Disbarred Illinois plaintiff's attorney subject of child sexual assault complaint

By Ann Knef | May 19, 2006

Attorney Thomas Lakin

A powerful Illinois plaintiff's attorney, disbarred from practicing law in West Virginia for soliciting clients, is facing more legal troubles in his home state.

In June 2005, the West Virginia Court of Appeals barred Lakin Law Firm founder Thomas Lakin of Wood River, Ill. for improperly soliciting Huntington attorney Menis Ketchum's personal injury clients.

Lakin, the firm, and his sons Bradley and Kristopher Lakin were named as defendants in a civil sexual assault lawsuit filed in Madison County Circuit Court in Illinois. Among other things, Thomas Lakin was accused of having sex with a 15-year-old boy; the sons were accused of covering it up.

The sealed case was dimissed shortly after it was filed, but more serious legal consequences may be facing the Lakins.

On June 24, 2005, the West Virginia Court of Appeals barred Lakin for one year. In a dissenting opinion issued July 13, 2005, Justice Larry Starcher said the Lakin Law Firm also should have been barred from practicing law in West Virginia.

"When Governor Joe Manchin said 'West Virginia's Open for Business, I do not think he meant that out-of-state lawyers were free to come into West Virginia and attempt to steal the clients of our State lawyers while violating our Rules of Professional Conduct," Starcher wrote.

The Lakin Law Firm is known as an aggressive personal injury firm and is responsible for filing more class action lawsuits in Madison County, Ill. than any other firm. Critics assert that the Lakin Law Firm is largely to blame for Madison County's "judicial hellhole" label.

Starcher also wrote: "I concur with the majority's decision to prohibit Mr. Lakin, individually, from practicing law in this State for a period of twelve months. However, I vigorously dissent to the 'empty sanctions' placed upon Mr. Lakin's law firm. I would have placed the same sanctions on the Lakin Law Firm that this Court placed on Mr. Lakin individually."

The courts' complaints against Lakin stem from two personal injury clients represented by Ketchum. The clients, who had been injured in separate accidents in 1997, were then solicited by agents and attorneys of the Lakin Law Firm.

The first client was told that Ketchum "would 'sell him out' and that [he] could get more money from the accident if he hired the Lakin Law Firm. The client also "received a telephone call from Howard Pederson, the chief investigator for the Lakin Law Firm, who allegedly attempted to solicit him as a client for the Firm," according to the complaint against Lakin.

A former Lakin client "arranged a meeting" with the second client. In that meeting, the client met with "attorneys Brad Lakin and Charles Armbruster of the Lakin Law Firm at [the clients] home." The client said "he probably told Brad Lakin and Charles Armbruster during the meeting that he was already represented by counsel."

According to the court opinion, Lakin went back to the client's home, but he "would not answer the door." Both clients continued to be represented by Ketchum.

The sexual assault complaint against the Lakins was filed in Madison County Circuit Court's Civil Law Division April 21 under seal and by fictitiously named plaintiffs and defendants. The secrecy was requested by the lead plaintiff, a woman who had worked for Thomas Lakin for 18 years.

On May 5, the day after the Madison County Record newspaper reported that a mysterious civil sexual assault complaint had been filed against a prominent member of the legal community, the plaintiffs withdrew their complaint and asked that it be expunged. The Madison County Record is associated with the West Virginia Record.

Another local daily newspaper filed an emergency motion to preserve the dimissed and expunged complaint, which was granted.

On May 12, Madison County's newly elected chief judge unsealed the case which had been sealed by the former chief judge. When it was, the defendants, but not plaintiffs, were revealed. The case has not been refiled, but plaintiff's attorney, Ed Unsell of East Alton, Ill., indicated it may be.

On May 17, Unsell's clients-Lakin's accusers-appeared before a federal grand jury in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. The proceedings are secret. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin F. Burke would not comment on the matter.

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