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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California Lowers the Boom on Attorney

LOS ANGELES (CN) - California's attorney general claims a lawyer preyed on a "strongly medicated," hospitalized mother to make off with more than half of a $400,000 settlement for the wrongful death of her youngest daughter, who was killed by a National Guard sergeant in a fit of rage.

In the underlying case, which preceded the state's Superior Court lawsuit, Martha Harris, who died in July this year, sued the state for the wrongful death of her daughter Jo Ann Harris, 29, who was murdered by her boyfriend, Staff Sgt. Scott Ansman, in August 2007.

Jo Ann was in the process of applying to the National Guard when Ansman, who is married and the father of three children, beat her to death on the floor of the National Guard armory in Culver City. A baseball bat and knife were recovered from the scene. Jo Ann was 6 months pregnant at the time, although a DNA test later showed that Ansman was not the baby's father, according to contemporary news reports.

Attorney Robert McNeill, with Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt, handled Martha Harris' wrongful death case against the state. He and his law firm are defendants in the state's new complaint.

In the original case, after a pretrial hearing before Superior Court Judge Kevin Brazile, McNeill approached the state's attorney "to discuss the possibility of settling the case," according to the state's complaint. It continues: "No offer to settle was made by the State of California. Defendant McNeill, however, demanded $400,000 to settle all the claims and disputes ..."

Martha Harris was not in court because she was recovering from surgery. The state says it agreed to settle for $400,000 on the condition that McNeill assure Judge Brazile "that Martha Harris had agreed to settle the Harris litigation for that amount and that he had authority from Martha Harris to settle the case for $400,000. Defendant McNeill represented to the State of California he would be able to make the foregoing representations to the court, and that the State should consider the case settled.

"At around 1:30 pm, on October 4, 2010, in the chambers of Judge Brazile, defendant McNeill represented on the record to Judge Brazile that he 'had the authority of Martha Harris to settle the case on her behalf' for the sum of $400,000, including attorneys' fees and costs. ... He specifically requested the settlement check be made out to the firm, not to Martha Harris."

But California claims that during that meeting, McNeill failed to disclose that on that day, "against the wishes of Harris' children," he had taken advantage of a "'strongly medicated, health weakened mother by entering her hospital room - pointedly with no relatives present - and effectively bullying her into orally acquiescing to a $400,000 settlement agreement to end the suit.'"

Those allegations, the interior quotes, came from Gerald Bennett, who with his sisters are the personal representatives and/or successors to the estates of Martha and Jo Ann Harris, according to the state's complaint.

Bennett and his sisters, as representatives of the estates, are named as defendants in the state's complaint, along with McNeill and his law firm.

The state adds: "According to defendant Bennett, he and his sister used the strongest terms to indicate to defendant McNeill he should not settle the Harris litigation and/or visit Martha Harris on October 4, 2010, while she was hospitalized, recovering from 2 surgeries. According to defendant Bennett, he told defendant McNeill that Martha Harris was not capable of making a decision regarding settlement of the Harris litigation."

The state says that when it accepted McNeill's settlement offer, it was unaware that the family strenuously opposed it.

"Said non-disclosed facts were material to the State of California's decision to settle the Harris litigation instead of going forward with the trial on October 4, 2010, as well as to the court's decision to terminate trial proceedings which had already commenced by then."

Also on Oct. 4, the state says, Martha Harris received a letter from McNeill, stating that "after costs and attorneys' fees, your net recovery will be around $175,000."

In early 2011, Harris, through her new attorneys, told the court that she never agreed in writing to McNeill's terms, nor gave him authority to settle the lawsuit.

"As a result of the foregoing, the court refused to dismiss the Harris litigation, and set a new trial date," the complaint states.

The state seeks exemplary damages for fraud and negligence, from McNeill and his law firm.

The state seeks compensatory damages from the Bennetts for breach of contract.

Neither the Attorney General's Office nor McNeill's law firm responded to requests for comment.

Ansman is serving life in prison without parole for Jo Ann's murder.

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