Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wisconsin governor signs bill capping attorney fees

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has signed a bill designed to limit attorneys' fees after a well-known lemon law lawyer collected more than $150,000 in an auto-repair dispute.

The measure, part of Walker's special legislative session on jobs, requires judges to presume attorney fees should be no greater than three times the damages awarded. Judges can award more if they feel it's warranted, however.

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Republicans who control the Legislature introduced the bill in response to a case involving Milwaukee attorney Vince Megna, who has built a national reputation representing clients who sue under Wisconsin's lemon law, which is designed to protect consumers who buy faulty vehicles.

Megna, a 67-year-old Democrat, brought a lawsuit in 2007 against Burlington car dealer John Lynch Chevrolet-Pontiac, alleging the dealership performed $5,000 in unauthorized repairs on his client's truck. Days before the case was set to go to trial in Racine County, the two sides reached a settlement calling for the dealer to pay $12,500 for damages, $151,250 in legal fees and $5,284 in costs.

The dealership's owner, David Lynch, is a Republican donor.

GOP legislators said the case illustrated the need to put a lid on excessive attorneys' fees. If the measure had been in place when Megna reached his settlement with the dealership, a judge would have had to presume that the most that could have been awarded in the case was $15,000 because $5,000 in damages was sought.

Attorneys have argued the measure will make lawyers hesitant to take smaller cases, knowing the cap presumption could limit what they could collect. Megna, in particular, has been doing a slow burn, saying the bill creates another hurdle for consumers.

He has vowed to never take on another Republican as a client. The state Office of Lawyer Regulation has said nothing in the state's professional conduct rules prohibit Megna from refusing to represent people based on their party affiliations.

He issued a statement calling himself the "Lemon Law King” and likening Wisconsin to North Korea.

In a telephone interview, he questioned why consumers' attorneys should be capped when powerful corporations such as car manufacturers can spend as much as they wish to prolong lawsuits.

"No one stops them from spending anything they want," he said. "Even when you beat them they can still appeal and still keep fighting. They have the purse-strings to do that. That's what the public doesn't understand."

The governor said in his own statement the measure will protect job creators, improve the state's business climate.

Walker also signed a Republican bill that allows homeowners to legally kill intruders.

Nicknamed the "castle doctrine," the measure creates a presumption of legal immunity for someone who kills or injures a person breaking into his or her home, vehicle or workplace. A judge must presume that the use of deadly force was necessary.

The immunity presumption wouldn't apply to a shooter who attacked someone he or she should have known was a public safety officer.

The bill passed the Legislature with bipartisan support. Walker said he signed it because it will discourage criminal intruders and provide more legal protection for people who protect their home or property.

By Todd Richmond

Source: Insurance Journal

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