Katrina group fed up with State Farm's attorneys

John O'Brien Feb. 6, 2008, 1:00pm

Don Barrett


GULFPORT, Miss. - Things have recently become even uglier among the attorneys in the highest-profile Hurricane Katrina case of them all.

In battling to keep from being disqualified from all Katrina cases, attorneys for Pamela and Thomas McIntosh -- the Katrina Litigation Group -- say State Farm Insurance Cos.' lawyers have gone too far.

"State Farm's and its counsel's dishonest personal attacks on Plaintiffs' chosen attorneys have crossed the line that separates aggressive advocacy from improper and vexatious litigation tactics," wrote Dewitt Lovelace Jan. 28.

"State Farm's Counsel have abused their roles as Officers of the Court by cobbling together gossip, out-of-context quotes and innuendo to poison the jury pool, confuse, the facts and distort the law."

State Farm is seeking to disqualify each firm that makes up the KLG, formerly known as the Scruggs Katrina Group. Richard "Dickie" Scruggs withdrew the Scruggs Law Firm from the group after he was indicted on federal charges that he attempted to bribe a state judge in a dispute over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees earned in Katrina settlements.

The company reasoned that the SKG's decision to pay the Rigsby sisters, Kerri and Cori Rigsby Moran, $150,000 salaries as litigation consultants constitutes bribery. The Rigsby sisters copied 15,000 pages of State Farm confidential documents while working at E.A. Renfroe and Co. and turned them over to Scruggs, who then gave them the jobs.

Kerri Rigsby testified that she only worked about five hours in a 20-day period in Nov. 2006.

Though the Rigsbys primarily dealt with Scruggs, State Farm said the group's other attorneys are liable as accessories.

"Plaintiffs' counsel have committed numerous egregious ethical violations which warrant their disqualification from this case," says their motion, filed by John Banahan of Tuscagoula's Bryan, Nelson, Schroeder, Castigliola & Banahan.

Three firms (The Lovelace Law Firm, Barrett Law Office and Nutt & McAlister) took over all the Scruggs cases and renamed themselves the Katrina Litigation Group. Former state Attorney General Mike Moore withdrew from representing the McIntoshes, and the KLG defended current state Attorney General Jim Hood.

When ordered to turn the documents obtained through the Rigsby sisters back to the company's attorneys, Scruggs gave them to Hood. State Farm has also sued Hood for threatening to reopen a criminal investigation it said it settled, with the intention of forcing civil settlements.

"Hood worked with the SKG and the Rigsbys to take documents from State Farm, without a warrant, for use in a criminal investigation," State Farm claimed. "In return, Hood used the threat of criminal indictments as a means of coercing settlements in the SKG's civil cases."

The KLG, which represents 1,100 Mississippi claims and more than 450 involving State Farm, says that argument is inappropriate.

"Jim Hood and Mike Moore are not on trial here; nor have any charges been brought against either Mr. Hood or Mr. Moore for the conduct at issue in SF's motion," Lovelace wrote. "State Farm's conjecture-laden mudslinging with the hopes that some might stick is unprofessional and wholly deficient to justify disqualification."

The KLG also said State Farm's motion is merely an attempt to capitalize on the publicity Scruggs' judicial bribery case has received. The company unsuccessfully made the same argument months ago, the response says.

"(I)f the actions of The Scruggs Firm did not result in disqualification months ago, how can those same actions result in the disqualification of separate firms in the very same case months later?" the response says.

Meanwhile, State Farm asked Wednesday to have the affidavits of Nutt & McAlister's Derek Wyatt struck because they are untrue (view them here and here). He had filed them in support of his contention that he never offered money to engineer Brian Ford.

Ford is a former engineer at Forensic Analysis and Engineering Corp. who performed the analysis of the McIntoshes' home and kept a journal that has been submitted as an exhibit. Scruggs offered Ford indemnity, a $10,000 monthly retainer and a percentage of each settlement work for the SKG to become a "fact witness" and "consultant" on a case, State Farm alleges.

"Plaintiffs attempted to obscure the fact that their counsel offered money to a material witness in this case by proffering, inter alia, the Wyatt affidavits," State Farm's motion says. "But both of the Wyatt affidavits contain sworn statements that are demonstrably false - i.e., that Wyatt never negotiated a consulting arrangement with Mr. Ford and never offered to pay him any money."

State Farm's motion to disqualify had quoted the Ford journal.

"(O)n June 25, 2007, (SKG attorney Derek) Wyatt again spoke to Ford, telling that while the SKG could not pay him as a 'fact witness,' it could pay him as a 'consultant,' ultimately prompting Ford to ask, 'Do I need to move assets?'" the motion says.

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