Failure to properly vet his client's "frivolous" gun malfunction case has landed a Pittsburgh lawyer with a $20,000 sanction from a federal judge.
Although Jason Schiffman, of Schiffman & Wojdowski, told the court that he had reasonably relied on his client and brought a case stemming from an allegedly malfunctioning gun, the judge disagreed.
"Counsel's errors are more troubling than his characterization suggests, and his conduct can be described more accurately as that of an attorney who ignored red flags surrounding the veracity and plausibility of his client's story [and] lodged allegations without having reasonable belief that they were well-grounded in fact," said U.S. District Judge Alan N. Bloch of the Western District of Pennsylvania in Ellis v. Beemiller.
Mr. Schiffman brought the case in 2009 after client Regis Ellis claimed that a Hi-Point C9 9 mm pistol, which was made and distributed by Ohio-based Beemiller, exploded in his hand. In August 2007, according to a state police report, Mr. Ellis claimed that with the safety engaged, "the gun went off when he started to transfer the gun from his right hand to his left."
Mr. Ellis later changed his testimony, after Mr. Schiffman had gotten an expert based on the initial allegations. Mr. Schiffman didn't properly alert the expert, Lester Roane, to the changes in the facts alleged by Mr. Ellis, according to the opinion.
Mr. Roane gave a deposition during which he said that Mr. Schiffman hadn't discussed the new version of the story with him and that it would change his opinion about the cause of the explosion, according to the opinion.
Mr. Schiffman's decision to continue the case after that deposition was the biggest contributing factor to the finding that sanctions are appropriate, Judge Bloch said.
"It was counsel's decision to continue representation after Roane's deposition that constitutes his most significant misstep because by the end of his deposition, all counsel was left with was an unsupported allegation based on an impossibility," Judge Bloch said.
The judge later referred to the fact that ultimately the experts for both the plaintiff and the defense agreed the incident couldn't have physically happened the way that Mr. Ellis claimed, saying of Mr. Schiffman, "instead of abiding by his duty [to] not persist with the claim, counsel proceeded with the case."
Mr. Schiffman declined to comment and Gregory Scheuring of Zimmer Kunz in Pittsburgh, who represented Beemiller, couldn't be reached for comment.