An Edmonton lawyer facing drunk-driving charges in the crosswalk death of a teenager is now at the centre of a major lawsuit brought by a Calgary multi-millionaire against him and his law firm.
In a lawsuit filed Friday, Calgary businessman Laurie Venning, and his Venning Group of companies, are suing lawyer Shane Stevenson and the Dentons law firm for more than $25 million, alleging a years-long scheme of self dealing, conflict of interest and gross overbilling.
The lawsuit further alleges Dentons failed to properly monitor Stevenson, even though the firm knew he had a serious substance abuse problem that had resulted in stays in a rehabilitation centre.
In April 2018, Edmonton police charged Stevenson with impaired driving causing death and hit and run causing death after 16-year-old Chloe Wiwchar was run down while crossing Kingsway in a marked crosswalk with flashing lights.
The truck that allegedly struck Wiwchar fled the scene. An off-duty police officer followed the truck and Stevenson, then 47, was arrested. His trial is scheduled to run for 10 days beginning Oct. 5.
Neither Stevenson nor Dentons has filed a statement of defence and none of the allegations contained in the lawsuit has been proven in court.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Dentons said, “nothing means more to us than the integrity of our lawyers and the trust our clients have in Dentons. We intend to mount a vigorous defence to these allegations.”
Dentons declined further comment because the matter is before the courts.
Sold company for $775 million
Laurie Venning, a welder by trade, helped in the 1990s to create specialized pipe for heavy oil wells. In 2014, he sold Regent Energy, the Calgary company he co-founded, for $775 million to a private equity firm.
The lawsuit claims Venning retained Fraser Milner Casgrain, which subsequently became Dentons, in September 2010 and in the intervening years he paid Dentons about $22 million for legal services and another nearly $12 million in disbursements.
The allegations in the lawsuit, however, only relate to the period after Venning sold Regent in November 2014. It’s alleged that Dentons billed Venning about $7.4 million between then and mid-2018.
After selling Regent, Venning focused exclusively on new investments and business development and the lawsuit says Dentons and Stevenson were retained to provide legal advice.
The lawsuit claims Dentons and Stevenson proposed to Venning that “within a short period of time” Stevenson would leave Dentons and become a full-time, in-house legal advisor to the Venning Group. But that never happened.
Venning claims that unbeknownst to him, Dentons made Stevenson lead of its energy group in Edmonton, with Venning as its only client. Stevenson, the lawsuit alleges, received about $1 million a year from Dentons during this time.
Lawyer provided legal advice while under influence
In about March 2018, Venning began an investigation of the legal services provided by Dentons after becoming “concerned regarding the enormity of the legal fees invoiced by Dentons and the lack of any real success in major transactions that were identified, sourced and promoted by Dentons.”
In April 2018, Stevenson was charged in the death of Chloe Wiwchar, and was suspended by both Dentons and the Law Society of Alberta.
“This accelerated the investigation (Venning) had already begun,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges Dentons failed “to ensure its partners were properly serving the Venning Group, in light of Stevenson’s ongoing substance abuse issues, despite their knowledge including having sent Stevenson to multiple stays in a rehabilitation facility and that Stevenson’s substance abuse was re-emerging in an alarming manner.
“Stevenson was providing advice to the Venning Group while under the influence of intoxicants and narcotics including alcohol and cocaine,” the lawsuit states, adding that Dentons owed a duty to Venning to monitor the work Stevenson was doing for Venning “given Stevenson’s known substance abuse history.
“(Dentons) were aware at all times that Stevenson had a heightened risk to relapse, but failed to monitor the advice he was giving, and failed to warn (Venning) they should not rely upon Stevenson’s advice,” the lawsuit states.
Personally involved in 22 Venning companies
The lawsuit claims that because Dentons and Stevenson had assured Venning that he would become in-house counsel, Stevenson was allowed to become directly involved as a shareholder or director in numerous of its companies.
“Dentons and Stevenson represented to (Venning) that it was standard industry practice to grant legal counsel with equity participation in the companies for whom they acted,” the lawsuit states.
Stevenson eventually became involved in 22 of Venning’s companies or trusts, and the lawsuit claims that Stevenson issued shares in several companies to himself, including some instances “without the knowledge or consent of the plaintiffs.”
Venning claims that Dentons never recommended he get independent legal advice in relation to these transactions, “despite the conflicts of interest that necessarily resulted, and despite the fact that some or all of these transactions were not fair and reasonable to the Venning Group.”
Dentons, the lawsuit states, “knew, or ought to have known, that it was no longer in the Venning Group’s best interests for Dentons to continue acting as their legal counsel.”
And the lawsuit claims “Dentons ability to act as fiduciary to the Venning group became impossible due to the conflicts of interests Stevenson and Dentons created.
“By continuing to act as legal counsel to the Venning Group in this manner, Dentons moved well beyond being merely legal counsel, and placed themselves in a web of conflict, which included self-dealing, and more, or gross negligence.”
The lawsuit alleges that after Stevenson was arrested and charged in the crosswalk death, Dentons, rather than address the issues created by Stevenson, “obfuscated or otherwise concealed from Venning Group the egregious conduct, or otherwise failed to warn the plaintiffs of its mistakes and improper legal advice.”
Dentons charged improper fees, lawsuit claims
Dentons, through Stevenson, made specific requests on several occasions for Venning to pay Stevenson a personal “success” fee.
“Dentons failed to advise the Venning Group that such personal payments were improper and a violation of Dentons’ duties to its client.”
Venning, according to the lawsuit, paid Stevenson $150,000 in success fees between September and November 2014 in relation to the sale of Regent and another separate personal success fee of $300,000 on March 26, 2015.
The lawsuit claims Dentons, through Stevenson, went so far as to prepare documents that would give him power of attorney over Laurie Venning’s estate and “become the proposed executor and a beneficiary of Laurie Venning’s personal will.”
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