TAMPA — Radio DJ Todd Schnitt and his wife, Michelle, were hit Friday with nearly $700,000 in legal fees the couple had refused to pay after losing a defamation trial against rival shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem in 2013.
Handing a victory to the Schnitts' former attorneys at the law firm of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, a jury found the couple's claims of legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty baseless. After considering the case for nearly a day and a half, the six-person jury cleared the firm, along with the Schnitts' former attorney C. Philip Campbell, of wrongdoing.
In addition to the roughly $1 million they already have paid the firm, the Schnitts may have to come up with $669,200 more. But Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick didn't get everything it wanted. Although the firm said the Schnitts owed it $978,278, jurors awarded it about $300,000 less in compensatory damages.
"We had a very thoughtful, attentive jury, and for whatever reason they decided some of the charges should not be awarded," said the firm's attorney Joe Varner. "That's a little bit disappointing, but overall we're happy."
The verdict brought to an end nearly three years of litigation between the Schnitts and the legal team that represented them in their contentious five-year case against Clem.
In 2008, angered by derogatory remarks Clem made about Michelle Schnitt on his radio show, Todd Schnitt hired Campbell to take his rival to court. His lawsuit accused Clem of defamation, a notoriously difficult claim to prove against a public figure, and seemed destined for settlement.
Instead, the legal battle turned personal and, at times, vicious.
In the middle of the trial, Campbell was arrested and charged with drunken driving. Investigators later discovered that he had been set up by several of Clem's attorneys and that they had arranged for one of their paralegals to ply Campbell with drinks and entice him to get behind the wheel of her car.
To ensure he would be caught, they asked a Tampa police officer — a family friend of one of the lawyers — to wait outside the bar for Campbell. After the setup was exposed, the officer was fired and one of the attorneys, Stephen Diaco, was permanently disbarred.
Furious at Campbell for drinking during their trial, the Schnitts became even more enraged when the jury sided with Clem. Faced with the threat of being forced to pay for Clem's legal fees, as well as the remainder of their own, they sued Campbell and his firm, alleging they had been duped into filing a lawsuit that never stood a chance of success. They also said Campbell had offered wildly inaccurate counsel, telling them the lawsuit against Clem would cost $180,000. It ended up costing almost $2 million.
"We're disappointed with the verdict," said Schnitt attorney Wil Florin. "There was a lot of evidence that was not allowed for this jury to hear, and we think an appellate court is going to think differently."
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Florin said he had hoped to tell jurors about Campbell's previous DUI arrest in 2008 and the promise the Schnitts say he made to them that he would conduct a "dry trial." But Circuit Judge Richard Nielsen decided not to allow this information to be presented at a trial.
Attorneys for Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick argued that the firm had worked at the Schnitts' direction. Noting that Michelle Schnitt is a former Hillsborough County prosecutor, they said the couple was "sophisticated" and suggested they were poor targets for lawyers trying to enrich themselves.
"The Schnitts lost their trial to Bubba Clem, and ever since they have been desperately coming up with excuses to not pay their bill," Varner said in his closing argument to the jury. "This case is about sore losers, plain and simple."