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Bill Would End Gag Clauses That Stifle Victims Who Sue

April 19, 2005|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

Jody Costellos said that her San Diego home contractor demanded during settlement negotiations in 2002 that she withdraw the complaint she had filed with the Contractors State License Board. When she refused, scuttling the settlement talks, her lawyer promptly dropped her as a client, she said.

"That was my reward for not agreeing to a gag clause," Costellos said sarcastically.

Costellos found another lawyer and ended up reaching a settlement that helped recoup a portion of her costs, which included $60,000 for the flawed house renovation and $112,000 worth of repairs. Her contractor was given a three-year license suspension, she said.

"With contractors, the last thing they want is for you to complain to those regulatory agencies because then they get their licenses revoked and they can't practice," said Costellos, who now assists other aggrieved homeowners through her contractorsfromhell.com website.

But other victims naively abide by the terms of the gag clause. Conner, the blinded woman, who now lives in Los Angeles, said her attorney wanted her to pay up front toward the cost of a trial if she didn't agree to the settlement agreement. She acquiesced.

Conner alleged that during her ordeal, she had asked her doctor whether he had been sued and he said no. She said she later discovered that Escajeda had settled a number of malpractice and negligence lawsuits. In addition, his license had been suspended for five years during the 1990s after he was accused of fondling women's newly augmented breasts while they were still under anesthesia, and making sexually inappropriate comments to other patients.

Reached by telephone, Escajeda, now 75, said he was not familiar with any gag clause in his lawsuit settlement with Conner and referred questions to his attorney, Marianne Barth. She did not respond to inquiries from The Times.

Conner, a jewelry designer and writer, said she lost her depth perception when she lost use of her eye. She said her teenage children had to run her business while she was recuperating.

The medical board eventually learned about her case through someone else and included it in the board's accusation against Escajeda. Even so, in an interview, she would only refer to him as "Doctor X."

"When the medical board called and said they're going to investigate this, my first thought was, 'I've been waiting for your call,' " she said.

Conner still believes that she was legally able to speak about the case only because investigators approached her. "What I signed was so ironclad," she said, "I will always be sort of looking over my shoulder."

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