There’s a lawsuit just beginning in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court that potentially could involve the largest amount of damages ever awarded locally if the plaintiff is successful.
Little surprise, then, that the plaintiff’s lawyer is Stan Chesley, a master of class-action and personal injury lawsuits who’s an A-list celebrity in the Queen City. Among his other traits, Chesley is big cash contributor to numerous Democratic and Republican politicians and a personal friend of Bill Clinton. For good measure, his wife is a federal judge.
Chesley is representing Patrick B. McCarthy, a man who worked on railroad tankers for Texana Tank Car & Manufacturing Inc. McCarthy was severely injured when a pressurized lid to a tanker containing chemicals burst free and struck him in the face, breaking several bones and causing a brain injury. As a result, he requires extensive medical care and can no longer financially support his wife and two young children.
He’s suing Texana and Sterling Chemicals Inc. for up to $60 million in compensatory damages, which means a jury could decide also to award McCarthy up to $180 million in punitive damages if it chooses.
Even the pre-trial legal maneuvering in the case is interesting, raising questions of ethics and conflicts of interest about local TV news reporters and an elected official.
As part of his opening statement, Chesley wanted to play a 13-minute videotape for the jury that illustrated the hardships faced by the McCarthy family. The video originally was narrated by Deborah Dixon, a longtime reporter at WKRC (Channel 12). Defendants objected for multiple reasons, including that Dixon isn’t an attorney and her appearance would amount to an unauthorized practice of law. A judge agreed, and Dixon was deleted from the video.
Chesley then replaced Dixon by using Joe Deters as narrator. Deters is the Hamilton County prosecutor who also recently joined Chesley’s high-powered law firm — ostensibly so he could reduce his salary as prosecutor and use that extra money to save the jobs of some staffers targeted by county budget cuts.
Under Ohio law, Deters’ annual salary of $123,000 as prosecutor can be reduced to $80,000 for as long as he holds a second, private job. (That Joe, what a magnanimous guy!)
Back to the video: Defendants still are trying to block it, alleging it contains heart-tugging statements that are hearsay evidence and have no bearing on the case.
The bigger issue, though, is why Chesley relied on Dixon and Deters at all. Chesley certainly is aware most jurors know Dixon’s work, which would add the veneer of credibility to his opening statement, making it appear like a news report. To a lesser degree, the same holds true if Hamilton County’s publicity-loving prosecutor is seen stumping for the plaintiff.
Such connections are troubling. Media critics have long questioned Dixon’s beat at Channel 12, where she mostly covers Cincinnati Police. That’s because her husband is a retired CPD officer, raising legitimate questions about whether she can remain impartial and unbiased when reporting on the department. It’s no coincidence that Dixon is among the few reporters that Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. talks to on a regular basis.
Then there’s Deters. Should the county’s top law enforcement official — seen frequently on TV intoning against alleged murderers, rapists and child molesters — be involved in civil cases in the same county? His mere presence in a local courtroom likely would have undue influence on any jury, and a savvy operator like Chesley knows it.
Chesley, however, likes to press limits.
Last June, while Chesley was called as a witness in a federal court case, the attorney who has practiced law for almost a half-century made a statement under oath that caused onlookers to guffaw in disbelief.
Chesley testified in a lawsuit filed by more than 400 of the former plaintiffs who sued the manufacturer of fen-phen, a diet drug that was taken off the market due to dangerous side effects. He helped the plaintiffs negotiate a $200 million settlement in 2001, but the plaintiffs allege that he and three other attorneys dipped into the money and took fees that exceeded what was allowed.
Although Chesley maintained he didn’t do anything illegal, prosecutors eventually granted him limited immunity in exchange for his testimony.
While being questioned about the immunity deal by defense attorneys, Chesley implied he didn’t understand a question about “taking the Fifth.” According to an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer, he responded, “I’m embarrassed. … I’m not a criminal lawyer.”
After the judge admonished Chesley, he admitted that invoking his Fifth Amendment right was among the options he discussed with his own attorneys prior to the deal.
Centuries ago, William Shakespeare wrote the following crowd-pleasing line in his King Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
With the sleazy tactics on display in a local courtroom, it’s easy to see why that line still resonates.
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