By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: May 21, 2009
The N.H. Supreme Court Attorney Discipline Office is investigating a prominent Keene lawyer accused of placing his financial interests above his paraplegic client’s.
The complaint against Timothy A. O’Meara stems from a personal injury case he handled for the family of a Hampton woman whose spinal cord was severed in a May 2005 crash.
Anita Conant was attending her father’s funeral in Pennsylvania when a paving company’s dump truck slammed into the back of her car while she was stopped at a red light.
The impact of the crash launched the car 130 feet down the road and it landed on its roof in a ditch.
The Conant family received $11.5 million from the paving company, Lyons & Hohl Paving Inc., and its insurer, The Cincinnati Insurance Companies.
O’Meara collected $1.6 million in legal fees from the settlement.
O’Meara is accused of entering into a contract for the settlement, which was far lower than what the Conant family needed to care for Anita Conant, without their consent; pressuring them to pay him excessive legal fees; and lying during testimony about his handling of the case.
O’Meara has denied any wrongdoing in a court filing responding to the complaint. The Concord attorney representing him declined comment on the specifics of the complaint.
“I have never tried a case in a newspaper before and I don’t want to start now,” Michael R. Callahan said. “We strongly deny the charges and look forward to an opportunity to have our hearing.”
The Conants referred comment to their attorney, James P. Bassett, also of Concord. Bassett said he is simply advising the Conants as the complaint process unfolds.
The complaint against O’Meara has cleared a screening committee for the Supreme Court.
Disciplinary counsel Landya B. McCafferty will present the evidence she’s gathered against O’Meara during an upcoming hearing.
“I have the burden of proof at the hearing,” McCafferty said. “The burden of proof is very high.”
The Attorney Discipline Office receives about 250 complaints about lawyers every year, but only 25 end with some form of discipline, according to McCafferty.
If a conduct committee for the Supreme Court validates the complaint against O’Meara, he could face reprimand, public censure, suspension or disbarment.
Allegations of deceit and greed
Anita Conant’s husband, James E. Conant, hired O’Meara about a week after the crash on the recommendation of his brother, Craig Conant, who was friends with O’Meara and his wife, Dorrie, a local business owner, according to McCafferty’s complaint against O’Meara.
The complaint provides the following details about what happened after O’Meara met with the Conants:
* O’Meara filed suit against Lyons & Hohl once he was sworn in to the Pennsylvania Bar Association in November 2005.
He neglected to tell the Conants that he was not licensed to practice law in the Keystone State during their initial meetings.
* The Conants agreed to pay O’Meara a third of any settlement they received, but later asked that he lower his legal fees after he offered to settle the case for Lyons & Hohl’s insurance policy limit of $11 million without their authorization.
A certified life-care planner, Dr. David B. Stein, determined after O’Meara made the unauthorized offer that it was going to cost more than $23 million to care for Anita Conant during her lifetime.
O’Meara assured the Conants that they would receive more than the policy limit and agreed to lower his fee if they did not.
* During a heated meeting at the Conants’ home prior to the settlement, Anita Conant, who could not speak, mouthed the following to O’Meara: “Tell me why I should not fire you now?” after he said he’d reduce his fee by $500,000.
O’Meara would receive $3 million if the Conants accepted the $11 million settlement, and they’d be left with $8 million.
* O’Meara threatened to sue the Conants for his one-third fee if they fired him and said he would win in court.
O’Meara denied making the threat, but admitted telling the Conants that litigation “gets ugly” and “is an unhappy result for everyone.”
* During a mediation meeting in Philadelphia, O’Meara and James Conant hashed out a new contract that gave O’Meara $2 million in fees for any settlement up to $14.5 million. O’Meara would receive 20 percent of any settlement over that amount.
James Conant said he felt pressured by O’Meara before the hearing — O’Meara told him he would not represent him during the hearing until they agreed on his legal fee — and misunderstood the contract he signed.
He knew he was agreeing to give O’Meara $2 million if the settlement was for $14.5 million, but was unclear on what would happen if the settlement was lower than that amount.
* The mediation hearing concluded with The Cincinnati Insurance Companies agreeing to pay out $11 million. Lyons & Hohl agreed to give the Conants an additional $500,000, but warned that if the family asked for a higher settlement it would likely declare bankruptcy.
* The Conants decided to fire O’Meara after the hearing and pay him his hourly rate, which is not disclosed in court documents, for the time he spent on the case.
* James Conant returned to Philadelphia on March 6, 2006, with a new attorney and accepted the $11.5 million settlement because he feared Lyons & Hohl would take the $500,000 off the table.
* The Conants agreed to pay O’Meara $750,000 and place $1.25 million in an escrow account that would be doled out when their dispute with O’Meara was settled.
O’Meara eventually received $837,000 from the escrow account and the Conants took the remaining $413,000.
Supreme Court upheld a previous complaint
The Supreme Court disciplined O’Meara in 2003 for lying to a judge while representing himself in a divorce and child custody case.
The Supreme Court determined that a public censure rather than suspension or disbarment was sufficient punishment for O’Meara because he made false statements during a case that was personal and emotionally charged.
Public censure was also recommended because O’Meara had maintained a clean disciplinary record since joining the state bar in 1993.