Mixed reactions from lawyers in Turner case

Staff Writer

The Golden Triangle legal community continues to react with a mixture of surprise, sympathy and shock in the wake of a judge’s ruling this week ordering a West Point law firm to pay compensatory damages and a clerk to pay punitive damages to a former client.

And the trouble may just be beginning if the Mississippi Bar Association gets involved, some speculate.

“It’s something we all do, let someone else handle much of the paperwork and deadlines. You just always trust the people and look over it. I can see how it might happen when it’s your family involved. You never dream of something so screwy. My heart feels for her,” one Starkville attorney said, referring specifically to attorney Angela Turner Ford and her sister, Carolyn Turner Karriem.

“It’s unbelievable. If I hadn’t read it, I wouldn’t have believed it. While it’s wrong, it’s also very tragic. They are good people,” noted a Clay County attorney.

“I knew their dad, a fine man. Worked with him on some cases. And I know them. It’s scary how something like this can happen and how damaging it can be. That’s what concerns me the most, the lasting impact on the family,” noted a third attorney.

All the attorneys asked to remain unnamed so as to not interfere with any ongoing cases or harm relations with Ford.

During a six-hour bench trial Monday, special Judge Larry Roberts ordered the estate of the late Bennie Turner, the now-closed Turner and Associates law firm, attorney Angela Turner Ford who took over the practice, and Karriem, to pay Lorie Chandler Cooperwood $50,000 in compensatory damages.

The judge previously ruled the law firm allowed the statute of limitations on Cooperwood’s workman’s compensation claim to expire without filing a claim. By the time she realized it, her chance to recover any benefits were lost.

Her attorneys, Robert Carson and Corrie Schuler of the Merkel & Cocke law firm in Clarksdale, calculated Cooperwood was owed $59,400 in missed payments and sought $850,000 in punitive damages.

In the end, Roberts ordered $100,000 in punitive damages against Karriem but declined to assess punishment against Ford, their father or the firm.

“It’s hard to prove punitive damages, but you don’t ever run across a set of facts like this either. It is unbelievable,” a Columbus lawyer said of the case.

During the trial, Karriem, who is not a lawyer, admitted she not only allowed the deadline to lapse but later made bogus stationery for Cooper Tire, where Cooperwood suffered the work-related injury, and made a fictitious name to contrive fake settlement offers. She did the same with e-mails.

The trial also revealed Karriem had allowed the deadlines to lapse in a similar case for Gerald Watkins in Pontotoc County and paid as much as $18,000 in her own money in an effort to keep the client quiet and avoid her father finding out.

That case ended up in court anyway.

Roberts struggled with whether to hold Angela Ford accountable, at one point half asking and half stating to her, “You really love your sister, don’t you.”

But he left little doubt about Karriem’s responsibility and the possible harm she has done.

“I got scared…I thought I could fix it,” Karriem said during her testimony.

“Your behavior placed your sister in a precarious situation in a lot of ways, including the state Bar Association,” the judge told Karriem.

While the Bar Association won’t confirm complaints against a lawyer or firm, other lawyers say the case “almost certainly” has resulted in a complaint.

“While the harm was done when the deadline lapsed, there still is harm. That’s going to be the problem, that someone didn’t recognize a problem before it got to the point it did. Lawyers have a responsibility to pay attention to what their staffs are doing. That’s why good people are hard to find in the legal profession,” the Lowndes lawyer noted.

Bennie Turner died in November 2012 and Angela Turner found out about her sister’s dealings after that. But she didn’t fire her until August 2014. She hired her back in January 2018.

The final order in the case has not yet been filed. That could take several days while the lawyers for both sides review possible language. Once that’s done, Turner and Karriem likely will ask the judge to reconsider his decision. If he declines that request, the case can be appealed to the state Court of Appeals.