Katrina victim awarded $1 million
A Kauai lawyer swindled the woman of $373,000 from the sale of her home
LIHUE » After two days of deliberation and a two-week trial, a Kauai Circuit Court jury awarded $1 million yesterday to a Hurricane Katrina survivor swindled by her Kauai lawyer.
While the lawyer, Andrew Lichtenberg, has since been convicted and disbarred, the judgment also names escrow company Title Guaranty Inc. as being partially responsible for the loss.
The plaintiff, Ellen Hyman, attempted to sell her stake in a Princeville home in 2004. But the $373,000 that was transferred from the buyer, Ken Houghton, to Title Guaranty went to Lichtenberg.
Hyman had paid Lichtenberg $1,500 to represent her at the closing. She testified she never even knew Title Guaranty was involved in the transaction.
Instead of wiring the funds to Hyman, however, Lichtenberg took the money out of his client trust account and moved to Indonesia. He has since been disbarred, and convicted in federal court of fraud and other charges. He is to be sentenced in federal court May 21, and a default judgment against him has already been awarded.
But it will be Title Guaranty, the state's largest escrow company, that will be responsible for making the payout and covering the plaintiff's attorney's fees as well, Hyman's lawyers said.
Title Guaranty is expected to ask the court to review the judgment.
"She is happy to see that justice is finally being done," said Hyman's lawyer, Daniel Hempey, after court yesterday. "She's thrilled at the possibility of being able to move back to Kauai."
Lichtenberg, who testified at the trial that he still has $200,000 left in an Indonesian bank, will be responsible for paying what he can to Title Guaranty for the judgment, Hempey added.
Lawyers for Title Guaranty argued at trial that they had no legal obligation to protect Hyman, who was not their client.
They just followed the procedure set up by Lichtenberg and put the money in his client trust account, which is specifically set up to keep a lawyer's funds separate from his or her client's.
Lichtenberg was to blame, they said, not Title Guaranty.
The jurors, however, found 11-1 that the state's largest escrow company was 20 percent responsible for the loss. They also found that Hyman was 5 percent to blame and Lichtenberg was 75 percent at fault.
Hyman was also represented by Margery Bronster and Jeff Crabtree of Honolulu.
After moving from Kauai in 2003, Hyman returned to her home near Lake Pontchartrain.
During Hurricane Katrina, Hyman, who is a cancer survivor and has diabetes, was forced to spend days on top of her roof as flooding nearly swept away her home.
After spending nearly a week in a hunting cabin, Hyman got in touch with Hempey and his associates. They were able to help Hyman get to safety.
She still lives in her damaged home near Lake Pontchartrain, Hempey added.