Award Finalists
Consumer Attorney of the Year
and
Street Fighter of the Year
 
Every year, Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC) recognizes one distinguished member lawyer who, in representing his/her clients on a daily basis, has overcome incredible odds to provide justice to victims, and has established precedent that will make a difference in the lives of Californians. The Consumer Attorney of the Year Award honors a plaintiff's lawyer who has achieved a significant result in a case that was finally resolved within years 2006/07 and which case has assisted consumers or changes consumer law for the better in the State of California.
 
New this year, we are pleased to introduce the Street Fighter of the Year Award, which exemplifies the everyday struggle of the small practitioner in California and highlights the efforts of one plaintiff's lawyer who, through the practice of law, has helped to create a more just society regardless of profit or personal benefit.
 

Finalists for 2006-2007
Consumer Attorney of the Year:
 
Denise Asher
David Bigelow and Graham B. LippSmith
Timothy Blood
Raymond P. Boucher
Stuart Chandler
Stephen F. Davids
Roxanne Davis and Nathan Goldberg
Ricardo Echeverria
Russell Kussman
 Robert J. Nelson, Scott Nealey, and Charles Naylor
Wendy York
and William Kershaw
 

DENISE ASHER
Reilly v. Powers

Ms. Asher is nominated for this medical malpractice case involving the failure to diagnose invasive squamous cell carcinoma, resulting in fatal spread of cancer and involving a doctor with a checkered Medical Board history. Had the cancer been caught at an early stage, experts said there was a 95 percent chance the 54-year-old man would have recovered. After a four-week trial, a conservative San Diego County Superior Court jury found in favor of the plaintiff, but the amount was significantly reduced because of the 32-year-old Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). Jurors were so upset that their deliberations were ignored that some are now meeting with legislators as part of CAOC’s efforts to educate them about the horrendous impact of MICRA.
 
Denise Asher is a name partner at the law firm Strauss & Asher.
 

DAVID BIGELOW AND GRAHAM B. LIPPSMITH
Deutsch/Mohr-McDermott v. Masonic Home for Children
 
Mr. Bigelow and Mr. LippSmith are nominated for what is recognized as the first institutional molestation case revived and decided by a jury in Los Angeles County Superior Court after the passage of California’s Childhood Sexual Abuse Revival Statute, California Code of Civil Procedure Section 340.1. Mr. Bigelow and Mr. LippSmith represent 14 adults who were under the care of the Masonic Homes of California in the 1960s and 1980s. The attorneys proved that Masonic Homes of California knew or had reason to know two of the homes’ employees or agents were committing unlawful childhood sexual abuse, yet failed to take any reasonable steps to prevent further abuse. In the first of the cases tried, a jury found in favor of two adult female victims who had been abused as children. In the second case a jury found in favor of three adult male victims, awarding both compensatory and punitive damages. The remaining cases will move forward in 2008.
 
David Bigelow and Graham LippSmith are members of the firm of Girardi | Keese.
 

TIMOTHY BLOOD
Lebrilla v. Farmers Insurance Group

Mr. Blood is nominated for a case he tried against Farmers Insurance for breach of contract and consumer fraud, attacking Farmers' practice of using non-Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts for vehicle repairs that did not meet the quality standards required by Farmers’ insurance policies. Mr. Blood faced much adversity in Orange County Superior Court as he lost class certification at the trial level before winning a reversal on appeal. His ingenuity in using new legal theories avoided the pitfalls of past cases. Although other plaintiffs around the country were unsuccessful in similar suits – breach of contract and consumer fraud claims that required proving that each replacement part was inferior – Mr. Blood cast the case differently. He argued that Farmers’ claims adjustment practices were deficient, which meant that he did not have to prove that each and every replacement part was actually defective, and instead focused on the company’s policies and the overall quality of the imitation parts. His strategy proved to be the difference. During trial, Farmers settled the case on a nationwide basis at the close of evidence.
 
Tim Blood is a partner at Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins, LLP.
 

RAYMOND P. BOUCHER
Coordinated Proceedings: The Clergy Cases 1

Mr. Boucher is nominated for these landmark cases on behalf of 508 plaintiffs against the Catholic Church for hiding sexually abusive priests. For hundreds of years, if not longer, the Catholic Church systematically allowed and covered up the rape of children by its clergy because civil justice systems around the world denied victims the opportunity to bring accountability to this institution. Many of the plaintiffs had been denied justice for more than 40 years. These cases were difficult and complex and began in 2002 when the state Legislature opened the courthouse doors to victims of clergy sexual abuse (by enacting California Code of Civil Procedure Section 340.1). Each plaintiff had a separate case against distinct defendants, each with its own issues regarding First Amendment law, prior notice, extensive damages, and 40 years of multiple layers of insurance policies for numerous entities. Hundreds of depositions were taken, countless motions, and at least a dozen appeals were filed. The cases settled on the eve of trial because of the threat of civil jury justice and the awesome potential for further embarrassment of the church. These Los Angeles County Superior Court cases were globally recognized and this litigation and settlement have changed the Catholic Church forever.
 
Raymond Boucher is a name partner at the law firm Kiesel, Boucher & Larson.
 

STUART CHANDLER
Perez v. Fire Insurance Exchange

Mr. Chandler is nominated for what was his first bad faith insurance trial which he won with limited resources. A truck driver hauling oranges down a county road at night hit a farm tractor stalled in road with no lights on. Mr. Chandler represented the truck driver and sued the tractor driver, who had borrowed the tractor from the nearby dairy where he worked. Mr. Chandler’s client won a default judgment against the tractor driver, but the driver was unable to pay. The tractor driver’s insurance company, Farmers (Fire Insurance Exchange parent company), refused coverage on both the homeowner’s and auto insurance policy, saying that the tractor was not covered because it was subject to the motor vehicle exclusion in his policy. Mr. Chandler then took the tractor driver’s bad faith case to trial. Farmers would not negotiate and would not settle. In trial in Tulare County Superior Court, Mr. Chandler exposed Farmers’ bad faith and the jury returned a verdict which is believed to be the largest in the area of Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, and Merced counties.
 
Stuart Chandler is a solo practitioner – Law Offices of Stuart R. Chandler.
 

STEPHEN F. DAVIDS
Greer v. Buzgheia

Mr. Davids is nominated for his work on the appellate proceedings in Greer v. Buzgheia. In that case, a Sacramento plaintiff was injured in an auto accident that resulted in his inability to work. His employer, through workers’ compensation, paid $130,000 on his total medical tab of $210,000. The trial attorney, Chris Wood, convinced the trial court to admit into evidence the total billed amounts. A vocational rehabilitation expert testified that the billed medical expenses were reasonable, and judgment was entered on the jury’s verdict. The Third District Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment, and in an originally unpublished decision held that nothing in Hanif nor Nishihama precluded the admissibility of the reasonable (billed) cost of medical services. Mr. Wood then successfully petitioned the court to publish the Greer decision. Assisted by an appellate specialist, Greer successfully opposed the defendant’s petition for review to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also denied the defendant’s petition for de-publication, which contained dire warnings about inflated medical billings and over-compensation. Greer has now been followed by Katiuzhinsky v. Perry, which held that reduction in medical damages under Hanif was inappropriate when the plaintiffs’ medical providers sold their liens to a financial services company at reduced rates, but the plaintiffs remained fully liable for the amount of the medical provider’s charges for care and treatment.
 
Stephen Davids is an attorney with Dreyer, Babich, Buccola & Callaham.

ROXANNE DAVIS AND NATHAN GOLDBERG
James Stevens v. Vons

Ms. Davis and Mr. Goldberg are nominated for representing a conservative, Christian African American man in a sexual harassment and retaliation case against Vons in Simi Valley. Stevens, who had worked for Vons for 26 years, alleged he was exposed daily to crude and offensive sexual remarks and gestures by a Caucasian female supervisor. Even though four coworkers corroborated the complaint, Vons said its investigation was inconclusive and transferred him to a lower volume store. When Stevens then filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), Vons submitted false statements to DFEH and DFEH then closed his file. Vons even staged an incident of alleged theft, falsely accusing Stevens of donating water and soda to a church that fed the homeless as a basis of firing him in retaliation for his complaints of sexual harassment. In conservative Simi Valley, a Ventura County jury unanimously found for Stevens. The Los Angeles Times reported:
“…Stevens said he had questioned whether as a man alleging harassment by a woman, and as an African American, he would receive a favorable verdict in Simi Valley. “I was wrong,” he said, “pleasingly so.” Stevens…said he hoped to inspire other men to take action. “Some very masculine men might be reluctant to come forward,” he said. Yet in his case, “A jury unanimously agreed with me and stood behind me.”
Roxanne Davis is a name partner at the law firm Davis*Gavsie.
Nathan Goldberg is a name partner at the law firm Allred, Maroko & Goldberg.
 

RICARDO ECHEVERRIA
(nominated for two cases)
George M. Martin Co. v. Royal Insurance Co.

Mr. Echeverria is nominated for his work on a bad faith suit against Royal Insurance Co. In 1999, a man’s skull was crushed, leaving him seriously injured by a stacker produced by George M. Martin Co., an Emeryville, Calif. company in business since 1929. After the man won a personal injury suit against Martin Co., Mr. Echeverria represented Martin Co. in its suit against Royal Insurance Co. (Martin Co.’s insurance carrier) for refusing to settle with the man. The case was tried in Minnesota Federal District Court and resulted in a unanimous verdict in favor of Martin Co. The two sides reached a high-low agreement as the jury was deliberating just before the verdict came in which resulted in payment of the judgment, plus interest.
 
Stone v. Fidelity National Insurance

Mr. Echeverria is also nominated for representing victims of the 2003 wildfires after they lost their Claremont home and the insurance company undervalued the claim. Fidelity initially undervalued the claim by about $300,000. Mr. Echeverria’s clients balked at the amount and hired an independent contractor to prepare an estimate on the damage, as did Fidelity. Fidelity’s contractor’s estimate was approximately $200,000 less than the independent contractor the homeowners hired. Fidelity then misrepresented the policy limits on the claim, blamed the homeowners for undervaluing the lost property in the house, and even suggested that because they lived conservatively and had enough money in the bank to begin reconstruction on the house that they should not be able to claim emotional distress. The jury found that Fidelity not only acted in bad faith, but generally treated these clients reprehensibly. This was the first 2003 wildfire case to go to trial and when the jury awarded punitive damages, they sent a message to other insurers and helped achieve fair settlements in other wildfire cases.
 
Ricardo Echeverria is a partner with the law firm of Shernoff Bidart & Darras.
 

 
RUSSELL KUSSMAN
Franco v. Kaiser

Mr. Kussman is nominated for this case that demonstrates how consumer attorneys work on various levels of political, judicial, and legal spectrums to make a difference in the way society works. The plaintiff, a six-year-old girl, was severely and permanently brain damaged during birth due to the medical malpractice of Kaiser. In binding arbitration, the arbitrator was a retired judge who, after a long arbitration hearing, found for Kaiser. Following the arbitration, Mr. Kussman discovered that the retired judge arbitrator had ignored a law recently passed that tightened requirements for neutral arbitrators’ disclosure. Authored by then-Senator Martha Escutia (D-Norwalk), supported by consumer groups, and actively lobbied by CAOC in 2001, California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1281.9 now imposes ethical standards on arbitrators to disclose whether they are serving or have served as a neutral within two years of the date of the proposed appointment. Mr. Kussman investigated and learned that the arbitrator failed to disclose at least nine and as many as 15 relevant Kaiser cases he had worked on. By exposing the arbitrator’s improper act he burnt many bridges for his future practice, but Mr. Kussman used this information to vacate the arbitration award in San Bernardino County Superior Court and the case was successfully arbitrated in 2007 in favor of the little girl.
 
Russell Kussman is a name partner at Kussman & Whitehill.
 

ROBERT J. NELSON, SCOTT NEALEY, AND CHARLES NAYLOR
Mraz v. DaimlerChrysler Corporation

Mr. Nelson, Mr. Nealey, and Mr. Naylor are nominated for this case that proved DaimlerChrysler Corporation acted with malice and disregard toward customer safety by allowing millions of defective vehicles to drive off of its lots, injuring hundreds of people, some fatally. The plaintiff in this case was run over by his own vehicle after he exited the vehicle, believing he had put it in park. Tried in Los Angeles County Superior Court, evidence showed DaimlerChrysler management knew of the “false-park” effect and made a conscious decision to do a false fix so that the recall would be limited to just two years of one of its models. DaimlerChrysler deceived the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and its customers to protect its profits. This was the first “false-park” or “park-to-reverse” case to go to trial against DaimlerChysler despite the fact that the plaintiff is believed to have been the 13th death as a result.
 
Robert J. Nelson and Scott Nealey are partners with the law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.
Charles Naylor is a solo practitioner – Law Offices of Charles Naylor.

WENDY YORK AND WILLIAM KERSHAW
Cornn et al v. United Parcel Service

Ms. York and Mr. Kershaw are nominated for this wage and hour case on behalf of more than 23,000 United Parcel Service (UPS) drivers. In UPS’s tightly managed environment, drivers were often required to skip meal and rest periods. Also, UPS programmed its computer systems to automatically deduct a "standard lunch deduction," a pre-set amount of time for lunch regardless of the amount of time the drivers actually took for lunch. These policies were very anti-employee and predictably, this resulted in a massive amount of unpaid work time. The suit was prosecuted for three and a half years in the U.S. District Court of Northern California at considerable financial risk to the attorneys’ practices. The court’s certification order was significant because it was one of first in which a judge found that the wage payments under California Labor Code Section 226.7 were considered wages and not penalties. This was later affirmed by the California Supreme Court in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions. The case settled in September 2006 and was one of the largest wage and hour settlements in California history. This was a non-reversionary settlement, with any unclaimed funds being paid to the San Francisco and Los Angeles Food Banks. This lawsuit also served as a catalyst to change the complained-of practices, including the elimination of UPS's "standard lunch deduction" and compliance with California's meal and rest period laws.
 
Wendy York is owner of York Law Corporation.
William Kershaw is a name partner at Kershaw, Cutter & Ratinoff.
 

Finalists for 2006-2007
Street Fighter of the Year:
 
Caryn Becker
Chantel Fitting and Don Galine
Stephen M. Garcia
Lisa Maki
Jeffrey Sheldon
Lawrence Strick
 

CARYN BECKER
Mayo v. Rent Razor

Ms. Becker is nominated for her exceptional work to improve tenant’s rights in California. She represented a group of former Section 8 tenants in Oakland who filed a class action lawsuit alleging that their landlords and property managers refused to return security deposits owed to the tenants. After jumping through hurdles to get the class certified, to chase down primary defendants who sold properties and left the state, and to deal with counter challenges of set-offs for back rent or property damage, Ms. Becker was able to secure the return of the full security deposit plus interest for every class member who submitted a claim.
 
While prosecuting this case, Ms. Becker was a partner with the law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.

CHANTEL FITTING AND DON GALINE
Grizzle v. Jack in the Box

Ms. Fitting and Mr. Galine are nominated for their work on this case that uncovered deception on the part of a large restaurant corporation. A jury in San Mateo County Superior Court found liability against Jack in the Box for installing an improper handicapped wheelchair ramp. During the trial it was discovered that Jack in the Box deceived the building department and submitted one set of plans for the handicapped ramp, yet built with another set. The building inspector revoked the permit on the witness stand and Jack in the Box was forced to pay damages for the plaintiff, who had multiple fractures to her left ankle, as well as install a functional ramp. Even though the plaintiff in this case was not wheelchair-bound, this case led to nationwide changes in disabled access at Jack in the Box restaurants.
 
Chantel Fitting is an associate with the Law Offices of Don L. Galine.
Don Galine is an attorney/owner of the Law Offices of Don L. Galine.
 

STEPHEN M. GARCIA
Combs v. Elim Place

Mr. Garcia is nominated for his work to bring elder abuse to light at the Elim Place facility in Fresno. After many other attorneys had rejected the case for numerous reasons, namely because the defendants had no insurance and the son of the plaintiff who had not taken care of his mother during her lifetime stood to benefit, Mr. Garcia took the case in order to prove that abuse was prevalent in the facility. Without Mr. Garcia’s efforts, the facility would have gone unpunished, continuing the practice of elders being victimized with no chance of retribution on the basis of an elderly facility having no insurance.
 
Stephen Garcia is name partner of The Garcia Law Firm.
 

LISA MAKI
Dawn Traeger Brady v. Ingram Micro Inc.

Ms. Maki is nominated for her work in this disability discrimination case in Orange County Superior Court. The plaintiff was a supervisor who was sent home on administrative leave for allegedly being "abusive" with her subordinates. She was called in to discuss the allegations after a few weeks but on the evening before she was to go in, she was rushed to the emergency room with heart palpitations and very high blood pressure. A few weeks later, a doctor released her to return to work with a note that required her to “avoid all stressful situations.” The employer refused to return her to work claiming it would be "too stressful" for her to discuss the investigation. The jury found the employer failed to engage in an interactive process to determine if it could reasonable accommodate her disability. The defendant offered to settle repeatedly telling Ms. Maki they would get the case thrown out because they "had never lost" on summary judgment. Summary judgment was denied. The defendant then offered a larger settlement shortly before trial, and repeatedly told the plaintiff that she would lose at trial because they "had never lost" a trial. The settlement offer was withdrawn during trial and the jury found in favor of the plaintiff.
 
Lisa Maki is an attorney/owner of Law Offices of Lisa L. Maki.
 

JEFFREY SHELDON
Hill v. Budget Rent-a-Car

Mr. Sheldon is nominated for this Orange County Superior Court case that resulted from a low-impact, rear-end auto accident. Before trial began, Budget Rent-a-Car offered the plaintiff more than $60,000 less than his medical expenses. During trial, Budget employed defense experts in neurosurgery, neuropsychology, neuroradiology, neurology, vocational rehabilitation, industrial medicine, pharmacy, biomechanics, accident reconstruction, and economics. These experts challenged liability, contributory negligence, unrelated injury, pre-existing condition, and exaggeration of injury (psychosomatic). Defense also had extensive surveillance and huge defense costs, all to no avail. The result was one of the largest rear-end, soft-tissue verdicts in Orange County history.
 
Jeffrey Sheldon is a name partner at Kerr & Sheldon.
 

LAWRENCE STRICK
Smith v. Meline

Mr. Strick is nominated for this auto accident case in Sonoma County Superior Court. He accepted the case after the plaintiff had been abandoned by his previous attorney. The defense had made an offer to settle, but the plaintiff had refused the offer. Mr. Strick attempted to resolve the case, however, the defense retracted its offer and served a $5,000 offer pursuant to California Code of Civil Procedure Section 998. Prior to trial there were significant discovery issues concerning the defendant's expert compensation. After obtaining a ruling mandating the disclosure of the expert's earnings, the defendant withdrew the expert from the case. The case proceeded on issues of disputed liability and damages. The jury's award was in excess of the defendant's CCP 998.
 
Lawrence Strick is an attorney/owner of Law Offices of Lawrence A. Strick.


Consumer Attorney of the Year Finalists  •  Street Fighter of the Year Finalists

 

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