Zurik: Crashed car, legal losses and racial slurs collide off Twin Spans

Zurik: Crashed car, legal losses and racial slurs collide off Twin Spans
John Hoogacker
John Hoogacker
The yellow arrow on this DOTD map points to the approximate location of the crash, well within the Orleans Parish line.
The yellow arrow on this DOTD map points to the approximate location of the crash, well within the Orleans Parish line.
Attorney Charles "Chuck" Hughes
Attorney Charles "Chuck" Hughes

Back in early 2012, an 18-wheeler ran an SUV off the I-10 Twin Span Bridge, into the frigid waters of Lake Pontchartrain. The man driving that SUV survived, but he continues to face huge medical bills. He hired a lawyer to fight the insurance company in the case.

That attorney's handling of the suit gave his client a lot more trouble than he bargained for.

"I mean, it's Orleans Parish," says the lawyer in an audio recording, talking with his client. "It's corrupt, it's left-handed, it's black-oriented… You go round there, they say f*** you."

The tape was recorded by John Hoogacker, the SUV driver who survived that 2012 crash in the eastbound lanes of the Twin Spans.

"I was flabbergasted," Hoogacker tells us. "I just sat there in disbelief."

The crash itself happened in New Orleans East, at the foot of the Twin Spans. Hoogacker was driving home from New Orleans on I-10, just after 9:00 PM on Jan. 10, 2012. He was driving in the right lane and was passed by an 18-wheeler that, he recalls, "Immediately came right back in my lane."

Hoogacker says the truck swiped his car. He "slid out of control," he says, "hit the guard rail right… in the middle. Hit these rocks and flew up over into the lake at about 65 or 70 miles an hour."

After impact, he struggled for safety. "Since the car was running, I hit the sun roof," he tells us. "The sun roof opened up and I climbed out and sat on top of the vehicle. And from there I jumped in the lake and swam probably 150 yards or so to the shore.

Hoogacker recalls those frightening minutes after the crash. "I saw like a long tube where I could just see, like a PVC pipe," he says. "And I could just see like a light at the end of the tube where I could just see my family, my wife and kids and so forth. I actually thought I was going to lose my life."

Two and a half years later, the recovery from the accident has been long and painful. Hoogacker lists the numerous medical procedures required: "Three shoulder surgeries, a cracked sternum, foot surgery, a GI surgery, and still needing a hip surgery… I still have internal bleeding, you know. I've been bleeding for over six months internally, from one of surgeries that I had. I may have to have my toe amputated."

After the accident, Hoogacker searched for an attorney to sue the truck driver who sent him spinning into the lake. He called Charles "Chuck" Hughes, an attorney with the Mandeville law firm Talley, Anthony, Hughes, and Knight, LLC.

"I knew Chuck," Hoogacker tells us, "he had helped me before on some issues.

Hoogacker says he waited for two and a half years for this case to be settled. Both sides went into mediation in April; he was already in the hole hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills and losing an estimated 80 percent of his earning capacity. His wholesale business was basically shuttered.

"Over $200,000 in medical bills," says Hoogacker. "And I still have probably another 50 to a hundred thousand, if not more."

The mediation led to a settlement. "We settled for $350,000," Hoogacker says.

When we ask if he was happy with that, he answers, "Absolutely not."

After paying off his attorney, Hoogacker was left with just $187,500. "That doesn't even cover my medical bills," he says.

Hoogacker initially agreed to the settlement, with strong urging from his attorney. When we ask him why he agreed, he tells us, "Because he told me we had 30 days to get out of it if we weren't happy with it."

Hoogacker wasn't happy with it, especially when you consider what he thought he could net from the case. "Well, Chuck told me the case was worth $1.2 to 1.5 million," he says, "with all my injuries and everything that happened."

Hoogacker thinks his attorney stopped looking out for him when he realized who was on the other side of the table.

In addition to suing the driver of the truck, Hoogacker also sued the insurance companies, Travelers Casualty and Surety Company and Travelers Indemnity Company of Connecticut. Along with his private practice, Chuck Hughes also acts as an attorney for the St. Tammany Parish sheriff. His firm made $600,000 from the sheriff in 2012. Through that work, Hughes has represented the sheriff's office in cases and, at the same time, has represented the office's insurance company: Travelers Indemnity Company, affiliated with the company Hoogacker was suing.

We found six instances where Hughes represented companies affiliated with Travelers, while he also represented Hoogacker in a suit against Travelers.

"It was amazing to me," Hoogacker tells us. "I about fell out of my chair. The opposing counsel came in… he made the comment to Chuck, he said, 'Oh, I can't believe seeing you on that side of the table, because 99 percent of the time you're on this side of the table with us.' And I was just amazed."

When we asked Hughes about this, he sent us this statement:

While the two different insurers are distant affiliates of the same group of companies, the two insurers are in fact two different entities. The insurer in Mr. Hoogacker's case was “Travelers Indemnity Company of Connecticut.” The insurer of the St Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office (STPSO) is “Travelers Indemnity Company.”

The accident happened in Orleans Parish, about two miles from the St. Tammany Parish line. New Orleans police handled the investigation, and the driver of the 18-wheeler appeared in OrleansTrafficc Court. Yet Chuck Hughes filed the case in St. Tammany.

Hoogacker says he didn't know that for two years. "I didn't know until the day before mediation," he says. "Matter of fact, he told me it was in Orleans Parish, and we had already gone to court twice in Orleans Parish."

That brings us to the audio recording, which was made by Hoogacker himself during a conversation with Hughes after the settlement.

Hoogacker thought at the time that Hughes moved the case from New Orleans to St. Tammany. But records show Hughes never filed it on the south shore; all along, this case was set for the north shore, in St. Tammany Parish. And in that meeting, Hughes told Hoogacker why.

HOOGACKER: Why would we move it from Orleans Parish to St. Tammany Parish?

HUGHES: It's a decision I made early on to file it in St. Tammany instead of Orleans because, guess what? New Orleans is n******. You're white. You go down there, they say f*** you. That's why. That's what it was, to put it bluntly, ok?

Hughes wasn't finished.

HUGHES: I mean, it's Orleans Parish. It's corrupt, it's left-handed, it's black-oriented and, you know, we the white people coming down there with a b******* story.

"I think this is something that the office of professional responsibility with the State Bar has to take a good, long look at," says Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, after he heard the recording.

Goyeneche says, while Hughes' comments will be offensive to many people, the attorney may have also crossed the line in his representation of Hoogacker. "He would be placing the representation of his client behind his own racial bias," he tells us.

That could be a violation of professional conduct. Goyeneche says. "Everyone that I've spoken to come to the same conclusion," he tells us, "that they can't imagine - if you had the choice between filing suit representing a plaintiff in Orleans Parish versus St. Tammany Parish - why you would ever opt for St. Tammany Parish?"

So why move the case to St. Tammany? "That's what begs the question," the MCC head says. "Is it because Mr. Hughes has a racial bias? That will be the critical issue [for] the chief disciplinary council for the Bar."

Hoogacker has already filed a complaint with the State Bar Association. Goyeneche notes, "If there was a decision that needed to be made like that, where potentially it could cost his client money by filing suit in a more conservative jurisdiction, versus a more liberal jurisdiction - that's something, according to the Rules of Professional Conduct, that you have to inform your client of, and he has to give informed consent to do that."

"Now that I know what happened with the case, it's just… I just can't believe that I'm just lost with it," says Hoogacker. "It's hard for me to comprehend that somebody would do that to somebody else."

Hoogacker says he was pushed to sign the settlement, one that netted him about $1 million less than he expected. Yet he still had to add his legal fees to his medical costs.

"I've got to get the settlement checks from Travelers," Hughes said in the recording. "And if you don't want to sign it, you're not going to sign it, you know? But you need to pay me."

When we asked Hughes a second time about his racially-tinged comments, he sent us another statement:

The words in the recording do not reflect the feelings and compassion in my heart. In a moment of frustration, I used indefensible language during a private conversation concerning a private matter. I'm terribly sorry for the embarrassment I've caused my friends, colleagues and clients. My hope is that I'm judged by my lifelong body of work for justice and fairness.

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