When Bill Walling first met Terry Hawkins in 1993, he had little idea what the mild-mannered New Haven attorney was going to do to him.
Walling, a schoolteacher from Madison, Conn., was having some trouble at work — and someone connected him with Hawkins, the New Haven attorney whose incompetence would just a few years later cost the bereaved families of two slain children their day in court.
“He didn’t communicate with me,” Walling said last Thursday as he retold a story he has tried to forget. “If I’d known what he was like, I wouldn’t have gone near him.”
After he says Hawkins repeatedly failed to communicate with him about the status of his case, Walling took his complaints to Connecticut’s Statewide Grievance Committee — the state agency that examines complaints against lawyers and, if necessary, disciplines them.
“He was like a rattlesnake with me when I went after him,” Walling said. “He was vicious. After what he did to me, I can’t do any thing with the lawsuit. It’s long since expired by now. I lost my money and I lost my retainer, but I sure as hell wasn’t going back to him.”
While the committee did not recommend any disciplinary action against Hawkins, Walling said Hawkins’ slowness and apparent lack of experience cost him his day in court.
Walling may not be alone.
The state Appellate Court ruled on April 11 that the parents of a former Yale graduate student and the parents of his girlfriend may not seek damages from Yale following a 1989 murder-suicide.
In its ruling, the court placed the blame squarely on Hawkins’ repeated failure to appear in court, calling his conduct “egregious” and “dilatory.”
On Feb. 13, 1989, Haruna Gillum, a graduate student under the care of Yale psychiatrist James Scott, drove to Delaware, where he killed his girlfriend, Angelina Bryant, and then committed suicide.
In 1990 Michael Gillum, Gillum’s father, and Judith Vaughan, Bryant’s mother, hired Hawkins to sue Scott and the university for damages over what they believed was a failure on Scott’s part to properly assess Gillum’s mental condition.
After Yale made several motions to dismiss the case, and Hawkins repeatedly waited for the last possible moment to re-open it, a Superior Court judge dismissed the case in 1996.
In 1998 Hawkins filed a new case, and the story repeated itself. Hawkins routinely failed to answer Yale’s attorneys, and he failed to appear in court.
In December 1998 another Superior Court judge dismissed the second case, citing “procrastination and delay” and “lackadaisical behavior — at every turn.”
The Appellate Court decision this month further diminished any hopes Gillum and Vaughan could have had of collecting damages from Yale.
Hawkins would not comment last week, but William Gallagher, the lawyer who brought the case before the Appellate Court on Hawkins’ behalf, said Hawkins will appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“This is an example of exalting form over substance,” Gallagher said. “What it boils down to is Hawkins screwing up a pretrial date.”
Gallagher said Hawkins was ready for trial well before Yale ever was.
“He had all his medical malpractice experts lined up and ready to go,” Gallagher said. “It’s funny because Terry is the one who looks bad now. Terry’s a good lawyer.”
Hawkins said last week he would not discuss why he repeatedly failed to show up in court.
A prominent New Haven attorney said Hawkins has “had significant problems” in recent years.
“For quite some time, he had a pretty good reputation,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity. “Maybe he’s had personal problems. I really don’t know, but I certainly haven’t seen him in a while.”
Records obtained from the Statewide Grievance Committee indicate that Hawkins has been the subject of several formal complaints in recent years, most based on claims that Hawkins failed to communicate with clients.
In the six years between 1992 and 1998, Hawkins was the subject of eight complaints, all of which were dismissed without disciplinary action.
New Haven’s grievance panel, which reviews complaints before they go to the statewide committee, did on one occasion in 1997 “advise” Hawkins that “reasonable and prompt information to a client is required, and is in keeping with good legal practices.”
Gerald Dwyer, an attorney who represents the New Haven panel, said he did not remember any of the complaints about Hawkins “in particular,” and would not say whether eight complaints in six years constituted cause for alarm.
“It all depends on what kind of cases you try,” Dwyer said.