A Newport News jury has returned a $1.2 million verdict against a Hampton lawyer accused of costing his divorce client that amount in lost alimony by failing to appear in the case.
The jury’s damages verdict came after a judge entered summary judgment on liability against lawyer Kevin P. Shea. The trial judge decided nearly four years ago that Shea was negligent in the Newport News divorce case, but the seeds of the malpractice verdict go back even further.
Husband Richard Bennett, apparently stricken with pangs of conscience, wrote a notarized statement in 2006 acknowledging misconduct in his marriage and promising to pay wife Lora Bennett $3,000 a month if the marriage should fail.
In 2008, Richard sued for divorce and Lora hired Shea to represent her. Lora gave Shea the husband’s letter offering what would amount to more than $1 million in support and equitable distribution over her expected lifetime, according to Rhiannon M. Jordan, one of Lora’s lawyers.
That letter never came into play in the divorce and no one spoke for Lora’s interests.
Despite being hired only 15 days after the husband filed for divorce, Shea failed to file an answer or make any formal appearance in the case, according to the findings of retired Norfolk Circuit Judge John E. Clarkson. The court rejected a late-filed answer.
The court entered a final divorce decree later that month. Shea reportedly did not learn about the final order until 20 days had passed. Once again, when he sought to intervene on behalf of the wife, he was too late.
The divorce decree became “final, irrevocable and unmodifiable” and the wife lost her chance for support and equitable distribution, according to a Verdicts & Settlements Report on the case.
Shea’s failure to appear on behalf of the wife meant she lost all eligibility and entitlement to spousal support for an undefined period, a lifetime of her former husband’s military pension, other equitable distribution benefits and consideration on certain debts and obligations, according to the V&S report.
Lora Bennett sued Shea and his firm in 2010. Shea, in turn, filed a third-party claim against Richard Bennett and his lawyers, contending they knew about his intention to represent Lora, but failed to give him notice.
Clarkson rejected Shea’s claims against the husband and his legal team in September 2010, expressly finding that Shea was negligent. Three years later, Clarkson granted summary judgment for Lora Bennett, deciding that Shea and his firm were liable as a matter of law.
In 2012, with her malpractice suit against Shea pending, Lora Bennett reached agreement with her former husband for him to pay her $40,000 over two years and $667 a month afterwards – a package far short of what the husband promised in his 2006 letter of contrition.
In the 2012 reinstated case, the judge indicated the husband’s promises were likely unenforceable, so Lora was without much leverage, Jordan said. “In a contested divorce, all that evidence comes in,” she said.
At the malpractice trial in May, with damages the only issue, Jordan said the jury took only an hour to award the exact amount requested.
Earlier, Lora Bennett’s legal team had demanded $70,000 to resolve the case, with the money to be paid within a year, Jordan said. Shea, 71, reportedly offered the same amount, to be paid in increments of $5,000 a year.
Jordan confirmed that Shea had no malpractice coverage for the claim.
Shea told the Daily Press he would appeal, arguing the jury should have been allowed to decide the liability question, not the judge. Shea was represented at the damages trial by Hampton lawyer Joseph J. Stellute, the paper reports. Stellute did not return a call for comment.
Shea has been subject to Virginia State Bar discipline four times, including a 60-day suspension imposed in 2005, accord to VSB online records. He is active and in good standing with the VSB, according to the records.