Note to self: When in the market for a good trial lawyer, call John Campbell.
Sure, his law firm’s letterhead contains but one name — his.
And the desk in his Old Port office is, to be kind, a mess.
And his simple, straightforward website has none of the hot-off-the-presses news releases, scenic slide shows and other bells and whistles employed by such legal behemoths as, say, Bernstein Shur Sawyer & Nelson.
But when it comes to hardball litigation, winning matters. And last week, when a nine-member jury unanimously awarded Peter Redman an eye-popping $7.3 million in his malpractice suit against Bernstein Shur Sawyer & Nelson, plaintiff’s attorney Campbell won big.
“I think the case was good, too,” a modest Campbell said with a chuckle this week as Portland’s legal community buzzed about his seven-figure smackdown of a firm that employs more than 100 attorneys in three locations around Maine and New Hampshire.
Time and an array of yet-to-be-rendered judicial rulings will tell just how good a case it was. But when it comes to capturing the hearts and minds of a jury, this one was pure soap opera.
The drama revolved around Northern Mattress Co., co-owned by brothers Peter and Mark Redman before the company went out of business in 2006 — the same year Mark Redman committed suicide.
The brothers, to put it mildly, had trouble getting along. In fact, it reached the point where they both hired attorneys as they tried to prevent their frequent disputes from destroying a business founded by their father way back in 1950.
The battle lines were clear enough: Mark Redman claimed his brother was incapable of running the business. Peter Redman, on the other hand, insisted loudly and often that he was the victim of a conspiracy, cruelly and carefully orchestrated by Mark Redman, to drive Peter out of the company.
In the spring of 2006, Peter Redman hired Nelson Toner, who practiced tax and real estate law for Bernstein Shur, to look after his interests. But over the next several months, according to Peter Redman’s court complaint, Toner and his associates at Bernstein Shur instead “breached their duty to exercise reasonable care and skill and to act as competent counsel and skillful advisors and strategists.”
The bulk of Peter Redman’s initial lawsuit focused on an array of business issues ranging from the make-up of Northern Mattress’ board of directors to a contemplated expansion to an “interim agreement” for keeping the two brothers actively involved in the business without coming to blows. (Mark, according to court documents, actually did take a swing at Peter during one meeting.)
However, all of those charges were tossed out early on in a summary judgment by Thomas Humphrey, chief justice of Maine’s Superior Court. (Summary judgment occurs when the judge finds “no genuine issue as to any material fact” that would warrant going ahead with a trial.)
But Humphrey ruled the case should proceed on one issue: a sexual harassment complaint lodged against Peter Redman in May of 2006 by Tammy Simpson, who at the time worked for Northern Mattress at the company’s Fairfield headquarters.
Simpson’s complaint — that Peter Redman made her uncomfortable by shaking her hand and then not letting go, and later touched his fist to his chest and said “you are in here” — prompted an in-house investigation by Deborah Gallant, a human resources consultant under contract with Northern Mattress.
That in turn led to a memorandum to Simpson from Northern Mattress General Manager Mark Bell. In the memo, Simpson was told her “expressed concerns were legitimate” and that Peter Redman, the company’s president at the time, “will work outside the office and will only visit the office when absolutely necessary.”
And when he did come by, Simpson was promised, Peter Redman would be accompanied “at all times” by Gallant, the human resources consultant.
That’s where things get sticky.
It turns out the memo to Simpson was not actually written by Bell. Instead, it was drafted by attorney Kate Debevoise, who at the time worked as an employment law specialist for Bernstein Shur and was brought into the mix by Toner.
In other words, as his lawsuit noted, Peter Redman was essentially banned from his own business via a memorandum drafted by the law firm he was paying to represent him. What’s worse, he claimed, never once did Debevoise even contact him before deciding he needed an escort to enter his own building.
In a lengthy interview this week, Bernstein Shur spokesman Peter Rubin said the firm was only doing what Peter Redman wanted it to do: preserve the company’s value and resolve the sexual-harassment complaint internally rather than publicly fight it out before the Maine Human Rights Commission.
“We believe what we did was in (Peter Redman’s) best interests,” insisted Rubin. “We don’t believe we committed any act of malpractice.”
Not so, countered Peter Redman.
In an interview Thursday, Redman said he specifically told attorney Toner he had set aside $30,000 to further investigate (and, if necessary, litigate) Simpson’s complaint and ultimately clear Redman of any wrongdoing.
“I paid these guys to believe in me,” Redman said. “And the people I paid to believe in me turned on me just like my brother did.”
The jury, after three weeks of trial and only about six hours of deliberations, apparently concurred.
Maybe it was the report from a clinical psychologist who, after 175 sessions with Peter Redman, concluded that Redman’s feeling of having been “psychologically raped” by his brother, his attorneys and others at Northern Mattress indicated “significant” post-traumatic stress disorder (along with a laundry list of other psychological maladies).
Or maybe it was Bernstein Shur’s inability to produce a shred of evidence — no letter, no e-mail, no nothing — indicating Peter Redman truly wanted the sexual harassment complaint kept under the carpet.
Or maybe it was plaintiff’s attorney Campbell’s persistence in questioning each and every one of Bernstein Shur’s expert witnesses about how much they were being paid to bolster the mega-firm’s case — in one instance, Campbell had a witness do the math and do the math and do the math until the total bill topped out around $25,000.
Whatever it was, the jury apparently had little trouble agreeing that Peter Redman was wronged — and $7.3 million would help make it right.
“I really don’t want to talk a lot about it,” jury forewoman Lynn Duplessie said in a voice mail message this week. “I just will say that as a whole, the jury felt like we had done the right thing when we left the room that day.”
Bernstein Shur, of course, has only begun to fight.
In a press release issued Thursday, the firm stuck by its position that “the evidence does not support the judgment awarded” and promised the verdict will be overturned on appeal.
Or, as spokesman Rubin put it earlier in the interview, “I’m a firm believer in the jury system, but no system is perfect. And we believe that this is unfortunately an example of a jury gone astray.”
That’s a slow pitch over the middle for Campbell.
“I think that’s an insult to the jurors who sat there and listened intently to all of the testimony for three weeks,” he responded.
We’ll see. According to Rubin, Bernstein Shur is still weighing the many and varied grounds — including an excessive jury award — on which it might base a motion for a new trial and, if necessary, an appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
But as Campbell prepares for the inevitable counterattack and tries to bring some order to his cluttered desk, he might consider adding a banner headline to his humble website. Something like: “Law Firm with One Attorney Slam-Dunks Firm with more than 100.”
“One of the things the jury saw was that I maintain a strong belief in my clients and a strong support of my clients,” Campbell said. “That’s what lawyers are supposed to do.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: