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GA Judge Rules Fee Agreement Must Be Disclosed After $200M Verdict

March 4, 2022 | Posted in : Attorney-Client Relationship, Fee Agreement, Fee Discovery / Fee Disclosure, Fee Dispute, Fee Request, Fees & Insurance Policy, Fees & Judicial Discretion, Trial / Jury / Verdict

A recent Law 360 story by Emily Sides, “Ga. Judge Finds Atty Fees Must Be Public After $200M Verdict” reports that a Georgia state judge has rejected arguments that a Florida couple could keep their attorney fee agreement secret as he ruled that the deal was a matter of public interest as part of their efforts to add millions of dollars in legal fees to the $200 million verdict over their son's boating death.  Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit Judge B. Chan Caudell of Rabun County's Superior Court ruled that Stephen and Margaret Batchelder must file the agreement in connection with their motion requesting to amend the judgment to add almost $8 million in pre-judgment interest and attorney fees ranging from $31 million to $62 million.

The jury found in August that Malibu was responsible for $140 million of the total verdict, including $20 million in compensatory damages and $120 million in punitive damages.  Judge Caudell rejected the couple's argument that their fee agreement should be filed with the court under seal because it includes "details of the attorney-client relationship."

Earlier in February, Tennessee company Malibu Boats LLC, which made the boat at issue in the case, opposed the Batchelders' attempt to keep the attorney fee arrangement secret.  In a Feb. 9 email obtained by Law360 Pulse, Laurie Webb Daniel — an attorney for Malibu Boats — said sealing the fee agreement would be "particularly inappropriate where a party is relying on the document to claim more than $50 million in fees."  "Indeed, [the Batchelders] have asserted that their fee agreement with counsel is customary, which makes this motion quite odd," Daniel said. "There simply is no justifiable reason to seal this document."

Malibu Boats said the plaintiffs were not entitled to pre-judgment interest or attorney fees, calling the request exorbitant "on top of an already enormous verdict," while noting that their calculations include time spent working on dismissed claims and are based on a "discredited 'value added' methodology."

Representing the Batchelders, Donald R. Fountain — a partner at Clark Fountain La Vista Prather & Littky-Rubin — told Law360 Pulse that they accepted the judge's decision, and although they would have preferred a different ruling, they don't plan to appeal it.  Fountain said the fee agreement is privileged information that could be submitted under seal if the case was in Florida.  The Batchelders argued Feb. 10 that Malibu Boats should be responsible for prejudgment interest and attorney fees because the company unreasonably objected to a pretrial settlement offer of $16.9 million despite having an insurance policy that covered up to $26 million, Fountain said.