A matrimonial lawyer and her Hackensack, NJ firm were hit with a $950k malpractice verdict late last month for their alleged role in enabling an international child abduction.
The suit, Innes v. Marzano-Lesnevich, was brought by Roy Innes, whose four-year-old daughter, Victoria, was removed from the United States to Spain, the mother’s native country, in January 2005 without his knowledge or consent. A jury found that Madeline Marzano-Lesnevich and her firm, Lesnevich & Marzano-Lesnevich, allowed the girl’s mother to get hold of her passport, which had been entrusted to the firm to prevent the child’s removal to Spain. The jury awarded $700k to Innes and $250k to Victoria.
An October 8, 2004 parenting agreement forbade Innes or the mother, Maria Jose Carrascosa, from taking Victoria abroad without the other’s written permission. It also required Carrascosa to turn over Victoria’s passport to Carrascosa’s then-lawyer, Mitchell Liebowitz, so it could be held in trust. Carrascosa handed over the passport but weeks later fired Liebowitz and retained the Marzano-Lesnevich firm.
Carrascosa then secured Victoria’s passport and flew her to Spain in January of 2005. She returned to the U.S. without Victoria in 2006 and is currently in prison for her conviction in December 2009 on charges of interfering with custody and contempt of court. Victoria, now 11, is being raised by her mother’s parents in Valencia, Spain, and Innes claims he has seen her only twice since the illicit removal.
New Jersey case law does permit legal malpractice claims by nonclients. (Petrillo v. Bachenburg, 139 N.J. 472 (1995).) However, the defense claimed no one asked Marzano-Lesnevich to be the trustee of the passport and she never signed an agreement to that effect. She did not even know it was being held in trust. But the court found that by her silence she could become a trustee. According to Marzano-Lesnevich’s husband and partner, Walter Lesnevich (who represented his wife at trial), the verdict sets out "a new standard of responsibility by a matrimonial lawyer to her nonclient." He says "everybody feels very sorry for the father so they just threw out the book and changed the law up and down." A Spanish court decree gave custody to Carrascosa, and even diplomatic efforts have failed to end the impasse. Lesnevich plans to appeal.
(An article appearing in the May 17, 2011 edition of the New Jersey Law Journal, an ALM Publication, was used as the sole source for this post.)