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Meir Rinde

 

A Legislative Rat

The politically prominent Koskoff family was saved from the embarrassment of a malpractice suit by a last-minute change in the law, sponsored by two legislators

 

By Meir Rinde

August 4, 2005

 

Many of the state legislators who approved Substitute Senate Bill No. 956 last month doubtless had little interest in the obscure change it wrought in the state workers’ compensation system.

The bill extends coverage for prison workers to times when they’re driving between home and work — but only if they’ve had to work double-overtime or in an emergency situation. It’s a useful extension of benefits for the affected workers, but just a drop in the big legislative bucket.

Few legislators could have been aware of an even more minutely focused change in state law that was tacked onto the bill before it passed. That amendment, offered by Sen. Edith Prague and Senate Deputy Majority Leader Andrew McDonald, was tailored to affect a dead man, the man’s widow, and a politically connected Bridgeport lawyer who the widow sued. It has nothing to do with state prison employees.

Rather, it looks like a last-minute legislative “rat,” legislation snuck in as a favor to someone. The amendment creates a legal exception that gets that one lawyer off the hook for one alleged screwup 12 years ago.

The change won’t necessarily hurt the widow. In fact, it may help her by giving her access to a workers’ compensation payment for her husband’s death. It arguably fixes an error that even the state Supreme Court refused to reverse when it considered the case two years ago. But the bill’s passage also shines a light on the favors that have been accrued by a wealthy family of lawyers who are campaign donors to Prague, McDonald and other legislators — a family whose political activism makes them a part of the national Democratic political establishment.

A family that ran into trouble with the law, only to see the law suddenly changed.

 

The dead man was Stamford resident Guenther Kuehl, who owned Z-Loda Systems, a manufacturer of elevators and conveyors for industrial use. In June 1991 he was in a car accident that damaged his aorta, but his subsequent workers’ compensation claim to his company’s insurer, Travelers, was rejected on the grounds that his injuries were not related to his work.

His attorney, Rosalind J. Koskoff of Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder in Bridgeport, sued the driver of the other car, and when Guenther died from his injuries in November 1992 she continued the suit on behalf of his wife Sylvia. In 1996, Koskoff dropped the suit and Sylvia Kuehl accepted a settlement, according to another lawsuit filed later.

Early on, Koskoff told Travelers that Sylvia Kuehl would not seek workers’ comp widow’s benefits, but never told her client that she might be eligible for that additional money, the lawsuit claims. Kuehl said she wasn’t informed about the benefit until 1998. The policy said she would have had to apply for the benefits within a year of her husband’s death, but she pursued the claim anyway.

Her new lawyer argued that she had notified her husband’s company after he died — she herself was running the company at that point, after all — and that in a sense the company knew she was due the widow’s benefit.

In addition, Travelers knew she had been eligible. But the claim was rejected. Kuehl appealed, and in 2003 the state Supreme Court apparently ended the matter, reaffirming the one-year deadline.

Kuehl also sued Koskoff, saying the attorney should have told her she was entitled to file a claim and that there was a deadline. The suit said the claim would have been worth more than $1 million, and demanded financial damages from Koskoff’s firm.

In a call from the Advocate, a person who answered Rosalind Koskoff’s office phone said her husband would act as her spokesman, but he did not return a call.

The lawsuit against Koskoff was filed in 1999 and dragged on until late last year when attorneys on both sides started picking expert witnesses and preparing for a trial. That’s apparently when politics took over.

 

The Koskoffs are an extensive and successful legal clan. Rosalind Koskoff’s husband, Michael Koskoff, has been described as one of the state’s leading plaintiff lawyers, and the firm’s attorneys include his aunt and the couple’s son. Rosalind and Michael live in Westport, in a house worth at least $2.6 million.

The family is also politically active. Michael Koskoff’s cousin, attorney David Koskoff, ran for state representative from Plainville, and was described by the Hartford Courant as a top fundraiser for presidential candidate (and renowned trial lawyer) John Edwards. David Koskoff’s attorney wife, Charlotte Koskoff, ran twice against Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, nearly beating her in 1996.

As part of their activism on behalf of Democrats and trial lawyers in particular, the staffers at Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder have lobbied elected officials and made many campaign contributions. Among other gifts, in 2003 Michael Koskoff and his colleagues together gave at least $1,150 to Sen. McDonald’s campaign and $2,500 to Leadership in Action, a political action committee that receives contributions primarily from lawyers. It gave $5,000 to Prague’s campaign last year.

In addition, Michael Koskoff and other members of the firm have headed or served in various positions at the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, which endorsed the Senate bill that helps Rosalind Koskoff. They regularly give money to the association’s PAC, which donates widely to candidates. In September the PAC gave $1,000 to McDonald’s campaign — he is a trial lawyer and association member — and has donated to Prague in the past.

On June 3, in the final hectic days of the regular legislative session, the Senate adopted Prague and McDonald’s new bill language waiving the one-year deadline on applications for workers’ comp, which came with certain restrictions.

The language applied only to an employee dependent “who was barred by a final judgment in a court of law from filing a claim arising out of the death of the deceased employee” — someone like Sylvia Kuehl, for example.

According to the precise and specific language of the law, as endorsed by Prague and McDonald, the employee had to have been injured in June 1991 and died in November 1992 — like Guenther Kuehl.

And, the law continued, the dependent must have lost the court case because of a failure to file a separate death benefits claim in a timely manner.

Good luck finding another case that meets those requirements.

The bill’s passage had another effect, too, though it isn’t mentioned in its text. If, say, an attorney’s mistake kept the dependent from filing the claim on time, and the dependent was suing the attorney for a million dollars — well, that lawsuit would be pretty much moot.

 

In an interview last week, McDonald didn’t deny that the law is targeted to help Sylvia Kuehl, and said he knew Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder was involved in her case. But he said he didn’t know about Kuehl’s lawsuit against the firm. Rather, the clause concerning the case was originally written to address the unusual problem, made prominent by the Supreme Court case, of the requirement for a second workers’ comp claim after an employee has died, he said.

The legislative record supports his argument. On April 15, the Senate Judiciary Committee amended the bill to remove the requirement for a second claim.

“We should be providing opportunity for recovery [of compensation] on the merits, and the Supreme Court decision bounced this claim on a hypertechnical reading of the statute, which is why we in the Judiciary Committee amended this statute generally,” McDonald said. “That would have passed except for last-minute lobbying by business and insurance interests.”

To save the bill, the clause was narrowed to affect just the Kuehls, and the larger effort to expand correction workers’ benefits was able to pass, McDonald said. He intends to introduce legislation again in the future to fix the larger problem of which Sylvia Kuehl’s case is an example, he said.

McDonald also argued that the bill wouldn’t necessarily moot a lawsuit against Koskoff. It merely allows Sylvia Kuehl another chance to apply for the widow’s benefit, which may or may not succeed, he said.

At the same time, it still isn’t clear why it took until now — as the suit was about to go trial — for the legislature to address the Supreme Court case. The timing seems odd since the law was passed just in time to save a prominent law firm the embarrassment of a public malpractice trial.

In addition, it’s not clear why instead of shelving the whole issue for the time being, the legislature narrowed it down to affect just the Kuehls.

 

Clauses affecting one person appear in bills every year. Some are legitimate and some are questionable.

Substitute Senate Bill No. 956 actually contained two highly specific provisions — the Koskoff clause and another clause which orders a payment to dependents of a Department of Correction employee who died between July 1 and July 15, 2000.

A lawyer familiar with that clause said it basically applies the new law retroactively, allowing the wife of a prison employee who died while driving between home and work in 2000 to receive a payment.

Even if a clause is questionable and wins approval from the legislature, the governor can still veto the bill. Gov. M. Jodi Rell did kill at least a couple of bills with sections described as last-minute “rats” this year.

For example, one of the bills would have barred the public from requesting and receiving copies of legislators’ e-mails, which are considered public documents.

“This is a classic legislative ‘rat’ — a last-minute bill intended to slip past without being noticed,” Rell said when she vetoed the measure. “It is a blatant attempt to sidestep the spirit of Connecticut’s FOIA provisions, and it is utterly unacceptable.”

However, she signed off on the Koskoff clause on July 8 and it is now law.

Sometimes the rat is caught. And sometimes it gets away.

  

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