiffs' attorneys 10 days to file their objections to the Patton Boggs bills. "This will be the final order in this case," he warned.

At least until the appeals...


Lawyers and their fees, no justice in them but no other choice. They have no sense of decency just money grubbers.

The judge shouldn't have taken money from the man whose wife died. He didn't commit spoliation of evidence, and whatever he did, he did because his attorney told him to. The money should come from the law firm. Who gives a damn about a facebook page? It didn't kill his wife. If the defendants thought they could prove he was not depressed by that, I am sure there are plenty of examples to be made of depressed people doing stupid looking things to try to forget their pain.

Too bad that none of this has any bearing on the death of Jessica Scott Lester.

Mr. Lester put a price on his wife of less than a year marriage life because he chose to file suit and expected a huge cash settlement. However, his behavior of a "grieving husband" was obviously not as "painful" as his attorney nor himself represented in Court. That is where the deception lies. One who is out and about with a shirt on that says, "I (heart) hot moms" and who lies under oath to obtain more money?

Not all attorneys are money grubbing, there are a few still out there who believe in the law and practice it with eithics. (Very few.)

I believe $1 million would be enough for this idiot - and her parents should receive $5, even though she was an adult.

I'm just saying - it is called being fair and we all know life and the judicial system are not always fair.

Malcolm McConell is correct- Sounds like Mr. Lester may have been doing exactly as advised by his attorney........if so, then the attorney should defnately be held liable for any action- could be a nice wake-up call for the legal profession.........

sounds like they spent 1455 hrs of ambulance chasing.

don't think a t-shirt or facebook page has any bearing on this case.

Is this one of the Murray's of Panarama Farms in Earlysville?

how did the deleted FB account lead to $900,000 in legal fees?

Hogshire should be smarter than that, shouldn't he?

Oh wait.... never mind.

No doubt, lawyer Murray erred in telling his client to "clean up" and to de-activate his Facebook page. And he apparently violated legal ethics in withholding the email from his office to Lester that advised him to take down the Facebook page (and pictures).

But one has to wonder why the Allied Concrete lawyers wanted pictures from Facebook. Okay...we know. Pictures like the one in question (Lester wearing the "I [heart] hot moms" t-shirt) would be used to "convince" the jury that Lester wasn't really grieving and didn't deserve a large settlement award. Now, those pictures should not have been taken down by Lester, and Murray should not have advised it. But those pictures also had nothing to do with the fact the Allied's driver was speeding while driving a loaded concrete truck on very curvy roads. The pictures were to be used solely to try and reduce Allied's liability.

Allied's lawyers claim they spent nearly 1,500 billable hours on picture-related issues over more than a year-and-a-half. They claim that those billable hours totaled to $909,485.21. If one divides that by the 1,455 hours the lawyers say they lawyered this issue, it comes to $625 per hour. It makes one wonder: does it –– should it –– really take that long to lawyer such a relatively simple issue as this? at an average fee of $625 an hour?

Apparently this kind of ethics is perfectly acceptable in courtrooms.

democracy- they are lawyers- of course it will take that long; they are still practicing you know........

Does hogshire play golf with any of Allied's owner?

Allied's lawyers took to the last minute to submit the legal bills right before the hearing. Let Hogshire cut the legal bill either line for line (and who's got time for that) or just cut it in half (or some percentage) and take all of it out of the 1/3 Allen & Allen and Murray are suppose to get. Even if the full 900K was taken out of Allen & Allens fee they still come out in the plus zone. End the case. If Lester wants to get into a malpractice claim against Allen & Allen & Murray that is his choice or just have it finally over.

The Murrays are good solid people and have done a lot for the area. I can only speculate as to what went on behind the scenes, but I imagine that Matt Murray was trying to do the best he could for his client. Unfortunately, what he did was unethical under the law, and he and the client will have to pay the price. In a way, though, I can't blame him. Allied Concrete's owners are very powerful, and their resources to pay lawyers are far greater than the victim's. Unfortunately, there's no law against stacking the deck against victims in this manner. Allied was going to try to discredit Mr Lester with a simple Facebook picture taken of him at a party. To my mind, that "blame the victim" tactic is just as disturbing as the actions Mr Murray took in order to prevent that blame from happening.

How does one picture from a young man prove that the victim's husband is not grieving as severely as the lawyer and client has stated in court. Grief takes on many different forms. How could someone loose their wife, regardless of how long they were married, in such a tragic way not be grieving. Pictures capture a moment in time and don't reflect on the whole situation. This man lost his wife, his future family, and seems like he is the one on trial and being punished. What about Allied, they are a forgotten piece in this case as well as the poor victim herself. Hasn't this family suffered enough? I think this case is a perfect example on how twisted the legal system is and how the deeper pockets have the upper hand and control. Very sad and tragic. And a civil person wouldn't call a victim who is obviously suffering an idiot. Lets act a little classy and have some respect for this family.

Mow ,yes he is of that silver spoon feed family ! & he & his paralegal are unprofessional. I have been to there c-ville office & had a bunch of legal speak [she used to work for the insurance industry], saying I would never get any money & I left & won the case on my own with $60 filing fee !