After being convicted of abusing his own children, spending four years in prison before exoneration, and then battling with his lawyers for 10 years, Bruce McLaughlin may finally see compensation for his travails.
A Fairfax County jury last month awarded the Leesburg lawyer $5.75 million after finding he had been a victim of legal malpractice by a Fairfax law firm. In the three-week trial, McLaughlin had the burden to prove “a case within a case within a case,” according to his lawyer, Thomas K. Plofchan Jr. of Sterling.
McLaughlin, 61, said he wept as the jury returned its verdict Oct. 30 after one and a half days of deliberation.
“It was a flood of different emotions,” he said. “The jury had found that my children were not abused and the jury had had some compassion on me.”
“After a tragedy of errors, finally in the great system of justice we are blessed to be living in, justice was served,” McLaughlin said.
The defense had a different view of the verdict.
“My client and I have a great deal of respect for the jury system, but sometimes they get it wrong. This is one of those times,” said David D. Hudgins of Alexandria, one of the lawyers who represented Shevlin Smith, the Fairfax law firm sued by McLaughlin.
Hudgins said post-trial motions are planned. “We’re evaluating all our options at this point,” he said.
The case was heard by Circuit Judge Michael F. Devine.
McLaughlin’s story is long and involved.
In a messy divorce, he found himself accused of molesting three of his four children.
He was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Represented by Leesburg’s Alexander N. Levay, McLaughlin overturned the verdict and won the right to a new trial. At that second trial in 2002, he was acquitted of all charges.
McLaughlin had served more than four years in prison, enduring an assault by another inmate and attempting escape at one point.
McLaughlin hired the Shevlin Smith firm to sue his first set of lawyers in the criminal case for malpractice. He alleged they failed to explore evidence that would have undermined the testimony against him.
That legal malpractice case went awry when a settlement with one lawyer inadvertently resulted in the discharge of all claims against the other lawyer.
The alleged mistake by Shevlin Smith gave rise to the second legal malpractice claim – the one tried in Fairfax last month.
It was a daunting legal challenge.
McLaughlin successfully proved to the jury (1) that he was actually innocent of the sexual abuse charges, (2) that his first criminal attorneys were negligent and caused his conviction, and (3) that Shevlin Smith lawyers were negligent and caused him to lose his chance for recovery from the first lawyers.
McLaughlin’s two sons – now adults – testified that their mother and other adults put them up to their accusations against McLaughlin, he said.
The mother – McLaughlin’s ex-wife – and one of McLaughlin’s daughters both testified that they believed the daughter was sexually abused.
Their accounts revealed inconsistencies on cross examination, McLaughlin and Plofchan said.
The cross examination helped “solidify” the jury’s impression that the children had been manipulated into accusing McLaughlin, he said.
The jury award represented lost income and expenses incurred in his second criminal trial, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin’s case against Shevlin Smith traveled a rocky road. Fairfax Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush tossed a Maryland lawyer off the case in 2011 for repeated speaking objections during depositions, despite an order barring such conduct.
The penalty led to a nonsuit, and the second suit was tried by different legal teams on both sides.