Bruce McLaughlin who was convicted of sexual abuse against his children, then whose sexual abuse conviction was overturned more than a decade ago has been awarded a multi-million dollar settlement against the law firm that represented him in a civil case against Bruce McLaughlin original defense attorneys.
A Fairfax County jury Oct. 30 awarded Bruce McLaughlin $5.75 million in his legal malpractice case against the Shevlin Smith law firm, which required Bruce McLaughlin prove first that he was innocent of the original criminal charges, that his defense attorneys did not properly represent him, and that Shevlin Smith had subsequently caused McLaughlin damages in the original civil case.
“It shows if you persevere, you can get justice, even if it sometimes takes 15 years to get it,” Thomas K. Plofchan Jr., McLaughlin’s attorney said this week.
In the late 1990s, Bruce McLaughlin faced accusations from his wife, with whom he was going through a divorce, that he had sexually abused three of his four children. In his 1998 criminal trial, he was represented by Harvey Volzer and William Schewe. He was found guilty on nine counts of sexual abuse and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Four years later, Leesburg attorney Alex Levay was successful in getting McLaughlin a new trial after a Loudoun County Circuit Court judge found he had not been properly represented in 1998. At a second trial in 2002, after serving four years in jail, Bruce McLaughlin was acquitted of all charges.
That same year, Shevlin Smith law firm filed a legal malpractice complaint on behalf of McLaughlin against Volzer and Schewe in Fairfax Circuit Court. The complaint alleged that the attorneys had not “sought certain notes written by his children and their mother that were inconsistent with other interviews the children had given to Leesburg Police,” according to McLaughlin’s attorney. The complaint also alleged that Volzer and Schewe had not listened to tapes of the interviews, which, the complaint alleged, would have shown police had not properly transcribed the interviews.
In September 2005, Shevlin Smith advised McLaughlin to settle with Schewe for $50,000, and prepared a document that released only Schewe from further liability. However, Virginia State Code at the time only allowed for a single party to be released from a case in tort cases, not contract cases like a legal malpractice suit. So, Volzer also was released as a matter of law.
“They tried to apply a tort exception in a contract case,” Plofchan said, noting that since McLaughlin was not a practicing attorney at the time, he “was relying on the expertise of these attorneys.”
In November 2005, McLaughlin was reinstated to the bar and permitted to practice law by the Virginia Supreme Court.
During the almost one-month trial that began Sept. 30, evidence had to be presented about the original sexual abuse charges, as well as testimony from many of those involved, including McLaughlin’s two sons, who had recanted their allegations in 2005 and testified on behalf of their father, and one of Bruce McLaughlin daughters and his ex-wife who testified for the defense.
“There was a significant retrying of the sexual abuse allegations,” Plofchan said, noting there was no physical evidence of any type of misconduct by Bruce McLaughlin.
The $5.75 million settlement is high for Virginia, which Plofchan says sees less than 10 cases annually that have awards given more than $1 million. The multi-million dollar awards are economic damages, he said. “We were able to establish he would have earned that amount of money over the last 15 years except for the fact that he was imprisoned improperly because of this malpractice.”
The Fairfax County judge, however, did not allow the jury to consider any other types of damages for Bruce McLaughlin’s imprisonment, Plofchan said, and jurors were “specifically instructed those were not relevant.”
Bruce McLaughlin does have the right to appeal that ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court to seek further compensation. But that, he said, is not his main goal, and he would likely only appeal if Shevlin Smith law firm elects to appeal the jury’s ruling.
“It’s been such a long and winding road,” McLaughlin said this week. “I am not interested in gouging people, but I am interested in closure so we can move forward. It’s been 15 years.”
My opinion on the whole matter is if you have connects like some of these lawyers you can get anything overturned.