Trials and Litigation

Paralegal points way to $4.25M judgment reversal

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A stunning reversal of fortune for the plaintiffs in a $4.25 million truck-crash case resulted from a defense-team paralegal’s ability to read French.

A charred document from the wreck scene that had been assumed to be a birth certificate for the victim, Hawa Sissoko, was in fact a marriage license, in French, from her home country of Mali. That sent the defense scrambling to determine whether Sissoko, a 28-year-old immigrant living in Chicago at the time of the 2007 accident, was married, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. She was, but her uncle, serving as estate administrator, produced a document showing that she was also divorced.

Judge Daniel Lynch allowed the Cook County Circuit Court case to proceed to trial, and a jury in 2012 awarded the estate $5 million, less $750,000 subtracted due to Sissoko’s negligent conduct in standing in the highway. However, Lynch agreed to freeze the verdict while the defense further investigated the divorce, and, after evidence was presented that the marriage dissolution document was a fake, the judge reversed the jury award in 2013 and barred the plaintiffs from bringing another suit.

Now the uncle, Bangaly Sylla, has been convicted of contempt of court and faces a possible prison term, the newspaper reports. He was accused of lying to the court about Sissoko’s divorce in an effort to divert any judgment awarded in the truck-crash case to her parents and other family members in Mali.

Sissoko’s husband and sole heir, Noumouke Keita, was working as a cabdriver in New York while she was in Chicago working for her uncle. After the $4.25 million judgment was reversed, Keita settled with Roadway Express and the truck driver for $60,000.

Meanwhile, winning the case cost the defense some $1.8 million, says attorney C. Barry Montgomery, who represents both Roadway Express and the driver. After Sylla’s jury conviction May 13, the defense is now seeking reimbursement of the $1.8 million from Sylla, Sissoko’s parents and the lawyer representing the estate, Lawrence Ruder.

Attorney Elliot Schiff is defending Ruder in the sanctions matter, and says the estate lawyer was duped by Sylla, along with other lawyers who had done work for Sylla previously. The contempt conviction of Sylla “absolves Mr. Ruder of any responsibility.” Schiff told the Sun-Times.

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