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Finalists Announced for Public Justice’s Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Finalists Announced for Public Justice’s Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

WATCH: The team from People of California v. Atlantic Richfield won the 2014 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award.

Below are the finalists for the 2014 Public Justice Trial Lawyer of the Year award, along with a description of each case. The annual award, to be presented at our Gala at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore on July 27, 2014, honors attorneys who take great risk and overcome incredible odds to advance the common law, to make new law, and to win justice for their clients and for the common good of the public. Here are the five finalists for the award: 

Jere L. Beasley, J. Cole Portis, R. Graham Esdale, Benjamin E. Baker, Jr., Larry A. Tawwater, and Paul S. Martin

Bookout v. Toyota

When thousands of Toyota Camrys were suddenly accelerating, the company reacted by blaming the incidents on individual parts of the car: first floor mats, then sticky pedals. But, according to Toyota documents and testimony before Congress, these problems only accounted for 16 percent of the sudden unintended acceleration complaints. The problem was actually bigger: the software in the Toyota Camry that controlled the electronic throttle system was poorly designed and did not conform to industry standards. One of those Camrys that suddenly accelerated was Jean Bookout’s. She was injured, and passenger Barbara Schwarz was killed, in a September 2007 crash.

Jere L. Beasley, J. Cole Portis, R. Graham Esdale, and Benjamin E. Baker of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.C. in Montgomery, Ala., with assistance from Larry Tawwater of The Tawwater Law Firm in Oklahoma City, Okla., and Paul Martin of Martin Jean Jackson in Ponca City, Okla., led the charge against Toyota on behalf of Bookout and the Schwarz’s family. Bookout v. Toyota Motor Corp. was the first suit to go to trial against Toyota tying sudden unintended acceleration to electronic throttle control problems. The jury’s October 2013 verdict in this landmark acceleration case—awarding $3 million in compensatory damages and finding that the plaintiffs were entitled to punitive damages—not only led Toyota to settle the case for a confidential amount before the jury could determine the amount of punitive damages, but caused Toyota to try to reach a global settlement of the hundreds and hundreds of cases pending in multidistrict litigation proceedings.

Steve W. Berman, Robert B. Carey, Sean R. Matt, Jeniphr A.E. Breckenridge, Barbara Mahoney, Elaine T. Byszewski, Lisa Hasselman, Marc M. Seltzer, Frank M. Pitre, Robert S. Safi, Mark Robinson, Jr., and Oleg Elkhunovich

In Re Toyota

Beginning in 2002, Toyota customers began complaining to the car manufacturer and government agencies that their vehicles were accelerating suddenly, leading to crashes and injuries. Toyota blamed the sudden acceleration on driver error, floor mats and sticky pedals, and denied the existence of a much bigger problem in the design of its cars—a defective electronic throttle control system. Toyota continued to tout the safety and reliability of its cars, but the number of complaints about sudden unintended acceleration rapidly grew. Eventually, Toyota issued recalls to address problems with the accelerator pedals and floor mats, but it continued to deny the existence of the problem with the electronic throttle. More and more consumers were suffering injury and death. And as the public became more aware of the sudden acceleration problems, the value of Toyota cars plummeted, causing widespread economic damage to the cars’ owners.

A flurry of individual lawsuits was filed against Toyota, alleging economic losses due to mechanical and electronic defects.  Many of these suits were consolidated in multi-district litigation (MDL) in federal court in Los Angeles, and the court appointed Steve W. Berman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP in Seattle, Wash., Marc M. Seltzer of Susman Godfrey LLP in Los Angeles, Calif., and Frank M. Pitre of Pitre, Cotchett & McCarthy in Burlingame, Calif. as co-lead counsel for the class. After more than three years of intense work that included deposing scores of witnesses, poring over thousands of documents, and examining millions of lines of software code, Berman, Seltzer, Pitre, and their teams—co-counsel Robert Carey, Sean Matt, Jeniphr Breckenridge and Barbara Mahoney, also of Hagens Berman in Seattle, Elaine Byszewski of Hagens Berman in Pasadena, Calif., Lisa Hasselman, formerly of Hagens Berman, Robert S. Safi of Susman Godfrey in Houston, Mark Robinson, Jr., Robinson Calcagnie Robinson Shapiro Davis, Inc., in Newport Beach, Calif., and Oleg Elkhunovich of Susman Godfrey in Los Angeles—achieved an extraordinary settlement for the class in In re: Toyota Motor Corporation. On July 24, 2013, the court gave final approval to a $1.6 billion settlement that will benefit approximately 22 million class members—the largest settlement involving defective automobiles. Under the settlement, 16 million current owners will have parts related to unintended acceleration covered under warranty. The settlement also establishes two $250 million funds: one that will compensate current vehicle owners forced to sell their vehicles at a loss during a specified time frame and another that will compensate current vehicle owners who are not eligible for the safety upgrades available to other class members. In addition, the settlement requires Toyota to pay $30 million to fund automotive safety research and driver education.

Lance Cooper

Melton v. General Motors

After noticing serious problems with her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, including the engine shutting off while she drove, Brooke Melton took her vehicle to her local dealership. A day after she picked it up from the dealership, her car lost power suddenly, veered into oncoming traffic, was struck by another vehicle, and rolled into a creek. Melton was killed in the accident.

At the request of Melton’s parents, Lance Cooper of The Cooper Firm, a sole practitioner in Marietta, Ga., launched an investigation into her death. When Cooper initially filed Melton v. General Motors against GM and the dealership that serviced Brooke’s vehicle, he believed the accident was caused by a defect related to a power-steering recall issued by GM one week before the accident. But Cooper retained experts who determined that the real culprit in the fatal accident was a defective ignition switch that caused the car to turn off suddenly while Melton was driving. Cooper then showed that GM had known about the deadly ignition defect before the accident, exposing a corporate cover-up and federal regulatory lapse that led to GM recalling over 2.5 million cars, a Congressional investigation, and a large (but confidential) settlement to compensate the Melton family on September 21, 2013.

Fidelma L. Fitzpatrick, Joseph E. Cotchett, Nancy L. Fineman, Mary E. Alexander, Peter Earle, Greta Hansen, Danny Chou, Jenny S. Lam, Rebecca Archer, Dennis Bunting, Bob McConnell, Michaela Shea McInnis, Jonathan D. Orent, Vincent I. Parrett, Aileen Sprague, Paul Prather, Erin Bernstein, Owen Clements, Robert Ragland, Andrea Ross, Brian Schnarr, Sophia M. Aslami, Jennifer L. Fiore, William M. Litt, Andrew J. Massey, William E. Simmons, Eric J A Walts

People of California v. Atlantic Richfield

In California, tens of thousands of children each year have blood lead levels that exceed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) threshold. There is virtual unanimity in the medical and scientific community that the primary cause of lead poisoning in children is the lead paint in their homes.  Furthermore, it is widely understood that the only way to prevent lead poisoning is to remove or remediate the paint in a child’s environment before a child gets poisoned. Though paint manufacturers denied the existence of any lead paint nuisance, CDC criteria showed an additional 10,875 lead-poisoned children in 2009 in ten California cities and counties. Many are low-income, minority children who live in older homes with lead paint.

In 2000, these 10 California cities and counties sued several of the country’s largest paint manufacturers to hold the companies accountable for promoting the use of lead paint in homes, even though its dangers to children had been known for decades. The lawsuit, People of California v. Atlantic Richfield, alleged that lead paint in homes is a public nuisance that creates a quantifiable risk of harm to children who reside in or visit those homes.  The local governments sought help from a team of plaintiffs’ attorneys, led by Mary Alexander of Mary Alexander & Associates in San Francisco, Calif., Joseph W. Cotchett of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame, Calif., Peter Earle of the Law Office of Peter Earle in Milwaukee, Wis., Nancy L. Fineman of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame, and Fidelma Fitzpatrick of Motley Rice in Providence, R.I. After a 13-year odyssey that culminated in a seven-week trial, the team –which included Bob McConnell, Michaela McInnis, and Jonathan Orent, also of Motley Rice, and Vincent I. Parrett and Aileen Sprague, formerly of Motley Rice; Brian Schnarr of Cotchett, Pitre and McCarthy in Burlingame, Calif.; Sophia Aslami, and Jennifer Fiore of the Law Offices of Mary Alexander in San Francisco, Calif.; —assisted by local government attorneys Greta HansenDanny Chou, and Jenny S. Lam of the County of Santa Clara, Rebecca Archer of San Mateo County, Dennis Bunting of Solano County, Paul Prather of San Diego, Erin Bernstein and Owen Clements of San Francisco, and Robert Ragland and Andrea Ross of Los Angeles County, William M. Litt of Monterey County, Andrew J. Massey of Alameda County, William E. Simmons of the City of Oakland, Eric J A Walts of Ventura County – won a landmark $1.15 billion judgment and lead-paint clean up on December 16, 2013, against three of the major paint manufacturers. 

The Santa Clara County trial court ruled that ConAgra, NL Industries and Sherwin-Williams had created a public nuisance by selling lead-based paint for decades before it was banned in 1978, were liable for that public nuisance, and had to pay $1.15 billion into a State-run abatement fund to pay for inspections and lead removal in tens of thousands of homes.

Jessica L. Grant, Sean Kiley, Krishna Juvvadi, Richard Head, Allen Brooks, and Mary Maloney 

State of New Hampshire v. Hess Corporation, et al. 

For nearly 20 years, ExxonMobil and other oil companies added MTBE, short for methyl tertiary butyl ether, to gasoline sold throughout the country. The oil companies not only knew of MTBE’s health risks—a carcinogen in rodents—but knew that the gasoline additive posed a specific threat of contaminating New Hampshire’s aquifers and groundwater because of the state’s sensitive hydrogeology. Rather than disclose the health and environmental risks to government officials, the oil companies told the public that gasoline with MTBE was as safe as any other gasoline, and used the additive. The result in New Hampshire was that over 40,000 private drinking wells were contaminated with MTBE, over 5,000 of which were higher than the state’s maximum contaminant level.

For nearly a decade, litigators pursued justice for the state in New Hampshire v. Amerada Hess Corporation, a statewide groundwater contamination case against 23 oil companies, including the single biggest MTBE-laced gas supplier, ExxonMobil. After reaching settlements with all but two of the companies, lead counsel Jessica L. Grant of Venable LLP in San Francisco, Calif., working closely with Sean Kiley of Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass and Krishna Juvvadi, formerly of Sher Leff LLP in San Francisco, Calif., and with assistance from Richard Head, Allen Brooks, and Mary Maloney from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office in Concord, N.H., tried the groundwater contamination case against ExxonMobil and Citgo on a market share theory of product liability. After a three-month trial that was the largest and most complex in New Hampshire history, Grant and her team won a record-setting $816 million jury verdict for the state, obtaining the full amount of damages sought. The damages will cover cleanup costs and the cost of testing and monitoring every private well and public drinking water system in the state. 

Congratulations to the finalists and to all the Trial Lawyer of the Year nominees for their tremendous acheivements in the public interest.