A product of video conference Parish Council meetings, Christina Heck was forced to update the status of Ascension’s litigation against Berkley Insurance to recoup the $231,829 paid to former president Kenny Matassa’s criminal defense attorney. Cross-Summary Judgment Motions having been decided in July by an Ad Hoc District Court Judge (filling the Division D seat vacated by Judge Jessie LeBlanc in February), Berkley Insurance will lodge an appeal to the First Circuit. Heck appeared before on Thursday to seek another $20,000 which was approved without objection, and a minimum of discussion.
The new total authorized for Heck’s law firm (Daigle, Fisse & Kessenich) is $95,000.
“The defendant is pulling out all the stops procedurally,” Heck described the time-honored, deep-pocket legal tactic.
How many taxpayer dollars are the council willing to spend on the possibility that Matassa’s legal fees might be reimbursed?
Matassa had been a party-plaintiff (also represented by Heck) along with the parish until December 5, 2019. That’s when the council voted to pay off Lewis Unglesby’s bill for representing Matassa against a felony bribery charge, leaving taxpayers holding the bag; unless, that is, the suit to recoup payment against Berkley is successful.
Berkley moved for Summary Judgment denying the existence of insurance coverage for the legal fees, which was denied.
The parish’s Cross-Summary Judgment motion argued that Berkley was in bad faith for refusing to reimburse Matassa/Ascension Parish Government. The trial court rejected the argument, leading Christina Heck to recommend the parish’s own appeal.
A finding of bad faith against Berkley could trigger an award of attorney fees and, potentially, punitive damages. Louisiana Revised Statute 22:1973 provides that an insurer “owes to his insured a duty of good faith and fair dealing,” including the duty to make reasonable efforts to settle viable claims. A statutory penalty is available if the parish can establish “bad faith” by Berkley, up to two times the amount of damages proven.
Without a judicial finding of Berkley’s bad faith Ascension Parish will not recover its fees paid to Daigle, Fisse & Kessenich. How many billable hours can Christina Heck rack up if this matter goes to trial? That sum is likely to exceed the $231,829 already shelled out to pay off Unglesby’s criminal fees; meaning a trial victory could still leave parish taxpayers in the red.
Curiously, Unglesby waited 15 months to collect his money. Matassa was acquitted, after the softest prosecution this writer has ever witnessed, in July of 2018. Does Unglesby grant every criminal client such forbearance?
The answer is “NO” and a fair conclusion would be that Unglesby knew the fix was in; i.e. a council majority assured Matassa and his lawyer that reimbursement would be forthcoming…after the October 12, 2019 council elections. We digress.
Go all the way to trial against Berkley and lose…the total costs for Matassa’s indictment will exceed half-a-million dollars.
“Do we have a stopping point in mind?” queried Councilman Chase Melancon on Thursday.
Which elicited Councilman Travis Turner’s admonition to keep quiet. If Berkley’s lawyers (they already know, by the way) learn of the council’s reticence to proceed, Christina Heck can expect an awful lot more discovery requests and pre-trial hearings to justify more, and more, and more…billable hours.