Tennessee attorney general files amended lawsuit against Texas law firm accused of deceiving Woodmore crash victims

Tennessee attorney general files amended lawsuit against Texas law firm accused of deceiving Woodmore crash victims

June 25th, 2019 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Supporters hold candles during a community vigil to remember victims of 2016's Hamilton County school bus crash on Talley Road on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Parents, friends, and supporters gathered near the spot where one year before six children from Woodmore Elementary School were killed after bus 366 overturned on the residential street.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Following an evidence dispute and an unsuccessful attempt to settle the case, lawyers with the Tennessee Attorney General's Office want to bring new civil claims against a Texas law firm accused of using coercive business practices with Woodmore Elementary School crash victims.

Assistant Attorney General Travis Brown wrote in a motion filed Friday in Hamilton County Chancery Court that employees of the Witherspoon Law Group tried to solicit one other victim that state lawyers didn't know about when they first brought suit in April 2017. Witherspoon was one of the out-of-state firms that flocked to victims after the Nov. 21, 2016, crash on Talley Road in Brainerd that killed six Woodmore Elementary School children and injured 31 others, and state lawyers said some employees of the Dallas-based group misrepresented themselves as attorneys, approached grieving family members at funeral homes and attempted to sign them into exploitative legal agreements.

Brown said Demetrius Wilson visited Taylor Funeral Home shortly after her 8-year-old son, Keonte, died in the crash and met Witherspoon employee Alphonso McClendon inside. McClendon, who is not a lawyer, introduced himself as an attorney with Witherspoon Law Group, which specializes in personal injury and auto accident litigation, Brown wrote. After Wilson asked a funeral home representative why "she was being introduced to a lawyer from Texas while arranging her child's funeral," McClendon said Wilson could not bury her child at Taylor unless she signed a retainer agreement with Witherspoon.

Wilson ultimately declined that offer and hired Chattanooga attorney Marc Walwyn instead. In an interview Tuesday, Walwyn said Wilson agreed to speak with state lawyers about her experience.

As part of their litigation, state lawyers want a court order that would stop Witherspoon employees from practicing in Tennessee and that would force the Dallas, Texas, firm to turn over any "ill-gotten profits" it received from legal agreements. Brown said the state now wants to amend its original lawsuit to include Wilson's story, as the case has not been set for trial since beginning in 2017. Further proceedings are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Monday before Hamilton County Chancellor Pam Fleenor.

In Tennessee, the Rules of Professional Conduct say attorneys must wait 30 days before they can contact people about litigation after a serious accident or face possible reprimand. State lawyers say Witherspoon also sidestepped state consumer protection laws.

Witherspoon, who did not return a request for comment Tuesday about the new claims, has previously denied any wrongdoing. In an interview in December 2017, Witherspoon said McClendon was in Chattanooga because his firm was representing a victim. Witherspoon never specified which victim in that interview, and local court records show he never filed a lawsuit. Witherspoon's attorney, Chris Bellamy, who works at the Nashville-based firm Neal and Harwell, also could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In addition to Wilson's story, state lawyers filed a motion Friday asking Fleenor to make Witherspoon produce evidence. In their motion, they say they asked Witherspoon multiple times since March 9, 2018, for information on their client retention practices, their communications with funeral homes and their business structure — but to no avail.

"The state previously filed this motion on June 8, 2018, but it was withdrawn on Nov. 14, 2018, during settlement negotiations that ultimately were unsuccessful," Brown wrote.

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