Lawyers always like to know what judges think about fee requests.
A new case from Norfolk Circuit Court shows that a judge won’t necessarily discount a fee for the winning lawyer in a “Lemon Law” case just because the sum seems disproportionate to the amount awarded by the jury.
Bruce and Michele Nedelka had trouble getting a KIA dealership to fix their 2006 Sedona mini-van. The scariest defect was the tendency of the sliding door to open spontaneously, even while the van was in motion, exposing their infant who was riding in a car seat.
When Richmond lawyer Patty Anderson tried the case, the jury asked Norfolk Circuit Judge Charles Poston if it could award an amount in excess of the damages sought by plaintiff. The answer was no. The jury did award the family $33,380. Anderson then sought attorney’s fees of $46,360, billing her time at $200 per hour. The defendant dealership questioned the propriety of awarding fees in a sum that exceeded the verdict.
Poston did shave time from the bill, holding that the fee request included too much time for tasks normally performed by secretarial or paralegal assistance.
But Poston rejected the notion that the fee award had to be limited to a proportion of the verdict, based on the language of the Virginia Lemon Law statute and a Michigan case.
For most people, buying a family car is “a major investment,” not a luxury, the judge said in his Feb. 10 opinion in Nedelka v. KIA Motors of America Inc.
“Fees charged by competent litigators often exceed the value of an automobile. If the attorney’s fees awarded in such cases were limited to a proportion of the verdict, few plaintiffs could afford to seek vindication” under the statute, Poston said.
By Deborah Elkins