Nashville attorney Bob Whitaker's solo practice is off to an up-and-down start.
U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger yesterday issued an order requiring Whitaker to appear before her on Friday and show cause why he should not face reprimand, suspension or disbarment for violating the rules of the court.
Those rules prohibit attorneys from asking jurors about their decisions after they have handed down a verdict. But last Friday, Whitaker allegedly questioned members of the panel that had just awarded a $1.2 million judgment to his clients, a Macon County couple who had been in a car wreck involving a Wal-Mart truck. The jury had declined to award punitive damages to his clients.
The judge's order alludes to a transcript of an interview she conducted with the jurors after learning of the incident, "which was promptly reported to her." The transcript itself is a sealed record.
NashvillePost.com has been unable to reach the attorney for comment on the show-cause order.
Whitaker just launched his practice at the end of July after 12 years as senior attorney in the law office of personal-injury attorney Bart Durham. On Aug. 14, Durham filed suit against Whitaker, claiming that efforts by Whitaker to obtain part of a recent legal settlement had amounted to "attempted extortion and/or embezzlement."
Whitaker said that legal action arose from a "misunderstanding" and predicted Durham would soon "dismiss the case with prejudice." It remains pending.
In the Wal-Mart case, after a three-day trial, plaintiffs Douglas Becker and Diane Becker-Knox won compensatory damages for medical expenses, pain and suffering, permanent injury, disfigurement and loss of enjoyment of life. They sued after being involved in a four-vehicle accident in February 2008 that they blamed on a Wal-Mart semi trailer.
The judgment form said the jury "did not find by clear and convincing evidence that the plaintiffs established their entitlement to punitive damages."
Earlier in the proceedings, Judge Trauger ruled that the couple could not be awarded damages from "loss of consortium," or being deprived of each other's company as man and wife, a claim commonly made in personal-injury cases. The reason: They had never obtained a marriage license, although they had a church wedding in 2003.
Douglas Becker had testified that "the whole context of license, to my understanding, is that it’s permission to do something to make something legal that was already fundamentally your right to do. So in my own personal opinion, it’s foolishness, okay?"
Scott Carey of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz in Nashville, who represented Wal-Mart along with colleague Sam Bowman, declined to comment on the jury's verdict or the judge's inquiry into Whitaker's actions.