Trial stage set for Chuck Yeager vs. Fresno law firm

Jury selection begins Monday

The Fresno BeeApril 30, 2014 

A judge on Wednesday granted legendary Gen. Charles "Chuck" Yeager's request for a jury trial in his bid to prove a Fresno law firm gave him and his wife bad legal advice in three lawsuits.

Wild, Carter & Tipton contends that it did nothing wrong. It's suing Yeager, 91, and his 55-year-old wife, Victoria, saying they breached a contract by refusing to pay nearly $270,000 for legal services.

In several pretrial rulings Wednesday, Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan set the stage for a dogfight in Fresno County Superior Court that pits one of America's most cherished heroes against Fresno's oldest law firm, which is being represented by one of the largest law firms in Fresno -- McCormick, Barstow, Sheppard, Wayte & Carruth.

While jurors may become enamored with Yeager's exploits, the trial will likely focus on his wife, Victoria, whom he met on a hiking trail near Grass Valley in 2000 and married in August 2003. Yeager's first wife, Glennis, whom he married in 1945, died in 1990.

Since his second 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," attorneys Marshall Whitney and Mandy Jeffcoach, who are representing Wild, Carter & Tipton, say in court papers.

Victoria Yeager was involved in more than 30 lawsuits before marrying Yeager. She not only has a history of filing lawsuits, but she also has a history of not paying her lawyers, Whitney said in court.

Because of Chuck Yeager's fame as a World War II ace and the first man to break the sound barrier, Kapetan slapped a gag order on both sides that prohibits them from talking about the trial so an impartial jury can be picked when the selection process begins Monday.

Court records say Wild, Carter & Tipton represented Chuck and Victoria Yeager in seven suits before ending their relationship in either August or September of 2008. The firm says the Yeagers never paid their bill.

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 Whitney and Jeffcoach say 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, but Kapetan said Wednesday only three cases in which the Yeagers allege legal malpractice and breach of fidicuary duty will be presented to a jury to decide.

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.

Whitney and Jeffcoach claim Wild, Carter & Tipton's lawyers did a good job because the Yeagers won.

"It's hard for the Yeagers to complain of WCT's conduct when it was WCT who successfully got the Yeagers through the pleading stages of the litigation," Whitney and Jeffcoach say in court documents.

But attorney Michael Thomas, who represents Chuck Yeager, said the Yeagers should have recovered attorneys fees in the case.

Because the Yeagers prevailed in the AT&T suit, AT&T was ordered to pay attorney's fees to Yeagers' lawyers, he said. 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 is seeking to get 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 building two townhouses in a homeowners association. "The lawsuit could have been avoided if they were given better advice," he said.

But Whitney denied the allegation, saying Wild, Carter and Tipton lawyers "simply filed an answer" to a complaint after the Yeagers were sued in May 2008. The Yeagers then hired other attorneys to represent them in their five-year legal battle with the homeowners association, he said.

The third case involves Yeager's accusation against a couple he claims breached a contract regarding personal appearances and memorabilia sales. Yeager claimed that Ed and Connie Bowlin failed to pay him and return all of his autographs and memorabilia.

Wild, Carter & Tipton filed a lawsuit on Yeager's behalf in Jan. 14, 2008. But in January 2010, a court ruled against Yeager, saying his complaint had passed the statute of limitations to file such claims. Yeager had until October 2006 to file his claims. He ended up losing $276,000 in the suit, Thomas said.

Thomas contends that Wild, Carter & Tipton should have advised the Yeagers of the statute of limitations before filing the complaint. "It's not rocket science," he told the judge.

But Whitney said the law firm advised the Yeagers of the statute of limitations, but Victoria Yeager still wanted to pursue the complaint with other lawyers.

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

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