Posted on Dec 16, 2006
Doctor wins suit against his former lawyer
Saturday, December 16, 2006
James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer Reporter
Dr. Robert Muehrcke paid a lawyer $2.9 million to represent him after a head-on crash ended his career as an orthopedic surgeon.
Now the lawyer, Robert Housel, has to pay back some of the money.
A jury in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on Friday decided that Housel committed legal malpractice and should pay the doctor from Hunting Valley nearly $180,000 in damages.
The jury's award paled next to the $7.5 million that Muehrcke and Housel shared after they won a lawsuit against an insurance company in 2001 and collected settlements from three other insurance companies.
But the jury and the doctor's new lawyers said the verdict spoke more to the need for competent legal representation.
"The dollar amounts weren't what was most important to us in the jury room," said juror Megan Hoover of Berea. "It was the principle of the case."
Vincent Stafford, who represented Muehrcke, said Housel was wrong to quit as Muehrcke's legal counsel after a dispute over how to disburse their millions.
"Mr. Housel did not fulfill his duties and obligations to Dr. Muehrcke, and obviously the jury agreed," Stafford said. "Proving Mr. Housel's legal malpractice was always our primary intent. The amount of the verdict sends an additional message."
Housel was not in court to hear the verdict. He left the courtroom during the lawyers' closing arguments on Thursday after accusing Stafford of trying to provoke him with stares and comments.
"I'm afraid I'm going to do something I might regret," Housel said Thursday.
Housel's lawyer, Alan Petrov, said he planned to appeal the verdict.
Petrov told the jury he thought Muehrcke was ungrateful for the superior job Housel had done in winning him $7.5 million.
The feud started after Housel told Muehrcke - a former chief of surgery at University Hospitals' Bedford campus - that Muehrcke was obligated to set aside money for his then-8-year-old daughter in Probate Court. Muehrcke, 54, had already paid $1 million to open trust accounts for his six daughters. But a probate judge told the doctor he had to pay $230,000 more into an account for his minor daughter.
"I don't see how it's anything to complain about," Petrov said. "I don't see how he's damaged. This was money he was going to have to pay for her college anyway.
"If he needed the money, maybe he should have bought a more modest home."
Stafford accused Housel of either not knowing probate law or knowing the law and disregarding it.
"Dr. Muehrcke paid a king's ransom in attorney fees, yet Mr. Housel didn't finish the job," Stafford said. "He took their money, then quit and ran."