2 Giants of the Tort World Joust in a County Courtroom : Feud Started in 1981 Over Stuntwoman's Malpractice Suit

Times Staff Writer

For the last week, curious lawyers have been cramming into a small Orange County courtroom to watch two feuding titans of the tort world clash in a legal malpractice case.

Representing four plaintiffs is San Francisco's flamboyant Melvin M. Belli, 77, who relishes the "King of Torts" sobriquet given him years ago by a magazine. He has pioneered new courtroom techniques and helped to usher in the products-liability era during his often controversial career. He co-founded what is now known as the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, the nation's premier organization for the plaintiffs' bar.

The defendant is Los Angeles lawyer R. Browne Greene, 48, less known publicly but regarded as one of the state's top trial lawyers. He is a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, an elite group of 100 plaintiffs' personal injury lawyers nationwide who each have won at least one jury verdict of $1 million in damages, exclusive of punitive damages.

For all they have in common professionally, Belli and Greene have been at war for years.

"They're both big-time trial lawyers, and big-time trial lawyers have big egos," said Los Angeles attorney David R. Glickman, who knows both men.

The malpractice trial, in which testimony began last Monday in Superior Court in Santa Ana, centers on claims by four of Greene's former clients that he failed to tell them about a $2-million settlement offer in a 1981 trial, which was subsequently lost, and that he later tried to cover up his actions.

But the lawyers' dislike for each other, which they both have long acknowledged and which became evident in Greene's testimony Wednesday, threatens to overshadow the malpractice trial--in part because the feud and the credibility of several witnesses are so intertwined.

So far, testimony has put into doubt the credibility of the plaintiffs' key witness, private investigator Walter C. Goode of Orange, who worked on cases for Greene's firm before taking the malpractice case to Belli.

In coming days, other witnesses are expected to testify about Belli's anger at losing a client with a well-publicized case to Greene, and of Belli's successful efforts to get the client back. They also may tell about Belli's role in Greene's losing campaign for the presidency of the California Trial Lawyers Assn. and about how a public statement attributed to Belli led to his taking on the malpractice case against Greene.

If the feud is not exposed entirely in the malpractice case, the rest will probably be told in two other suits against Greene arising out of events in 1981, or in suits Greene and his partners say they plan to file against Belli.

For Greene and his firm, known in 1981 as Greene, O'Reilly, Agnew & Broillet, the origins of the feud with Belli are obscure. Partner Charles B. O'Reilly said law firm members began hearing in the late 1970s that Belli, whom none of the lawyers knew personally, was making disparaging remarks about Greene and the firm.

For Belli, the start of the feud is clear: "Greene tried to steal one of my cases."

The case involved Hollywood stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz, 28, who was paralyzed in a car crash near Las Vegas on June 25, 1980, while she was doubling for actress Farrah Fawcett in the movie "Cannonball Run." Von Beltz was a passenger in a modified car that went out of control and crashed head-on into a van.

Von Beltz and her family had hired Belli in the fall of 1980 to file a negligence suit against the producers, director and others connected with the movie. But by the following spring, according to Greene and lawyers in the Belli firm at the time, Von Beltz and her family had become concerned with the lack of progress in the case.

On the advice of another lawyer, Von Beltz switched from Belli to Greene, who filed a $10-million lawsuit on her behalf on May 28, 1981, less than a month before the time for filing such a suit would have run out.

Yet only a few weeks later, Belli filed a $71-million suit on behalf of Von Beltz.

What happened, said Greene and the former Belli lawyers, was that an angry Belli spent a few hours with the Von Beltz family and wooed her back as his client.

Belli's office actually filed two suits, one of which was a photocopy of Greene's 37-page suit with the first and last pages retyped to insert the Belli office name and the new amount of damages sought. Nine other pages were retyped with minor changes, and the name of Greene's firm was blocked out on all but one of the remaining photocopied pages.

Some of the skirmishing between the two lawyers is evident in the bills they sent each other. When Greene first got the Von Beltz case, he said the Belli firm billed him $20,000 for work already done. When Belli got the case back, he complained that Greene billed him for hiring a limousine to pick up Von Beltz for an office visit.

One Case Settled

In December, 1982, Von Beltz's separate workers compensation case against the film company was settled for $1.13 million, and Greene's firm filed a lien in that settlement for the investigative and legal work it did on the negligence suit. Belli's office, claiming that the lien was blocking the settlement and should properly have been filed against Belli rather than Von Beltz, quickly responded with a $15-million suit accusing Greene and his firm of inflicting emotional distress on Von Beltz.

Attorney Glickman, who attended the settlement hearing, insists that "the lien didn't block the settlement."

"That's a lawsuit over bad blood, not over facts," he contends.

Toward the end of the Von Beltz dispute, Greene stepped in for partner Charles O'Reilly in a product-liability suit against Ford Motor Co. that was scheduled for trial at a time O'Reilly had to try another case.

A $2-million settlement offer at the close of the Ford trial on July 30, 1981, set in motion the events that provided the basis for the malpractice suit now unfolding in Santa Ana.

Greene rejected the offer--without the clients' knowledge or consent, the malpractice suit claims--and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the car company.

At the malpractice trial, Belli accused Greene of rejecting the settlement because he was seeking a "bell-ringer" verdict as a way to enhance his candidacy in the election that fall for the presidency of the California Trial Lawyers Assn.

'Didn't Need' It

Not so, Greene insisted last week. "I didn't need another million-dollar verdict," he said.

Greene's opponent in the election was Los Angeles lawyer Roberta Ritter, a friend of Belli's. Belli took an active role in the campaign, writing letters and making phone calls to lawyers, urging them to support Ritter. Greene and O'Reilly claim that Belli also made disparaging remarks about Greene and the firm, and Belli said at the time that he did not like Greene.

The election was won by Ritter, but only after a bitter, mud-slinging campaign in which the candidates charged each other with violations of election procedures. Ritter is expected to be one of Belli's expert witnesses against Greene in the malpractice trial.

Partly because of the campaign, word of what happened in the Ford case spread throughout the legal community.

In its December, 1981, issue, the American Lawyer, a trade magazine for attorneys, cited Greene's rejection of the $2-million offer as the "worst performance" by a personal injury lawyer in the nation in 1981.

The magazine said that other plaintiffs' lawyers were "angling" for the malpractice case against Greene, ready to claim he acted improperly by failing to get his clients' "informed consent" before rejecting the offer.

The story also quoted Belli as saying, "I would like to be their lawyer."

Greene demanded a retraction. He later said an American Lawyer editor told him that first, he would have to obtain signed statements from the plaintiffs supporting him.

Sought Statements

Greene said he sent private investigator Goode to get two plaintiffs who had shown up in court to discuss the offer to sign statements saying that they had been told of the $2-million offer, had rejected it and, after the case was lost, had authorized an appeal.

Goode obtained the signed statements in February. But, he testified last week, he was upset about it because he knew Greene had rejected the $2-million offer without telling his clients the amount and without getting their consent. Instead, Goode said he was told by Greene to relay to the clients only that the offer was not enough, and was rejected.

"My conscience was bothering me," he said. "Browne Greene had done something wrong."

With photocopies of the signed statements, Goode said, he approached "six or seven" lawyers about handling a malpractice case. He soon learned about the American Lawyer story and, in May, 1982, decided he had found the right lawyer for the job--Belli.

Belli claims that Greene sought the statements in an effort to cover up his negligence. Greene testified that he sent the statements to the American Lawyer, which did not publish them but did print an accompanying letter to the editor from Greene in its June edition. Curiously, partner O'Reilly testified that the statements were not sent, but he added that he and Greene regarded the publication of the letter as a sufficient retraction.

Greene and O'Reilly contend that Goode approached Belli with the prospective malpractice case out of pique at the lawyers for deducting $8,000 from his fee on an earlier case.

Usually Asked 10%

The deduction was warranted, the lawyers say, because Goode did not do the investigative work he was supposed to do under his own contract with the clients. His contracts typically called for a percentage, usually 5% or 10%, of any award or settlement as his fee.

Goode, for instance, had a 10% contract with the four clients in the Ford case, and he admitted he was upset about losing a chance at $200,000.

When he learned of the $8,000 fee reduction, Goode "talked the (Ford) plaintiffs into going over to Mr. Belli," O'Reilly contends.

Goode acknowledged that his actions in the malpractice issue coincided with the Greene, O'Reilly firm's actions in reducing his fee. He also sued the firm for the fee.

When Belli agreed to sue Greene for malpractice, he also took over the appeal of the Ford case.

Lawyers for the Greene, O'Reilly firm complained at the time that this constituted a conflict of interest. If Belli won the appeal, they argued, there would be minimal damages in a malpractice case because the $2-million offer would be back on the table. Only by losing the appeal could Belli pursue the suit against Greene, they claimed.

Belli contended that the appeal, which he lost last year, and the malpractice action were not related. An Orange County Superior Court judge agreed with him when he refused to stay the malpractice suit until the appeal was decided.

Meanwhile, Greene's firm has plans to sue Belli. Greene said the firm will claim that Belli's suit against the Greene, O'Reilly firm concerning the Von Beltz workers compensation settlement was filed maliciously. The firm also is considering a defamation suit against Belli but will make a decision after the malpractice trial.

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