Jury Rules Lawyer Must Pay Nearly $800,000 for Mishandling Lawsuit

Times Staff Writer

It has been almost a decade since Joseph Sammut lost his $9-an-hour job cleaning jetliners for American Airlines because his bosses accused him of stealing 10 cans of soda from a Boeing 727 parked at Los Angeles International Airport.

Suddenly out of work after 18 years on the job, the Inglewood man appealed to his union for aid, and when that did not help, he called on an attorney to file a lawsuit against the airline and union on his behalf.

This week, Sammut, now 60, finally won a victory of sorts in the case--but not against the airline for dismissing him and not against the Transport Workers Union for failing to get his job back.


After a three-week trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, the one-time maintenance man was awarded almost $800,000 in damages against Century City attorney Richard G. Sherman, the lawyer he had hired to help him.

By an 11-1 margin, a jury found that Sherman had erred when he dropped the lawsuit without Sammut’s approval, leaving the maintenance man with no recourse against his one-time employer and the union.

“This is a large award against an attorney,” said lawyer Arthur Kalnit, who sued Sherman for legal malpractice on Sammut’s behalf. “You’re not talking about a movie star who loses a contract. You’re talking about a guy who made $9 an hour.”

Sammut had claimed that he was moving the cans of soda from the back of the plane to the front when he was accused of theft in December, 1978.

He went to Sherman, a specialist in criminal law, on the advice of a friend when the union “didn’t do anything for him,” Kalnit said.

Sherman asked for a $2,500 retainer to cover the costs of depositions and other expenses associated with filing a lawsuit, and Sammut began what would be a fruitless search for another job.


“He (Sherman) spent the money on we know not what,” Kalnit said. “He took no depositions, subpoenaed no records. . . . Sammut was told things were going beautifully.”

Had attorney Sherman obtained the airline records, Kalnit said, he would have discovered that under company policy, workers may only be accused of theft if they remove property from airliners.

‘Rendered Unemployable’

“He never left the plane,” Kalnit said. “But because of the theft charge, he was rendered unemployable. He looked for work for six years at every airline in town.”

Then in 1982, as the litigation was making its way through federal court, Sherman agreed to dismiss the case against the union, Kalnit said. No reason was given, he said, and Sammut was not told.

Following the union’s lead, American Airlines warned Sherman that it, too, would seek a dismissal. Kalnit said the warning was ignored.

“Sherman called Sammut and said, ‘I have bad news for you,’ ” Kalnit said, adding that the attorney told Sammut, “ ‘I (messed) up. I want you to sue me.’ ”

However, Howard Fields, Sherman’s attorney, said his client never invited the lawsuit but did admit that he had erred. “It is in the rules of professional conduct that a lawyer should be honest with his client.”

Throughout the Superior Court trial, Sherman and his attorney contended that he dropped Sammut’s litigation because the case was not winnable.

“Our main defense was the client would not have prevailed . . . if the action had gone to trial because Mr. Sammut was arrested on the spot for stealing,” Fields said. He said Sherman believed that the firing was justified under airline regulations.

The verdict, Fields said, probably will be appealed.

Sherman was out of town and could not be reached for comment.