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'King of Torts' at 80 : Melvin Belli: Is the Image Tarnishing?

November 29, 1987|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

"Belli sends investigators to the scene of the accidents to sign up people," a former associate acknowledged, but emphasized that Belli is "not alone. . . . A lot of the big P.I. (personal injury) lawyers have people out there."

The associate recalled an instance in which Belli's firm was interested in representing an accident victim who had been taken to a hospital. "Someone from the office was sent to the person's room. But on the clip that held the intravenous bottle was another lawyer's card. He had gotten there first."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 3, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
A Nov. 29 article in The Times about attorney Melvin Belli, which referred to malpractice suits filed against Belli and lawyers who have been associated with him, did not specify the associates involved. Current Belli associates Richard E. Brown, George O. Fekete, Steven A. Fabbro, Philip C. Gallagher and Kevin R. McLean are not defendants in any malpractice suit.

Belli, however, denies that he solicits clients. After the Northwest crash, he said, "we didn't move out of the office." The survivors' families, he said, called him because of his reputation. After the gas leak in Bhopal, Belli had quipped: "I'm not an ambulance chaser; I always get there before the ambulance arrives." But Belli said he was joking and he did not solicit any clients. A number of Indian attorneys contacted him, he said, and asked if he would file suit in the United States for their clients.

'A Very High Profile'

"I don't have to chase cases--we get dozens of calls a day from prospective clients," Belli said. "I have a very high profile--people have seen me on TV and have read my books. If you want the best heart surgeon you're going to call (Dr. Michael) DeBakey. If you want the best lawyer you're going to call me."

But James Bostwick, who won the $3.8-million legal malpractice judgment against Belli in 1985, disagreed. The suit involved Ted Giesick, who suffered a broken neck in a motorcycle accident in 1972 near San Diego. He was still able to move his arms and legs when he arrived at the hospital. Then Giesick was moved by nurses who were changing his bed sheet, which caused the fractured bones to sever his spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic.

Giesick's family hired Belli's law firm, who reached an out-of-court settlement with the driver's insurance company for $250,000, but failed to recognize the medical malpractice case in time to effectively prosecute it. The statute of limitations on malpractice cases had expired by the time the firm recognized the hospital's negligence. Giesick's family then hired Bostwick.

In the legal malpractice trial, Bostwick introduced as evidence a letter signed by Belli in which Belli promised to personally handle the pretrial discovery on the medical malpractice case and, if necessary, the trial itself. But Belli apparently failed to understand the magnitude of the case, Bostwick believes, and evidently lost interest in the suit.

"The only thing I could find in the entire file that he did on the case," Bostwick said, "was what he wrote on the deposition (of the driver who caused the accident): 'Piss-poor deposition. Waste of time and money.' I'll never forget it."

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