By Christine Simmons
Dolan Media Newswires
ST. LOUIS, MO--A St. Louis jury has returned a nearly $857,000 verdict, including $600,000 in punitive damages, against an estate attorney in a legal malpractice trial.
Gerald Meyer, a trustee of two St. Louis residents' trusts, sued David Purcell and his St. Louis-based law firm, Purcell & Amen, in March 2009, arguing he breached his professional duties when his client transferred money of her relatives into bank accounts in which she was joint owner.
The estate trustee argued Purcell instructed his client to transfer the money and failed to inquire if his client's relatives had prior wills and trusts.
In getting their assets back, the estates and trusts incurred more than $250,000 in legal fees and expenses, for which Purcell should be held responsible, the plaintiff argued. The estates were valued at more than $850,000.
"That fee is the direct loss caused by the defendant's outrageous conduct," plaintiff's attorney David Damick told jurors in opening statements.
Defense attorney Tom Hayek said Purcell is "very disappointed" with the verdict, which came shortly before midnight on Aug. 5. They expect to file post-trial motions, and depending on those results, they may appeal, Hayek said.
Purcell didn't return a message seeking comment.
Purcell's client was Susan Zehnle, a great-niece of Anna Holtz. Steve Boliance was a brother-in-law of Holtz, who lived in the same duplex. Zehnle hired Purcell shortly before they died in December 2007.
The plaintiff argued Purcell went after Holtz while she was in an Alzheimer's facility and Boliance after he suffered a stroke. Purcell persuaded them to sign a power of attorney that allowed Zehnle to transfer their property and money, which was contrary to their already expressed estate plans, the plaintiff argued.
"He shows her the first page, and he shows her the last page and in between those two pages, he reads her not a word," Damick said during the trial about Purcell's encounter with Holtz. "He doesn't [explain] what may happen to her assets."
Within a month of signing those documents, the plaintiff argued, Zehnle transferred all of their bank account funds to her name as a joint owner with rights of survivorship.
Later, a court issued an injunction barring any more transfers and ordered that all funds Zehnle obtained from Holtz and Boliance were to be returned to the estates.
Hayek, the defense attorney, told the jury that Zehnle never believed the money belonged to her. Zehnle, a hospital nurse, was trying to help them while they were in physical and mental decline, the defense argued.
Purcell has been an attorney for 38 years, with much experience in elder law. The defense said Purcell explained the documents to Holtz and Boliance the way an attorney should with an elderly client in a nursing home.
The defense claimed Holtz and Boliance understood who Purcell was and the effect of signing the papers.
The defense attorney argued that it's common for a younger relative to add his or her name to an account so the bills can be paid. The defense said this would also keep the money out of probate court, which would prevent delays and fees.
"What was done, putting her name on the accounts, happens all the time," Hayek told the jurors.
Purcell's actions complied with the standard of care consistent with an attorney, the defense argued.
Damick, the plaintiff's attorney, said "we are extremely glad that the jury saw through the smoke screen" of the defense. The jury recognized "the serious harm that was being done and the need to stop this behavior," he added.
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Published: Mon, Aug 22, 2011