CHARLESTON – Kanawha Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib cast an early ballot for Supreme Court of Appeals candidate Margaret Workman, awarding her 96 percent of a fee she and Michael Ranson disputed.
"It is undisputed that the Workman firm did the vast majority of the work," Zakaib wrote in an Aug. 27 order.
He divided $80,000, one third of a wrongful death settlement, by awarding $76,500 to Workman and $3,500 to Ranson.
Ranson represented Eugenia Moshcgat, daughter of Linda Kannaird, who died in a job accident in 2000. Workman represented Kannaird's estate.
Although the interests of their clients should have matched, Ranson and Workman worked at cross purposes.
For five years, Workman argued that Moschgat deserved no compensation at all, because she and her mother hadn't spoken in years.
Workman proposed to award damages to Kannaird's brothers and sisters.
In 2006, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that brothers and sisters could not collect damages. The Court held that only Moschgat could collect.
The Justices guaranteed further friction, however, by appointing Diana Savilla, a sister of Kannaird, as administratix of the estate.
Then-Chief Justice Robin Davis anticipated trouble. She wrote in dissent that Savilla sued to recover damages and the majority closed that door.
"In spite of this fact, the majority opinion nevertheless has permitted Ms. Savilla to continue the litigation against Speedway on behalf of Ms. Moschgat," Davis wrote. "This decision sets horrendous precedent."
She wrote that the majority jeopardized a potential settlement Moschgat reached with Kannaird's employer, Speedway Super America.
"Ms. Moschgat's potential recovery now rests in the hands of a plaintiff who does not want her to have a single penny," she wrote.
The $240,000 settlement survived. Zakaib approved it but placed the $80,000 fee in escrow along with more than $18,000 in expenses.
Zakaib held a hearing on the fee in February 2007. For a year and a half he kept it under advisement.
This Aug. 29, Ranson filed a motion to release the fee from escrow.
"Margaret Workman and her clients made many attempts to defeat Eugenia Moschgat's claim," he wrote.
Workman made defamatory and damaging statements against Moschgat, he wrote, and Workman's actions diminished the value of Moschgat's claim.
"Frankly, it is Eugenia Moschgat who should be seeking a recovery from Margaret Workman as opposed to Margaret Workman seeking a recovery from her," he wrote.
He didn't know Zakaib had signed an order two days earlier.
In it, Zakaib wrote that he found eight and a half pages of docket entries from Workman and half a page from Ranson.
Zakaib wrote that Workman conducted 25 depositions and Ranson conducted four.
Ranson filed a motion Sept. 8 to stay enforcement of the order, protesting that he didn't receive it until Sept. 3.
He wrote that Workman's lawyer, Ed ReBrook, signed the order. He declared that the order was apparently presented "ex parte."
Court rules forbid ex parte communications between a lawyer and a judge outside the presence of the opposing lawyer.
Workman said on Oct. 8 that Zakaib told ReBrook to prepare an order.
She denied that her actions reduced Moschgat's recovery, saying Ranson and Speedway reduced her recovery.
"It's too bad that little secret settlement was entered into," she said. "She would have got more if I had been allowed to finish the job."
Workman said Ranson basically got $3,500 for filing a complaint.
"He didn't do any work," she said.
Zakaib set a hearing Nov. 12 on Ranson's motion to stay enforcement.