In Chuck Yeager trial, Fresno judge tackles complex issues

The Fresno BeeApril 28, 2014 

A civil trial involving legendary Gen. Charles "Chuck" Yeager began Monday with the first man to break the sound barrier and his wife facing accusations of breaching a contract with a Fresno law firm.

The Yeagers fired back, accusing the law firm of Wild, Carter and Tipton of committing legal malpractice.

Whether the Yeagers will be able to prove their allegations in Fresno County Superior Court is still up in the air.

On the first day of trial, Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan reserved a ruling on whether she or a jury will decide the case, but her tentative ruling was to let a jury decide it.

The judge also wasn't sure if the Yeagers had enough admissible evidence to move forward with their malpractice complaint.

To determine if the couple's complaint is legitimate, Kapetan allowed a legal malpractice expert hired by the Yeagers to give a deposition on Tuesday. Once the deposition is completed, both sides will return to court Wednesday and argue whether the complaint is valid.

Yeager, 91, spent Monday morning listening to the complex legal arguments, but soon tired. Because attorney Michael Thomas stepped in Monday to defend the general, Yeager didn't have to stick around for the afternoon session. His 55-year-old wife, Victoria Yeager, had to remain in court because she is representing herself.

Both sides agree that Wild, Carter & Tipton's breach of contract case against the Yeagers will go forward.

The law firm represented Chuck and Victoria Yeager in seven suits before ending their relationship in either August or September of 2008. The firm says the Yeagers have an unpaid bill of nearly $270,000.

The Yeagers, however, contend they owe nothing because they thought the firm was doing the work for free. They also said they never signed a contact with Wild, Carter & Tipton to represent them.

But attorneys Marshall Whitney and Mandy Jeffcoach, who represent Wild, Carter & Tipton, contend in court papers that, even without a written contract, the firm is entitled to be paid for its services, especially since it provided "the Yeagers with monthly billing statements that evidence their hourly rate, the time expended and a description of their work performed."

In its countersuit, the Yeagers contend Wild, Carter and Tipton bungled several cases.

One of the cases involved AT&T.

In November 2007, Wild, Carter & Tipton filed a complaint against AT&T on behalf of the Yeagers, accusing the corporate giant of violating the general's privacy and by using his name without permission in a news release for its Cingular Wireless product. In June 2012, the Yeagers won $135,000 in damages in the case.

In court Monday, Wild, Carter & Tipton's lawyers said the firm did a good job because the Yeagers won.

Because the Yeagers prevailed in the AT&T suit, AT&T was ordered to pay attorney's fees to Yeagers' lawyers, Thomas said Monday on Yeager's behalf. But when the Yeagers asked Wild, Carter & Tipton for a declaration in support of their attorneys fees, the law firm declined, Thomas told Kapetan.

In essence, Wild, Carter & Tipton, in its lawsuit, is now seeking attorney fees from the Yeagers that it could have received from AT&T, Thomas said.

In another case, Wild, Carter & Tipton represented the Yeagers against Park River Oak Estates Homeowners Association in Sacramento.

The association accused the Yeagers of failing to pay a monthly assessment fee. Once the Yeagers got rid of Wild, Carter & Tipton, they were represented by at least five other attorneys before losing the suit and owing $43,135 in damages and about $100,000 in attorneys fees, court records say.

Thomas said Wild, Carter & Tipton never properly advised the Yeagers of the pitfalls of living in a homeowners association. "The lawsuit could have been avoided if they were given better advice," he said.

But Whitney denied the allegation.

In court papers, Whitney and Jeffcoach contend Yeager's wife is taking advantage of him and got him in legal trouble.

Chuck Yeager, who shot down German planes in World War II, was just launching his life as an American hero when he married his first wife, Glennis, in 1945. Chuck and Glennis were married 45 years until her death in 1990. He met actress Victoria Scott D'Angelo on a hiking trail in Grass Valley in 2000, and they married in August 2003.

Since his marriage, the General, as he is referred to in court papers, has been thrust into nearly two dozen lawsuits involving a variety of opponents, including his own children. He also has gone through more than 20 attorneys in a span of less than seven years, including 10 lawyers to fight Wild, Carter & Tipton.

"Prior to that, General Yeager had no real exposure to litigation," Whitney and Jeffcoach say in court papers, which note that Victoria Yeager was involved in more than 30 lawsuits before marrying Yeager.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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