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Laredo, Tex., Attorney Named ‘Trial Lawyer of the Year’ at Public Justice Foundation Event

Laredo, Tex., Attorney Named ‘Trial Lawyer of the Year’ at Public Justice Foundation Event

Ronald Rodriguez, the Laredo, Tex., attorney who took on one of the country’s largest private prison companies in the beating death of a man who was about to be released from a Texas prison has been named the 2010 Public Justice Trial Lawyer of the Year.

Rodriguez’s award was announced in Vancouver, B.C., site of the Public Justice Foundation’s annual Gala and Awards Dinner. He was one of five finalists for the award, which is bestowed annually on the lawyer or legal team that won verdicts, judgments or settlements in socially significant, often cutting-edge cases. 

Rodriguez brought the case against Wackenhut Correction Corp, which has since been renamed the Geo Group, for malicious wrongful death and destruction of evidence in the 2001 beating death of Gregorio de la Rosa, who was serving a six-month DUI sentence in Raymondville, Tex.

Just four days away from his scheduled release, De la Rosa, a honorably discharged National Guardsman, was attacked in the prison yard in by fellow inmates wielding socks filled with metal padlocks. The lawsuit charged that prison guards and wardens stood idly by and laughed during the 20-minute beating.
De la Rosa’s family learned that such beatings were not unusual at the privately run correctional facility, but rather, a tradition of payback where prisoners were beaten just before their release.

Rodriguez’s sleuthing revealed that Wackenhut blatantly destroyed evidence in an effort to cover up the fatal beating and that the De la Rosa beating was typical of Wackenhut’s brazen corporate indifference to human life.

In 2006, the jury in De la Rosa v. Wackenhut awarded $47.5 million in punitive and compensatory damages against the private prison company and one of its wardens – the largest verdict in Willacy County, Tex., history and one of the largest in the country.  Punitive damages against Wackenhut accounted for $20 million of the award.

In 2009, the Texas Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, leading to a confidential settlement for the De la Rosa family.
Here is a summary of the other finalist cases:

  • After 20 years of battling inadequate medical and mental health care in California’s prisons, the tenacity and perseverance of Michael Bien of Rosen Bien & Galvan, LLP in San Francisco and Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office in San Quentin, California, finally paid off.  Bien, Specter and their legal team – Jeffrey L. Bornstein, Raymond Loughrey, Ed Sangster, and Rachel Chatman of K&L Gates in San Francisco; Fred Heather of K&L Gates in Los Angeles; Paul D. Clement of King & Spalding in Washington, D.C.; Ernest Galvan, Amy Whelan, Jane Kahn, Maria Morris, Lisa Ells, Mark Feeser and Tom Nolan of Rosen Bien & Galvan, LLP; Lori Rifkin of the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco, Employment Law Center; and Sara Norman, Rebekah Evenson, Alison Hardy and Steven Fama of the Prison Law Office – convinced a federal three-judge panel to order California to reduce its prison population by over 40,000 prisoners within two years.  According to legal experts, the order won in the consolidated cases of Coleman v. Schwarzenegger and Plata v. Schwarzenegger is the largest state prison reduction ever imposed by a federal court over the objection of state officials.
  • After 13 years of litigation, Royal Dutch Shell Corp., agreed on the eve of trial to pay $15.5 million to settle Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., which charged the oil giant with complicity in the deaths of the Ogoni 9 and torture of other MOSOP leaders.  The settlement was the result of the tenacity and dedication of a legal team headed by three attorneys with New York’s Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Jennifer M. Green (now teaching at University of Minnesota Law School), Judith Brown Chomsky, and Beth Stephens, who were ably assisted by Anthony DiCaprio of Rye, N.Y., a former CCR attorney; Maria LaHood and Debra Gordon of CCR; Agnieszka Fryszman and Maureen McOwen of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Washington, D.C.; Richard L. Herz, Jonathan G. Kaufman, Abby Rubinson, Marco B. Simons and Jacqui Zalcberg of EarthRights International in Washington, D.C.; Susan Farbstein of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School; Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP in Venice, Calif.; and Julie Shapiro, a professor at the University of Seattle School of Law.
  • Facing powerful defendants determined to crush all complaints about the Missouri pig farm’s impact on its neighbors, a team of attorneys led by Richard H. Middleton, Jr., of The Middleton Firm L.L.C. in Savannah, Ga., Charles F. Speer of The Speer Law Firm P.A. in Kansas City, Mo., and Stephen A. Weiss of Seeger Weiss L.L.P. in New York City – and assisted by Stephen A. Sael of The Middleton Firm L.L.C. and Britt Bieri and Gerald Lee Cross, Jr., of The Speer Law Firm P.A – prevailed against the corporate meat industry in Owens v. ContiGroup Companies  After nearly eight years of litigation and a month-long trial, the legal team won a jury verdict of over $11 million in compensatory damages for 15 local residents.
  • When Exxon Mobil Corp. insisted on going to court over the City of New York’s charges that the oil giant had contaminated the drinking water supply with the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), the city hired San Francisco attorney Victor Sher of Sher Leff LLP to lead the battle. Sher recruited Robert Chapman of Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles to head up the legal team with him.  With assistance from Marnie Riddle and Nick Campins of Sher Leff LLP, Harvey Friedman and Julia Haye of Greenberg Glusker, and Susan Amron, Daniel Green, Amanda Goad, Ramin Pejan, Chris Reo and Bill Plache of the New York City Law Department, Office of the Corporation Counsel, they won a $104.7 million jury verdict in City of New York v. Exxon Mobil Corp. for Exxon’s contamination of five wells in Queens.