July 9, 2010

Bill Nemitz: This litigator undaunted by Goliath

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."

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