Texas firm denies any solicitation of Woodmore victims

A makeshift memorial at Woodmore Elementary School is seen on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Students at the school were victims in Monday's school bus crash that killed 6 children and injured dozens more.

A Texas law firm accused of deceiving victims after the deadly Woodmore Elementary School bus crash in November has denied any "unfair, deceptive, and misleading acts and practices" in response to a lawsuit seeking to oust its attorneys from practicing in Tennessee.

"Defendant specifically denies sending non-attorneys to solicit victims of catastrophes to contract for legal services," attorney Nuru Witherspoon wrote in a 23-page response filed June 2 in Hamilton County Chancery Court. "Defendant specifically denies offering inaccurate and improper legal advice and specifically denies misleading or confusing Tennessee consumers as alleged in the complaint."

Along with his business- marketing employees, Alphonso McClendon and Glenn Smith, Witherspoon faces a civil complaint from the Tennessee Attorney General's Office, which filed suit in April against the Dallas-based firm specializing in personal injury and wrongful death cases.

Specifically, Attorney General Herbert Slatery III wants a court order that stops Witherspoon's agents from passing themselves off as attorneys and using funeral homes to deceive accident victims into signing up for litigation. This is not a criminal proceeding, and results from grieving families who say Witherspoon employees approached them within days of the Nov. 21, 2016, bus crash, which killed six Woodmore Elementary children and injured several more.

The Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct says attorneys must wait 30 days before contacting people about litigation after a serious accident or face possible reprimand or disbarment.

Witherspoon, who could not be reached Friday for comment, wrote he understands that rule and other Tennessee laws designed to protect consumers. But he denied his employees did anything wrong, saying state attorneys need more evidence to prove their claims. McClendon and Smith are not attorneys, he wrote, but rather business-marketing consultants who identify "grassroots business expansion opportunities to increase firm visibility."

State attorneys said McClendon traveled to Taylor Funeral Home in Chattanooga and told Misti Nash, whose 9-year-old child died in the crash, that Witherspoon could cover her funeral costs. McClendon also told Cornelius Jones, the father of another Woodmore victim, the bus company "already offered $3 million as a potential settlement" on a separate occasion.

"McClendon even told Jones that he was attempting to raise this settlement amount to $4 million, informing Jones that he could keep half of this amount," state attorneys wrote in their April complaint.

Witherspoon admitted McClendon was at the Taylor Funeral Home but denied any claim he represented the law group to Nash.

"Alphonso McClendon is also an ordained pastor, and he and Taylor came to know each other through his ministry involvement," Witherspoon wrote in his response. "While visiting the Chattanooga area on ministry-related matters, Alphonso McClendon stopped in to visit with Taylor at his place of business."

Taylor introduced McClendon to Jones on a separate occasion, Witherspoon wrote. "McClendon described the services provided by [the Witherspoon Law Group] to Cornelius Jones."

But Witherspoon denied the rest of the state's account, which includes Smith sending Jones a $250 money order after the encounter, McClendon following up days later, and Jones reporting the incident as criminal impersonation to Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston.

Since this is a civil case, state attorneys plan to take depositions, which are sworn, taped testimonies often done outside the presence of a judge.

Court records show they issued subpoenas May 16 asking the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association Inc. to produce all documents related to Witherspoon, McClendon, the Taylor Funeral Home and any sponsorships or partnerships with litigation financiers during a meeting at the attorney general's office on June 29 at 9 a.m. central time.

John Taylor, director of the Taylor Funeral Home, said Saturday there's nothing to the state's claims. "My main concern is to make sure these families are treated fairly and receive proper compensation," he said.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.