By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: December 15, 2009
After 16 years of practicing law, a prominent Keene personal injury lawyer might have to find a new profession.
Timothy A. O’Meara committed deceit, dishonesty, fraud or misrepresentation while handling a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for the family of Anita Conant, a Hampton woman who was paralyzed in a crash four years ago, according to a hearing panel for the N.H. Supreme Court Attorney Discipline Office in Concord.
The panel, which is composed of three lawyers and a non-lawyer, heard four days of testimony from O’Meara, the Conants and other witnesses before finding “clear and convincing evidence” that O’Meara violated state rules of professional conduct, panel Chairman Robert C. Varney wrote in a Dec. 2 report.
Disciplinary counsel Landya B. McCafferty, who acted as a prosecutor during the hearings, recommended Monday that O’Meara be disbarred in the states where he is licensed to practice law: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont.
O’Meara’s attorney, Michael R. Callahan, asked that O’Meara not face any sanctions, or, at most, be reprimanded.
A reprimand is at the lowest end of the disciplinary spectrum; disbarment is the harshest penalty. Other sanctions include public censure and suspension.
While the panel has 60 days to determine what, if any, disciplinary action O’Meara should face, it is expected to release a recommendation within the next two weeks, Callahan and McCafferty said.
The panel’s recommendation will be forwarded to the state’s Professional Conduct Committee, which will issue its own decision, usually in less than six months.
The conduct committee consists of eight lawyers and four non-lawyers and has final say on disciplinary cases in which the maximum sanction is a six-month suspension from practicing law. The state Supreme Court determines cases involving possible disbarment.
Callahan said he will argue against any disciplinary action that is greater than reprimand. He can present his argument to the conduct committee and, if necessary, the state Supreme Court.
After exhausting those appeals, the final recourse is filing an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
After a horrific crash, family faces legal woes
In May 2005, Anita Conant was stopped at a traffic light in Pennsylvania, where she was attending her father’s funeral, when a dump truck slammed into the back of her car.
The impact launched Conant’s car 130 feet down the road before it landed on its roof in a ditch.
Conant’s spine was severed and she was paralyzed from the neck down.
A week after the crash, Conant’s husband, James Conant, hired O’Meara on the recommendation of his brother, Craig Conant.
After taking the case, O’Meara consulted a certified life-care planner who determined it would cost more than $23 million to care for Anita Conant during her lifetime.
Then O’Meara pursued an $11.5 million settlement from Lyons & Hohl Paving Inc., the company that owned the dump truck involved in the crash, and its insurer, The Cincinnati Insurance Companies, according to McCafferty.
He went after and eventually received the settlement without authorization from the Conants and with disregard for the life-care planner’s estimate because he wanted a quick payday, according to McCafferty.
O’Meara wanted to collect at least $2 million in legal fees from the settlement, but the Conants contested his fees and a judge awarded him $1.6 million — the largest payment of his law career.
Before the settlement was finalized, the Conants had asked O’Meara what would happen if they fired him. He threatened to sue them for a third of any settlement they received, according to McCafferty.
During the disciplinary hearing, O’Meara denied threatening the Conants with litigation.
But he also testified that he never informed the Conants that their contract gave them the right to fire him at any time.
If the Conants had fired O’Meara, the contract stated that they would have to pay him and any of his employees who worked on their case $275 per hour.
No one at O’Meara’s firm kept track of the hours that went into the Conant case, according to O’Meara’s testimony. That means O’Meara might not have been able to collect any legal fees if the Conants had fired him.
O’Meara also backdated a crucial letter to an attorney for The Cincinnati Insurance Companies, according to McCafferty.
The letter notified the attorney, Robert Davis, that the Conants were unwilling to accept the insurance settlement that was on the table.
The letter was written the same day Davis accepted O’Meara’s unauthorized offer to settle the case, but it was dated four days earlier, according to McCafferty.
O’Meara testified that the erroneous date on the letter was an innocent mistake.
In 2003, O’Meara was publicly censured for a similar mistake. He lied to a judge about having the wrong date on a document he filed with the court while representing himself in a divorce and child custody case.
Because O’Meara had maintained an unblemished disciplinary record since he joined the state bar in 1993, the conduct committee opted for public censure rather than a harsher sanction.
Few disciplinary cases in New Hampshire reach the level of disbarment, which usually cripples a lawyer’s career.
Only two lawyers were barred from practicing law in the state last year, and no lawyers were disbarred in 2006 and 2007.