Sweet Brown Litigation Dismissed Due To Negligence
Sweet Brown is an alias used by Kimberly Wilkins, a 24 year-old Oklahoma City resident who recently escaped from a burning apartment complex. Ms. Wilkins is a plaintiff’s lawyer in personal injury claims and has represented several clients recently who have been seriously injured or killed as a result of burns caused by defective products or negligence. In this case, Ms. Wilkins made the disturbing discovery that the manufacturer of one of the apartment complex’s floor heating systems had been instructed by their underwriters to classify the floors as “high risk.” This instruction was given despite the fact that the company known as Underwriter Laboratories, Inc. had sent a letter to the Department of Housing and Urban Development informing them that their equipment was not equipped to perform such a task. What resulted was an apartment complex that was left uninspected and dangerous for residents.
Ms. Wilkins is an attorney who has worked successfully with both the owners of the complex as well as the Underwriters Laboratories. After learning of these circumstances, Ms. Wilkins retained Sweet Brown Law, a reputable and experienced litigation law firm based in Oklahoma City, to represent the victims in this lawsuit. A number of similar cases had already been filed in various courts throughout the country involving a variety of manufacturers, companies, and service providers. Ms. Wilkins was determining to proceed in this case vigorously, as she knew the results would be far from favorable for the victims.
The victims were indeed entitled to compensation. Yet, the real problem was not with the manufacturer or the underwriters’ per se, but with the defendant, the management corporation. Ms. Wilkins notes that the instructions to the management corporation included wording that read, in pertinent part, that “if there are any safety or health issues with your tenants, they must inform you so that you can address the issue.” What the attorneys did not tell the management corporation was that they were legally required to forward such information to the tenant’s insurance carrier or the attorney handling the lawsuit. Had the attorneys simply instructed the defendant to inform the plaintiffs that such information was required to be provided to them, then the lawsuit could have been delayed much further down the road, saving the plaintiff additional time and money.
Having reviewed this case in detail, I concur with Ms. Wilkins’ observations. However, what I find troubling is the implication that the defendant bears the legal responsibility for the actions of their agents. The reality is that the company’s agents, while held by the parent corporation, have their own individual proprietary interests. In many cases, this may mean that the attorney-client relationship will never be adequately served by such agents. Further, such conflicts inevitably occur even between and among different types of attorneys.
This litigation case ultimatelyolved in favor of the Underwriters Laboratories. A majority of the jurors voted in favor of awarding damages to the plaintiffs. As a result of the jury’s decision, Sweet Brown Insurance Company paid damages to the plaintiff, but did not retain any attorneys to represent him. The insurance carrier did, however, make certain that it had adequate policies in place to protect its interests in the event that it was liable for injuries to an individual who contracted its products.
In light of this negative publicity, and in light of the fact that this lawsuit advanced a cause that could have significant societal impact on all individuals who employed or purchased Sweet Brown Insurance, and as a consequence suffered injuries as a result of the defendants’ negligence, the plaintiff filed for a discharge. The complaint provided the basis for this discharge. Although the complaint named and identified Sweet Brown, it failed to state that the underlying claim against the company was based on negligence. The dismissal of this complaint relied on a contention that the complaint failed to state a claim which could have been brought at trial based on negligence. We affirm the dismissal.