Lawyers’ deaths can sometimes present challenges

Macon attorney Sewell Elliott Jr.’s death came as a surprise to those in his law practice.

He went to the hospital in September with flu-like symptoms, which developed into pneumonia. While he was being treated, the doctors discovered that Elliott had cancer, said Kristi Woodall, his legal assistant.

“Three weeks later, he was gone,” she said.

Since Elliott’s death Oct. 6, Woodall has been tasked with contacting Elliott’s clients and handing off more than 80 cases to other attorneys.

She’s not alone. At least three other Macon attorneys have died since June, leaving clients’ pending cases hanging in the balance.

Local attorneys say that while the task can be time consuming, they do their best to be sure clients’ needs are met.

In most situations, judges are accommodating and give the clients of lawyers who have died time to find a new attorney — and for the new lawyer to get up to speed, said Brad Wilson, the attorney who has been working to distribute cases since Walter “Buddy” Lane Jr. died in August.

But the delay has the potential to create challenges when a case does go to court.

It’s been almost 2 1/2 years since Carlos Dwight Arnold was charged with taking pictures of a 9-year-old boy in a Macon Mall bathroom May 12, 2007.

Arnold was represented by Macon attorney Althea Buafo. Buafo died Oct. 20 after a long battle with cancer.

Franklin J. Hogue, another Macon attorney, picked up that case in September.

Anytime a case is delayed for a long time, there’s a concern about witnesses’ memories of events and their availability to testify, said prosecutor Dorothy Hull.

Also, some law enforcement witnesses have moved away from Macon since Arnold’s arrest, she said.

Delays also take their toll on victims and their families who become frustrated, Hull said, adding that she has stayed in touch with the boy’s family.

Bernadette Crucilla, an associate at Buafo’s law firm, said several area lawyers called the firm offering to help with cases during Buafo’s illness.

She started working to distribute Buafo’s 30 cases to other attorneys about a month ago.

Although she’s only required to contact clients and give them their files, Crucilla said she’s doing what she can to arrange for other lawyers to take many of the cases.

Crucilla described Buafo as more than just an employer.

“She was a close friend and a mentor,” she said. “I want to do right by her and her clients.

“The cases will be handled as professionally and ethically as possible, hopefully with as little disruption to the client as possible.”

About 15 cases are left, Crucilla said.

When lawyers belong to firms with several attorneys, of course, it’s easier for a smooth transition.

Knowing that he was ill, David Higdon, a partner at Macon’s Chambless, Higdon, Richardson, Katz and Griggs law firm, invited other attorneys to work with him on his cases, said Tom Richardson, one of the partners there.

Higdon died in June after fighting cancer for several years.

Working alongside Higdon, other lawyers had an opportunity to learn about the cases while giving clients an opportunity to build a relationship with a new lawyer, he said.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.