After a contentious legal battle gave them control of their father’s valuable coffee company and Grand Bay cattle ranch, the four children of the late Leroy Hill have been roasted in a legal battle against the firm responsible for winning the case against their stepmother.
The plaintiffs opposed attorneys Vincent F. Kilborn and David McDonald’s claim for roughly $13 million in recoverable attorneys fees in the case, but Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Sarah Stewart ruled in favor of the law partners, determining the 40 percent fee was fair. The dispute was over the total valuation of the coffee company and ranch, Kilborn said.
In her ruling Wednesday, Stewart wrote the attorneys accepted the case on a contingency in 2009, incurring more than $485,000 in litigation expenses. Further, she wrote the former attorneys for the plaintiffs spent more than 11,000 hours on the case. Stewart also called the results of Kilborn and McDonald “remarkable,” considering they won the case by convincing a jury of the existence of a written agreement that could not be produced.
“The results achieved by Kilborn and McDonald are phenomenal: instead of three Hill children sharing $675,000, all four Hill children stand to share in an estate the Hill children themselves recently valued at over $30 million, unencumbered by any personal claim by Debbie Hill,” Stewart wrote.
Debbie Hill, Leroy’s second wife, had assumed control of his estate after his death, blocking any benefits to the children from his previous marriage.
“Kilborn and McDonald accomplished this feat against a team of well-funded highly regarded counsel to whom Debbie Hill paid millions of dollars,” Stewart continued. “Success required that Kilborn and McDonald win every battle — the appeal of the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint, the jury trial, the post-trial proceeding seeking specific performance, the subsequent appeal … in the circuit court action, and then the numerous claims against the estate filed by Debbie Hill.”
In a phone interviewing following the most recent judgment, Kilborn said the contingency agreement was the only way the Hill children would’ve been able to get an attorney for the case.
“They liked the results,” he said. “They didn’t like getting the lawyers fairly paid.”
A 40 percent fee on a contingency claim is pretty standard, Kilborn said. He added that sometimes the firm charges only a third and other times they charge as much as 50 percent, depending on the difficulty of the case.
“We devoted a third of the practice to it,” Kilborn said. “We put our hearts and souls into it.”
The original case brewed after Hill’s 2009 death, when Debbie probated a will leaving the majority of his estate to her. Leroy Hill’s first wife, Bonnie Hill, along with their four children, argued that a 1984 inheritance agreement leaving the estate to Hill’s four children had disappeared after Debbie entered the picture.
Judge James Wood’s original ruling in the case, allowing the children to repossess the company and ranch, was affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court last year, ending a five-year court battle.
The value of the assets awarded to the children of Leroy Hill break down as follows, according to Stewart’s order: $6 million for the coffee company, $23.1 million for the ranch and real estate, $2.2 million for ranch improvements, $450,000 for funds not already subject to disbursement, $700,000 for ranch equipment and $625,000 for the average projected sales price of cattle.
That makes the total value of the remaining assets about $33.1 million and the amount of fees recoverable $13.2 million.
Stewart ordered the attorneys be paid almost $2 million from the sale of ranch assets and a separate settlement with Arch Insurance. She also ordered the estate to “immediately devise a plan” to satisfy the remaining balance.
“It’s not just a great day for the firm, but it’s a good day for plaintiffs’ attorneys,” Kilborn said. “Clients and the media rarely see the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.”