Legal Ethics

Internet ad for 'Jacksonville’s best auto injury attorney' brings reprimand

Updated: A North Carolina lawyer has been reprimanded partly for an Internet ad calling her “Jacksonville’s best auto injury attorney.”

Stephanie Villaver was reprimanded in a February opinion (PDF) noted this week on the Legal Profession Blog and in the most recent edition of the North Carolina State Bar Journal. The bar’s grievance committee issued the reprimand after a probable cause hearing.

The opinion said these claims in Internet advertising and on Villaver’s website violated ethics rules:

• Villaver was “Jacksonville’s best auto injury attorney,” a claim that could not be factually substantiated.

• Villaver would get a person “the settlement you deserve!”

• Villaver was “Jacksonville, North Carolina’s Personal Injury Specialist!” Villaver was not board certified as a personal injury specialist.

• Villaver’s “legal team also specializes in traffic ticket matters.”

According to the opinion, Villaver initially told ethics officials that she and her staffers had reviewed the web information before it was posted. She said she had asked her web designer to correct the problems on her website before going on medical leave, but he later told her he forgot to do so. She also told bar counsel she texted the web designer with the requests to change the website.

“However, you were unable to provide proof of those texted messages due to some problem with your cellphone,” the opinion said.

Later, Villaver advised the grievance committee she was “wrong on my timeline.” Her marketing director said in an affidavit that the web designer put up the website “without our knowledge until the first letter from the state bar.” Villaver also said she didn’t know what was going on with her website during medical leave. The opinion said the grievance committee was concerned that Villaver had misled the committee or that she initially responded to the allegations with a reckless disregard for the truth.

Villaver tells the ABA Journal her web designer modeled her new website after a lawyer’s website in another state. It went live without her knowledge, she said, around the time she took medical leave to have corrective surgery for an umbilical hernia caused by a six-hour cesarean section.

Villaver says the bar sent notice of the website violations during the medical leave when she was taking doctor-prescribed medications for intense pain. She tried several times to get a continuance, she said, but wasn’t successful. “So when I was unable to get continuance, I submitted something” in response, she said.

“That response was probably not the best thing—I was on a lot of medication,” Villaver says. “You can tell it’s not my writing style; it was incoherent.”

She says she was unable to supply the bar with her texts to the web designer because she lost data when she upgraded to a new cellphone. She did file a supplemental answer after her initial response.

“I’m not saying I don’t deserve any kind of admonishment” for the website, she said. “I’m not trying to completely exonerate myself, but at the same time I think the technological aspect of it got away from me.” Her advice to other attorneys: “You have to be really cognizant of website postings.”

Updated at 9:30 a.m. to include Villaver’s comments.

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