For 13 years, Michael Viner and his wife, Deborah, built Dove Entertainment, a Los Angeles publishing house best known for rushing a handful of O.J. Simpson-related books to print and for a saucy collection of tattletales by Hollywood call girls.
But faced with health problems and fielding some lucrative offers, Viner decided in late 1997 to sell the couple's stake in Dove. In need of an lawyer to execute the transaction, he called David Povich, a former childhood buddy and a partner at D.C.'s Williams & Connolly, a firm best known for hardball litigation and as home to President Clinton's attorney, David Kendall.
It didn't go well. In fact, Viner concluded the deal was so botched that he filed a malpractice suit against Williams & Connolly. Last week, a jury sided with Viner and whacked the firm with a $13 million verdict. Among the jury's findings, according to a press release from Viner: that the firm failed to protect the Viners' rights to receive monthly payments and stock dividends and failed to ensure that Mrs. Viner -- a veteran television actress -- would receive producer credits on audio books.
W&C lawyers, who say the findings are baseless, will appeal the verdict. "We stand behind our firm," said J. Alan Galbraith, the D.C. partner who helped defend W&C at trial. "We served our client in the highest tradition of the Bar."
Viner begs to differ. A former aide to Robert F. Kennedy and one-half of what the Los Angeles Times called "one of Hollywood's most litigious and controversial couples," Viner earned a small fortune from the books-on-tape craze and became known as the guy who published Faye Resnick's best-selling memoir of Nicole Brown Simpson and "You'll Never Make Love in This Town Again," a sort of remembrance of tricks past by L.A. prostitutes. Viner's exit from the company was fraught, and the negotiations between him and a partnership led by a Viacom executive were downright combative.
W&C's famously carnivorous suits initially seemed to make the firm ideal for the job. Viner says that W&C charged about $40,000 to handle the deal but that attorney Charles A. Sweet so botched the agreement that Viner ultimately spent about $1 million on other lawyers to clean it up. Just as squirm-inducing for W&C, during the trial the Viners produced an unsigned memo written on Sweet's stationery in which someone seems to urge Povich to pad one of Viner's legal bills:
"Bill every penny. Consider marking up time for 6/8. I was rousted out of bed on a Sunday a.m."
Ouch. Galbraith, however, says the author, whom he declined to identify, was not serious. "There was a private inside joke between attorneys which became public but it was simply that," he says. "No bills to the client were marked up."
Legal malpractice cases are notoriously difficult to win, and tagging an established firm with a multimillion dollar verdict is a rarity indeed. A hyperkinetic dealmaker, Viner isn't idling while the case winds through appeals. He already started another company, New Millennium Entertainment, and is putting together a silver-screen version of "I Dream of Jeannie." Cameron Diaz might star.
"I've always had the greatest respect for Williams & Connolly," he said Friday. "We never wanted it to go this far, but obviously we're delighted with the verdict."
Weaving a Web on Intrigue
Steptoe & Johnson donned a pair of steel-toe boots to answer a lawsuit filed recently by Moore Publishing, an online information company that has accused the firm of computer hacking. Steptoe denied the allegations and added a swift kick for good measure.
A little background for those not familiar with this peculiar little yarn: In August, according to a lawyer for Moore, somebody from Steptoe crept into one of the Pennsylvania company's World Wide Web sites and left muddy prints leading back to the firm. The intruder didn't take anything or wreck the cyber-furniture, the lawyer says, but nonetheless the visit was unauthorized and the company is fuming about it. Or at least it's suing.
Why would a Steptoe employee pad around in a Moore site? That depends on whom you ask. First, it helps to know that one of Moore's many businesses is cyber-squatting, which means it buys the rights to domain names in the hopes of selling those rights at a profit. Its collection of name rights includes variations of law firms' titles, such as KirklandEllis.com, SidleyAustin.com and -- cue the "Dragnet" theme -- SteptoeJohnson.com.
For Rodney Sweetland, Moore's Arlington attorney, that explains everything. Obviously, he said, a Steptoe systems analyst was ordered to research Moore after the firm learned that Moore owned SteptoeJohnson.com.
Bunk, replies Steptoe in a request for summary judgment filed last week. Steptoe explained that an employee "did the Internet equivalent of knocking on the wrong door" and ended up in a site owned by Moore. And the firm accused the company of seeking "yet another way of making money from the pernicious activity of cyber-squatting."
To understand Steptoe's account you need to know that the firm is a customer of CDB Infotek, which is a rival of Moore's in the online information business. And you also need to know that one of the domain names in Moore's apparently huge collection is CDBInfo.com.
Steptoe maintains that one of its employees, James Cramer, entered CDBInfo.com, thinking it was Infotek's site as he tried to troubleshoot problems with Infotek software. No harm, no foul, said the firm. Cramer never lifted any information or altered the site, they say. Steptoe attorney Thomas Barba, who is handling the matter for the firm, did not return a call.
Now, for conspiracy theorists -- apparently including Sweetland -- there is one dicey question. Could it really be a mere coincidence that the very site into which Steptoe stumbled is run by a company that just happens to own the rights to a Steptoe domain name? Sweetland isn't buying it.
"It could be plausible, but I think the alternative is more plausible," he said.
It's up to a judge now. By the way, if you type CDBInfo.com on the Internet, you get a Web page for EFBI, which is one of the names under which Moore does business. And you get a neat-o shot of Elvis Presley shaking hands with President Richard Nixon.
Taking Aim at HMOs
It could end either in tears or a massive legal jackpot, but three local law firms are among those rushing to sue health-maintenance organizations. Roy Guttmann of Beveridge & Diamond has filed several class-action lawsuits already, alleging that HMOs have failed to pass along to consumers the savings they wrung from hospitals and doctors. And last week Joseph Sellers of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll teamed up with Stephen Neuwirth of Boies & Schiller -- yes, the firm of lead Microsoft Corp. litigator David Boies -- to file a class-action suit against Humana Inc., one of the country's largest health insurers. Attorneys will allege that Humana misleads consumers about how it makes decisions regarding medical coverage, failing to inform enrollees that cost is a major factor in determing who gets what care.
"If you subscribe to an auto insurer and your carrier does not cover accidents that happen on a Tuesday, you should pay less for that insurance" than a seven-day-a-week policy, Sellers says. "The damages will be the difference between the premiums paid by customers and the real value of the coverage."
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