You might think handling legal malpractice claims is dry and tedious work.
But it can sometimes be an exciting adventure involving Civil War history, battlefield preservation and large-mouth bass.
And it can even end up with an insurance company – and by extension its insureds – writing a small but significant chapter in North Carolina history.
That was the story of one of the first claims I handled for Lawyer Mutual. This was back in 1989 when I was a brand-new claims attorney still wet behind the ears. How well I remember being called into the office of Chris Coley, who was president at the time, and presented with a ratty accordion file folder. It contained a claims file dating back to 1982, not long after Lawyers Mutual came into existence, and had been originally opened by founding president John Beard.
The underlying problem in itself was not that unusual. Our insured attorney searched a real estate title for a refinancing through a local bank. However, he failed to note that the borrowers only held a remainder interest subject to a life estate or get the life tenant to execute the bank’s deed of trust. When the remainderman defaulted on the loan and the bank attempted to foreclose, it discovered to its dismay that its security was subject to the life estate. Naturally, the bank brought a malpractice claim against the certifying attorney, which Lawyers Mutual settled by purchasing the remainder interest from the bank.
So far, nothing out of the ordinary. This sort of mishap occurs with depressing frequency in the practice of real property law.
The real drama began when I reviewed the file and realized that we were the proud owners of approximately 15 acres in Bentonville – the site of a concluding clash in the Civil War and the largest Civil War battlefield in North Carolina. Our property’s address was Battlefield Road.
As a history buff, I was in heaven.
My first job was to determine if the life tenant was still alive. Indeed she was. An elderly woman residing in a retirement home, she sent the following message through her attorney: “You tell that insurance lawyer up in Raleigh I ain’t ready to get pegged yet” – referring to her disinclination to being placed in a coffin or releasing her property interest at the present time.
Years passed and negotiations dragged on. Eventually Lawyers Mutual managed to obtain the balance of the life estate.
Then I drove out to take a look at our new asset. What I found was a mess. The small farm home was built in the 1950’s and had a single window air conditioning unit, no electrical power, orange shag carpet and large-mouth bass mounted on driftwood. The land was badly overgrown and littered with rusting stoves, washers and dryers.
But despite its shabby appearance, the property had historic value and was subject to federal preservation regulations.
From the battlefield historical site, I obtained copies of maps showing the troop movements during the three day battle. It appears that our modest little parcel was directly involved in the fray. On Day One, there was fighting on adjoining property and during the night withdrawing Confederate forces crossed our land. On Day Two, our tract was in “no man’s land” between wings of the two armies, although it was unclear if any actual fighting occurred there. On Day Three, a major movement of Union troops from the rear lines crossed our parcel to attack the right wing of the Confederate troops under General Johnston. In addition, breastworks were thrown up by Union cavalry along the creek on the parcel’s rear lot in order to protect a source of fresh drinking water for the troops.
In June 2012, Lawyers Mutual conveyed our land to The Civil War Preservation Trust, thereby preserving this landmark for future generations. By selling to the Trust instead of the public, the land was sold for its full current appraised value with no reduction for realtor’s commissions or even cleanup costs, thereby maximizing the liquidation of this claims salvage asset for the policy holders of Lawyers Mutual.
It took 30 years from the time the claim was reported to the day the file was closed. But it was well worth the wait.
As a mutual company, we are owned by our policyholders. Now our policyholders can claim ownership of something else as well – the preservation of a dramatic chapter of North Carolina’s heritage.
A special thank you to Jay Reeves for assistance with this article.
Wayne Stephenson joined Lawyers Mutual in 1989. He has also worked with First Title and Investors Title as both an underwriting and claims attorney. He specializes in real estate matters. You can reach Wayne at 800.662.8843 or at email@example.com.