Law Firms Dueling Over Who Gets To Represent Estate Of Woman Who Died In Patrol Car In Meigs County

  • Thursday, April 18, 2024

Lawyers are dueling over who gets to represent the estate of Tabitha Smith, who died Feb. 14 in the back of a Meigs County patrol car after a newly hired deputy drove the vehicle into the Tennessee River.

The submerged bodies of Ms. Smith and Deputy Robert J. Leonard were found the next day near a boat ramp. Ms. Smith was handcuffed.

In early March, Chattanooga attorneys filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit in Federal Court against the deputy and Meigs County. It was filed by attorneys Robin Flores, Neil Thomas and Michael Thomas.

It was brought in behalf of Nathan Alexander Smith, son of Tabitha Smith.

Then this week, the husband of Tabitha Smith, Kenneth Colbaugh, filed suit for $100 million. It was filed by a Michigan attorney, Alyson Oliver, who brought in Jeff Rufolo of the Summers firm in Chattanooga.

Attorney Flores has filed a motion seeking to disqualify attorney Oliver, saying one of her investigators contacted the Smith family by text three days before the funeral. Amber McKinney, sister of Ms. Smith, said it was from Michael Server, who said he was an investigator for the Oliver firm "who is suing Meigs County for Tabitha's wrongful death." She said she was requested to call the investigator "ASAP."

Attorney Flores said a week after the funeral Ms. McKinney received a text message that said the investigator came to her house and that Ms. Oliver "was a great lawyer."

Attorney Flores said starting on March 7 he received a series of emails from attorney Oliver saying she represented family members, but welcomed an opportunity to discuss working together.

Attorney Flores said he then contacted the state Board of Professional Responsibility.

He said attorney Oliver's actions in contacting the family violated a Supreme Court rule of improper solicitation within 30 days of death.

He stated, "Oliver's actions violate multiple ethical rules." He said she was guilty of practicing law without a license in Tennessee.

Attorney Flores likened it to the Witherspoon law firm that he said "used non-lawyers to solicit four different families from the Woodmore School bus crash."

Attorney Rufolo said in a court filing that Kenneth Colbaugh "seeks intervention as of right because he is the legal surviving spouse of Tabatha Colbaugh who has not waived his right to bring a wrongful death action."

He said, "Ms. Colbaugh assumed the Colbaugh name upon marriage and took all steps necessary to legally change her name to Colbaugh, obtaining government identification for same. Movant will continue to address his wife as Tabatha Colbaugh and Ms. Colbaugh moving forward."

Attorney Rufolo said the son did not have the legal right to represent the estate.

Attorney Oliver said in one email to attorney Flores on the issue of her not being licensed in Tennessee, "We are associated with great counsel there and I imagine by now you've checked out our website and learned that I have a fairly robust national practice focusing on plaintiff's rights and civil rights litigation. We would never proceed in an inappropriate manner.

"I understand you want to litigate this case alone; but ask that you understand we represent the majority of the heirs at law and need to protect their interests. I still hope we can work together to achieve that."

Attorney Flores said, "When Oliver learned that plaintiff hired counsel to file suit, her emails and comments toward plaintiff's counsel smacked of desperation to keep the case hers."

Attorney Flores said the sister of Ms. Smith, Amber McKinney, advised that in 2017, Colbaugh was asking where to find Ms. Smith so he could send her divorce papers.

She said in 2018 that Colbaugh said on Facebook, "I run (Tabitha) off and told her never to come back. I don't want her back. She don't take care of (daughter) or the house. I'm working on getting a divorce plus I'm seeing someone else."

He said in another message, "I told her we was done. I'm done with her (expletive)."

Ms. McKinney said Colbaugh later said, "Tabitha needs to stay the (expletive) from me and my daughter."

She said on more than one occasion she had seen Tabitha and Colbaugh "high on drugs."

Ms. McKinney said for the past several years that Tabitha Smith resided in a trailer on her (Amber's) husband (Brandon H. McKinney's) family property in Birchwood.

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