Jury awards $2.2 million for lawyer's actions

Posted: Sunday, August 05, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A Superior court jury has awarded more than $2.2 million to the former owners of the Chatanika Gold Camp, deciding they were misrepresented repeatedly by their longtime lawyer, Art Robson.

After a weeklong trial and four hours of deliberation, the jury Thursday determined Robson was responsible for Pam and Larry McLaughlin losing ownership of the camp, being on the losing end of a $1 million lawsuit, and losing out on the chance to recover much of the money via a lawsuit.

The jury also ruled that Robson had acted fraudulently by transferring several land parcels to his wife and a trust in her name.

The McLaughlins bought the Old F.E. Gold Camp, now known as the Chatanika Gold Camp, in 1982, operating it as a tourist business and also living there.

In 1989, the McLaughlins were unable to meet payments on a loan and were told the property would be foreclosed and auctioned off.

The couple said they were reassured by Robson that they could avoid paying off the note until after the March 1990 auction and still keep the property. Instead, they were evicted.

The couple's lawyer, Mike McDonald, argued that Robson could have avoided the foreclosure in a number of ways, such as simply filing for bankruptcy.

Robson contended he had struck a deal with the buyer's lawyer on the day of the auction for the sale to be rescinded, but the other lawyer didn't honor the agreement.

The jury found Robson was to blame for the foreclosure and eviction.

In late 1990, still believing Robson could reclaim the camp for them, the McLaughlins reached an agreement with businessman Masayoshi Okumura. Okumura paid them to build tourist cabins and a building designed for aurora viewing at the camp.

But the McLaughlins didn't tell Okumura about the ownership dispute, and when they lost the camp he sued them for fraud and won a judgment of just over $1 million.

The McLaughlins claimed Robson told them they were not obliged to tell Okumura about the ownership issues, which Robson denied during the trial.

But the jury this week found that Robson was directly responsible for the loss of that suit.

Two related suits were pending against the McLaughlins in the early 1990s. In August 1993, their bankruptcy trustee agreed to sell the Mclaughlins' interest in the suits to the Chatanika Gold Camp Partnership.

It wasn't clear whether the trustee had in the process also sold away the couple's right to sue Robson for malpractice. The McLaughlins filed a motion for clarification in bankruptcy court.

It was here, the jury concluded, that Robson's behavior crossed the line from negligence to fraud. In December 1994, Robson signed an agreement to drop the McLaughlins' motion for clarification, without consulting them.

Robson admitted signing the document without speaking to the McLaughlins, but said it was just one in a stack of documents and he had not realized its significance.

The jury also decided Robson was negligent in the bankruptcy proceeding by failing to inform the McLaughlins that their right to sue him counted as an asset.

Finally, the jury ruled that Robson's decision to transfer the land parcels to his wife and the trust was an attempt to protect those parcels from a potential lawsuit.

The McLaughlins' lawyer noted the process of transferring the land began the same day in 1995 that the couple threatened to sue.

Altogether, the jury awarded the McLaughlins $2,269,454, including $300,000 in non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, and $750,000 in punitive damages.

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