Salt Lake County jury returns $3.5 million verdict for Ogden woman harmed by former attorneys’ legal malpractice

A three-week trial conducted by Peck Hadfield partners Shaun L Peck and Brandon J. Baxter concluded with a Salt Lake County jury’s determination that the law firm of Craig Swapp & Associates and its former associate lawyer, Eric Highberg, must pay $3.5 million in damages to Ogden resident Jodi Kranendonk. The jury found both the Salt Lake City-based Craig Swapp & Associates and Washington-based Eric Highberg liable for legal malpractice. In addition, the jury found the Swapp firm alone liable for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and negligent hiring and supervision of Mr. Highberg. The verdict closes the latest chapter in Ms. Kranendonk’s nearly 9-year legal fight for reasonable compensation for the debilitating injuries she suffered as a result of being rear-ended in backed-up traffic by two semi-tractor trailers on an Oregon freeway off-ramp in June 2006.

The lengthy history of Ms. Kranendonk’s lawsuit was summarized by the Utah Court of Appeals in its February 13, 2014 decision in Jodi Kranendonk v. Gregory & Swapp, PLLC and Eric Highberg (Case No. 20120660). In that decision, the Court of Appeals recounted that the Swapp firm and Mr. Highberg filed a lawsuit in Oregon in 2007 and another in 2008, but both of those lawsuits were dismissed by the trial judge because the attorneys failed to have the lawsuit documents timely served on the truckers who crashed into Ms. Kranendonk. When Ms. Kranendonk’s second Oregon lawsuit was dismissed, she appeared to have lost all possibility of recovering compensation in Oregon from the truckers who caused her injuries. A third lawsuit filed by the Swapp firm and Mr. Highberg in Washington in 2009 was likewise dismissed by the trial judge on technical legal grounds. At that point, the Swapp firm and Mr. Highberg first notified Ms. Kranendonk that her claims had been dismissed by courts in two different states. Ms. Kranendonk then hired Shaun L Peck and Peck Hadfield to represent her in a legal malpractice case.

Because of legal requirements, Peck Hadfield filed a third Oregon lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Kranendonk, but the trial of that lawsuit was conducted by the Swapp firm’s defense team. The truckers who crashed into Ms. Kranendonk in 2006 admitted liability for the crash in their response to the lawsuit, but an Oregon jury later decided that the truckers did not have to pay Ms. Kranendonk for her harms and losses because the Oregon statute of limitations had expired.

With all legal prerequisites thus satisfied, Peck Hadfield sued the Swapp firm and Mr. Highberg in 2010 on behalf of Jody Kranendonk in the Third District Court in Salt Lake County, Utah for legal malpractice and other claims. The Court of Appeals observed in its 2014 decision that, in their response to the Utah lawsuit, the Swapp firm and Mr. Highberg “admit[ted] that they mishandled the Oregon case but maintain[ed] that because the case lacked merit, no damages resulted.”

In the course of the Utah lawsuit, the Swapp firm and Mr. Highberg again admitted “professional negligence” to the trial judge, but argued that Ms. Kranendonk did not have “a viable [legal] claim” that had been lost as a result of the defendant attorneys’ negligence in Oregon. Just a few weeks before a scheduled jury trial in June of 2012, a district judge in Salt Lake County accepted the defendants’ arguments and dismissed nearly all of Ms. Kranendonk’s claims – effectively throwing her case out of court for the fourth time.

Peck Hadfield immediately appealed. After Brandon J. Baxter’s oral argument on appeal, the Utah Court of Appeals found that Ms. Kranendonk has viable claims against her former attorneys, and those claims must be submitted to a jury for resolution. The Court of Appeals ordered Ms. Kranendonk’s case remanded for a trial. That trial concluded on March 10, 2015 with the jury finding decisively that Jodi Kranendonk’s claims have merit and she should be compensated accordingly.

Contrary to the defense’s repeated arguments over the years that Ms. Kranendonk’s Oregon claims had no merit, the jury specifically found that Ms. Kranendonk suffered $750,000 in harms and losses directly resulting from the injuries she received in the 2006 crash. The jury further determined that Ms. Kranendonk should be compensated an additional $2.75 million for the harms an losses she suffered as a result of the Swapp firm’s and Mr. Highberg’s legal malpractice and the Swapp firm’s breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty (to Ms. Kranendonk), and negligent hiring and supervision of Mr. Highberg.

Update: The $3.5 million verdict is now a $4.684,644.40 judgment that the defendants have  appealed to the Utah Supreme Court.           

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Michael Jewell