Big Houston Law Firm|Can’t Shake Lawsuit

     CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) – A federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit accusing a Houston law firm of running a fraudulent “silica litigation machine,” but put the case on hold for 60 days.
     The O’Quinn Law Firm, its former and current attorneys and law firms that referred silica cases to it were sued by 31 former clients in Federal Court last December.
     The plaintiffs are all residents of Mississippi or Alabama.
     John O’Quinn founded The O’Quinn Law Firm fka O’Quinn & Laminack with partner Richard Laminack, also a defendant. The firm has handled major litigation, including a $1 billion Fen-Phen diet drug case.
     O’Quinn died in a car crash on a wet Houston road on Oct. 29, 2009.
     In the 51-page lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed they were diagnosed as having silicosis by medical professionals handpicked by The O’Quinn Law Firm.
     Silicosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling tiny particles of silica, a mineral found in sand, rock and mineral ores like quartz. People with silicosis are unable to fight infections well and are at high risk for developing potentially lethal diseases like tuberculosis.     
     The plaintiffs said the firm paid a $350 per-case referral fee to the silicosis-screening company N&M Inc., and then passed the fees on to them as expenses.
     “Not only this, but the Firm would lure plaintiffs into the screenings with advertisements for ‘Free’ silicosis screenings, but then turn around and bill the entire amount of the screening, including the referral fee paid to N&M, to plaintiffs,” the complaint states. “Although highly unethical, it was a win-win for the Firm.”
     The plaintiffs claimed the expenses the firm billed them spiraled out of control, including a $60,000 charge for a database to manage the silica docket that it never used, $20,000 a pop for medical reports by unqualified experts, $1,000 dinner tabs, and even for flights on private jets.
     Worse yet, the plaintiffs claimed, the firm cost its silica clients $7.5 million in settlement offers from defendants Sanstorm aka Air Liquide and Moldex when they failed to process the settlements.
     The plaintiffs sought an order forcing the defendants to disgorge their attorneys’ fees and expenses.
     The firm and its co-defendants moved to dismiss for a variety of reasons, each of which failed to convince U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos.
     First, she rejected the defendants’ claim that the case did not belong in federal court, because the plaintiffs weren’t diverse and the amount in controversy did not exceed $75,000 per plaintiff.
     “Defendants have not argued, to a legal certainty, plaintiffs cannot each prove damages exceeding $75,000 on their individual claims for mental anguish, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees,” Ramos wrote.
     The defendants also argued that the “shotgun” pleadings were overly vague and ambiguous, and asked the judge for an order requiring a more definite statement of the allegations against them.
     Judge Ramos noted that the plaintiffs alleged 16 pages of facts for their first set of claims — “none of which appear to be or are identified as being irrelevant or unrelated,” she wrote — and another six pages of facts for their alternative causes of action.
     “These are not objectionable ‘shotgun’ pleadings and no additional detail is required to make them intelligible,” Ramos wrote.
     Similarly, she denied a motion to strike what the defendants claimed were “immaterial, impertinent or scandalous” allegations, saying they failed to identify which claims fell into this category.
     “To the extent that they complain that the allegations are too vague or incomplete to support the claims against them, the court has already ruled against the defendants,” Ramos added.
     Finally, the law firm and its co-defendants noted that a probate court was already tackling O’Quinn’s estate and a “mirror-image” lawsuit, so the Federal Court should step aside to let the plaintiffs join those proceedings.
     But Ramos said there is no guarantee that the plaintiffs will be allowed to join the probate court proceedings.
     “Defendants claim that the probate court is available for the plaintiffs’ claims,” the judge wrote. “Yet this presupposes that the plaintiffs will be permitted to join the state proceeding at this juncture and that their rights will not be adversely affected by the fact that the state court has made certain decisions affecting the cases without plaintiffs being represented.”
     Although Ramos refused to dismiss the case on various grounds, she did grant the defendants’ motion to temporarily suspend the proceedings for 60 days because the plaintiffs failed to notify the defendants before filing a deceptive trade practice claim.
     Ramos ordered that the case be put on hold for 60 days from the date the plaintiffs file their pre-suit notification, as required by law.

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