Settlement reached in case pitting Chuck Yeager against Fresno law firm

The Fresno BeeMay 7, 2014 

YEAGER

Chuck Yeager, second from left, smiles as he exits an elevator with his wife Victoria Yeager, second from right, after appearing in court for jury instructions on Tuesday, May 6, 2014 in Fresno, Calif.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

On the eve of trial, legendary test pilot Gen. Charles "Chuck" Yeager and his wife reached a settlement in their five-year legal battle with a Fresno law firm.

Because the terms are confidential, it is not known who blinked first -- the Yeagers or Wild, Carter & Tipton.

"The parties entered into a confidential settlement and have resolved their differences and cannot speak about the matter further," is all attorney Marshall Whitney would say on behalf of Wild, Carter & Tipton, which sued Yeager, 91, and his 55-year-old wife, Victoria Yeager, for an unpaid bill of nearly $270,000.

Because of the settlement, the Yeagers, who countersued Wild, Carter & Tipton for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty, declined to comment.

The settlement was reached around 4:15 p.m. Tuesday -- just a few hours after a jury of eight women and six men were selected to hear evidence in the trial.

Jurors learned of the settlement Wednesday morning when they arrived at Fresno County Superior Court expecting to hear opening statements.

"I was kind of excited and looking forward to the trial," said juror Aria Dominguez, 19, of Fresno.

Dominguez said it was her first time on a jury and she was a perfect participant: she knew nothing about the case, or Yeager and his exploits as a World War II fighter pilot and the first man to break the sound barrier.

What she will miss most, she said, is watching Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan, preside over the case.

"The judge was really nice to us," Dominguez said.

Tuesday, Yeager said he was ready to fight, telling a large gathering of potential jurors: "You look like a good bunch of guys to fight a war with."

In an attempt to defuse Yeager's homespun popularity, Whitney reminded the gathering of its purpose: "It's not a war. It's a search for the truth."

Once the jury was picked around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, settlement talks became serious.

Kapetan asked both sides if they wanted Judge M. Bruce Smith to mediate a settlement since Kapetan couldn't do it because, as the trial judge, she had to remain a neutral party.

Initially, Victoria Yeager said no, then agreed to the participate. The two sides met with Smith during the lunch break and again in the afternoon. Once a settlement was reached, it was put on the record in Kapetan's courtroom.

The Yeagers, who live in Penn Valley in California's Gold Country northeast of Sacramento, were up against Fresno's oldest law firm, which was represented by one of the largest law firms in the Valley -- McCormick, Barstow, Sheppard, Wayte & Carruth. While Yeager was represented by attorney Michael Thomas, Victoria Yeager represented herself.

Court records say Wild, Carter & Tipton represented the couple in seven lawsuits before ending their relationship in either August or September of 2008. When the Yeagers didn't pay for legal services, Wild, Carter & Tipton sued them in January 2009 for breach of contract.

The Yeagers countersued, saying the lawyers bungled the cases. The Yeagers also contend they owe nothing because they thought the lawyers were doing the cases for free since there was no written contract, court records say.

Wild, Carter & Tipton, however, said in court papers that, even without a written contract, the firm was 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."

If the case had gone to trial, Wild, Carter & Tipton would have had to overcome Yeager's status as an American hero. But the Yeagers had their own legal challenges.

In opening statements, Whitney and co-counsel Mandy Jeffcoach were planning to focus on Victoria Yeager, who met her future husband on a hiking trail near Grass Valley in 2000 and married him 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, court records show. 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 his second marriage, Yeager had no or little exposure to litigation, Whitney and Jeffcoach say in court papers.

But days before the trial, Yeager defended his wife, saying he is happily married.

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

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