2008 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 2007/08 and which case has assisted consumers or changes consumer law for the better in the State of California.
 
We are also pleased to present 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.
 
Awards will be presented at the Annual Installation and Awards Dinner on November 8, 2008 in conjunction with the CAOC 47th Annual Covention at The Fairmont in San Francisco.
 

Consumer Attorney of the Year Finalists:
 

Michael Alder
Alder Law, PC
More v. Napa State Hospital and Toland v. Napa State Hospital
(nominated for two cases)
 
Ronald Shelton Jr. was a 27-year-old schizophrenic who was admitted to Napa State Hospital after attacking his mother. After a highly distressing phone conversation with her brother, Ronald’s sister immediately called hospital staff to warn of a possible suicide attempt. The hospital took no action, despite the fact that Ronald had attempted suicide in the past. Twenty minutes after receiving the warning, Ronald was found hanged in his room.
 
Another patient with a history of suicide attempts, Norman Freidberg, committed suicide at Napa just a few months later – the mental hospital had again failed to take all necessary precautions.
 
Unfortunately, California’s mental hospitals have a history of incidents of neglect and abuse, but the resulting suits were always dismissed, either voluntarily or on demurrer or summary judgment.
 
By attacking these incidents as elder and dependent care abuses, the 30-year history of incidents at Napa Hospital was admissible. Through exhaustive research, a full history of the hospital’s deplorable conditions was documented: significant staffing shortages, unlawful use of restraints, punishment, sex with patients and drug abuse.
 
Not only did Michael Alder’s efforts win significant settlements for his clients, but the cases and resulting publicity forced a long-overdue review of the state mental hospital system.

Steven D. Archer
Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP
Barry I. Goldman
Rose, Klein & Marias LLP
Stanley K. Jacobs and Thomas Borcher
Jacobs, Jacobs & Eisfelder, LLP
Joyce S. Mendlin and Roger M. Rosen
Rosenberg, Mendlin & Rosen LLP
Gregory W. Moreno and Christopher Moreno
Moreno, Becerra & Casillas
Brian J. Panish
Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP
Michael J. Piuze and Geraldine Weiss
The Law Offices of Michael J. Piuze
Geoffrey S. Wells
Greene Broillet & Wheeler LLP
Supino, et al. v. City of Santa Monica, et al.
 
The incident shocked America.  The images were horrifying.  In 2003, an 86-year-old man lost control and crashed his Buick LeSabre through a wooden-and-plastic barricade, hitting more than 70 pedestrians at the popular Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. Among the 10 people killed were a 3-year-old, a married couple, a 78-year-old grandmother and her 7-month-old grandson.
 
The accident raised questions about Santa Monica’s traffic safety procedures for the Farmers’ Market. Three years before the tragedy, a law enforcement officer had called the city’s plan “a potential disaster waiting to happen.” The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the city failed to comply with safety standards.
 
Thanks to these members of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market Plaintiffs' Steering Committee, after five years of litigation with three writs and two appeals, the City of Santa Monica and other defendants eventually came to a significant settlement with the victims in these 42 consolidated wrongful death and personal injury actions.
 
Santa Monica has since changed the barricade and traffic procedures for its farmers’ market and other cities were forced to examine their efforts to protect pedestrians in similar open-air markets.  The incident also put scrutiny on licensing requirements for drivers and resulted in numerous efforts to improve senior citizen driving safety.
 

 David N. Bigelow and Graham LippSmith
Girardi | Keese‌
Jones-Price-Lineberg v. Masonic Homes of California
 
As a child, Tom Jones was frequently beaten and even subjected to games of Russian roulette by his father. At 13, he was made a ward of the state – that’s when the real abuse started. Tom was sent to Masonic Children’s Home in Covina where he was sexually abused for the next three years.
 
Through the course of the trial, former employees and residents testified that Masonic Homes knew about the abuse and actively covered up the incidents. The accused abuser testified 171 times that he did not remember a person, place or event at the Home. He even claimed to not know one former child resident whom he later employed outside the Home.
 
The jury found unanimously for Tom and the other plaintiffs. The significant judgment against Masonic Children’s Home was possible because of the Childhood Sexual Abuse Revival Statute of 2003. The Jones case was only the second in the Southern California area to go to trial under the revived statute of limitations – the first was also tried by David Bigelow and Graham LippSmith.

Robert J. Francavilla, Thomas D. Luneau and Jeremy K. Robinson
Casey, Gerry, Schenk, Francavilla, Blatt & Penfield, LLP
Butler v. Ingersoll Rand
 
While performing routine maintenance on a piece of industrial equipment, mechanic Donald Butler fell and was badly hurt. After a lengthy five week trial, the judge concurred that the product was clearly defective and provided Donald with a significant award.
 
But the real story is in the onslaught of tactics used by the defendant, Ingersoll Rand.
 
It began by putting the plaintiff under 24-hour surveillance. Throughout the proceedings, Ingersoll Rand’s attorneys constantly attacked his character and accused him of conspiring with his workers’ compensation insurer. They sought last-minute unjustified continuances, tried to call unlisted witnesses, attempted to introduce a herd of experts just before trial and generally flooded the proceedings with wave after wave of factual distortions and outright falsehoods. They even had the nerve to state that Donald’s employer was responsible for his injuries because it should have bought a “safe” piece of equipment rather than the one manufactured by Ingersoll Rand.
 
The judge soundly rejected Ingersoll Rand’s arguments and evidence, ruling the equipment clearly defective. But they were undeterred.
 
They filed for a new trial and indiscriminately gathered a pile of claimed errors, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal unanimously rejected every contention.
 
In a further delay of the inevitable, Ingersoll Rand tried to hitch itself to a “sophisticated user” case pending before the California Supreme Court. After the Court denied its petition, it resisted paying the award until Donald and his attorneys threatened to go after the bond posted by Ingersoll Rand prior to the appeal.
 
Ingersoll Rand threw everything at them except the kitchen sink, but thanks to the persistence of his attorneys, Donald finally prevailed – six years after his injury. The total settlement was increased by about 16% due to post-judgment interest accrued due Ingersoll Rand’s delaying tactics.

Genie E. Harrison
Lift, Estuar, Harrison & Kitson LLP
Tennie Pierce v. City of Los Angeles
 
The incident shook the foundations of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Tennie Pierce, a 19-year veteran of the LAFD, was the victim of racial harassment and retaliation, including being fed dog food mixed with his spaghetti.
 
Tennie’s resulting lawsuit, along with several other high-profile cases, exposed the abusive and discriminatory atmosphere of the LAFD. As a result of these suits, an audit was performed by the city’s controller. It found that 87% of African Americans and 80% of women were aware of or had experienced some form of discrimination while at the department.
 
As a result of the lawsuit and the high-profile focus upon racial discrimination in the Department, embattled LAFD Chief, William Bamattre, resigned. Douglas L. Barry was appointed as acting Chief, the first African-American in the Department’s history to assume the job.
 
After much publicity, Tennie’s case was recently settled. Two other high-profile cases have been settled and two more have gone on to trial, resulting in significant awards. 

 


Charles C. Kelly II
Hersh & Hersh
Johns v. Simplicity Inc.
 
It was a parent’s worst nightmare. Nicola Johns put her 9-month-old son, Liam, to bed. When Nicola came back, she found him hanging lifelessly from the crib. Her son was pronounced dead at the hospital.
 
A suit was filed against the crib manufacturer, Simplicity Inc., due to a design flaw and unclear assembly instructions which created the deadly hazard that claimed young Liam Johns.
 
At the time of the suit, the Johns’ attorney alerted the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of the danger. Two years later, the CPSC finally dispatched a field investigator to look at the crib.
 
Eventually, the Johns won an undisclosed settlement from the manufacturer. The case and the resulting publicity eventually forced the CPSC to issue a recall for the crib, the largest crib recall ever – over one million units.
 
Unfortunately, while the CPSC dragged its heels, the defective cribs generated more than 50 complaints, temporarily trapped seven babies and killed two other children.
 
The parents of Liam Johns have since dedicated themselves to toughening product safety and recall laws. One news report quoted Nicola as saying, “We can’t save our child, but we can save other people’s – hopefully.” 
 
Thanks to the efforts of one attorney and the courage of Nicola and Chad Johns, who knows how many children have already been saved.


Michael A. Kelly
Walkup, Melodia, Kelly, Wecht & Schoenberger
Jastrab v. Ling and Dahl v. Stone
(nominated for two cases)
 
Two more medical malpractice tragedies and one attorney successfully fighting for his clients – with the odds heavily stacked against him.
 
Joshua Jastrab, a 13-year-old middle school student, suffered a minor injury while playing football. An undiagnosed infection developed in his thigh, which ultimately put Joshua into septic shock, causing respiratory and kidney failure, and resulted in significant necrosis.
 
Eric Dahl, a 26-year-old construction worker, was being treated by his family physician for a MRSA (staph) skin infection. When Eric complained of back pain, it should have been an obvious red flag that he could have a serious abscess on his spinal cord.  Instead of being admitted to the emergency room, Eric was sent home with pain medication. A series of missteps later at the hospital compounded his situation and today Eric is confined to a wheelchair for life.
 
Michael Kelly won significant awards for both Eric and Joshua despite the significant limitations of the 1975 Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). In a time when few attorneys are able to successfully represent malpractice victims, Mr. Kelly has tried three cases to verdict and one in binding arbitration in the last two years.
 
Mr. Kelly fights for malpractice victims outside the courtroom too – he has been a key supporter of MICRA reform and is a vocal advocate against this unfair and outdated law.

Lisa Maki and Christina Coleman
Law Offices of Lisa Maki
Boren & Colen v. Beverly Hills Pain & Diagnostic Group et al.
 
After the sales director explained how much money he could make, David Boren took what sounded like a dream job with Global Medical. But it turned out to be a nightmare.
 
David was told if he could sign 10 doctors as clients, he could make more than $100,000 each month. But despite signing well more than 10 clients, David was never paid anything near what he was promised. Soon it became apparent to David that he wasn’t the only one being cheated.
 
David confronted his bosses after he learned they were misclassifying their employees as consultants and were violating anti-kickback, self-referral and referral for profit laws. They responded with a campaign of harassment and intimidation – including the use of racial slurs and a level of hostility so great that it nearly came to blows. Ultimately they sabotaged David’s business dealings and then wrongfully fired him.
 
Not only did attorneys Lisa Maki and Christina Coleman show that David’s bosses had cheated their employees, but they also showed how they defrauded the Medical Board of California and facilitated the unlicensed practice of medicine. The judge called it an “unraveling” of the defendants’ complicated corporate structures.
 
The jury believed the plaintiffs and they won on all counts, including finding David’s bosses acted with malice, fraud and oppression.
 
During the trial, David’s attorneys were subjected to the same sort of abuse and hostility he was subjected to. The judge stated that “the defendants flaunted the discovery codes…requiring plaintiffs to make in excess 10 discovery motions to get necessary proof of their claims.” David’s bosses and their attorney repeatedly threatened Ms. Maki and Ms. Coleman personally with a malicious prosecution action.
 
The defendants’ attorney was eventually suspended.

Anne Marie Murphy and Justin Berger
Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy
Komarova v. MBNA America Bank
 
Anastasiya Komarova was targeted by NCA debt collection agency for an MBNA credit card debt belonging to Christopher Propper of Long Beach, California. NCA said Anastasiya was an authorized user of the card and eventually demanded, through their contracted binding arbitrator, that she pay $7,000. 
 
But Anastasiya didn’t know Mr. Propper, had never owned any credit cards from MBNA and had never even lived in Southern California. It turns out that Mr. Propper had a similarly-named Anastasia Komarova on his account.
 
Anastasiya met with a dozen attorneys. The few that were willing to take the case would only do so on an hourly basis – which she couldn’t afford. Attorneys Anne Marie Murphy and Justin Berger saw the case as an opportunity to challenge the debt collection industry and expose its practices to the public.
 
After failing to have the case thrown out based on the statute of limitation and the litigation privilege, NCA turned to personally attacking Anastasiya in court.
 
NCA blamed her for failing to provide them with her Social Security Number, attacked her ability to understand English (which she speaks perfectly) and blamed the debt on a fictitious incidence of identity theft. When the president of NCA took the stand, he accused Anastasiya of evading her debts, having frivolous spending habits and even having trysts with Ukrainian women – all completely untrue.
 
In the end, the jury rejected the web of wild accusations and untruths of NCA. They awarded significant damages for intentional emotional distress, damages for violations of the California Rosenthal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, punitive damages and attorney fees.
 
The case put significant scrutiny on the debt collection industry and the dangers of binding arbitration, with major stories in local and national television and radio.

Warren R. Paboojian
Baradat, Edwards & Paboojian
Stacy Johnson-Klein v. the Board of Trustees of the California State University
 
Stacy Johnson-Klein was the head women’s basketball coach at Fresno State University. Under her tenure, the Lady Bulldogs had their first winning season in five years; fundraising for the program was up 20%; and, season ticket holders jumped from 66 to 4,000. But when she complained about funding inequities for female athletes, she was fired in retaliation.
 
Stacy fought back, and with her attorney, wound up winning the largest Title IX verdict in history.
 
It wasn’t easy. Fresno State undertook a campaign to discredit Stacy – even publishing 380 pages of confidential documents on its website. The defendants claimed to have a paper trail justifying the firing and submitted over 10,000 documents in support. The costs incurred were significant in the contingency case and since the defendant was a governmental agency, there would be no punitive damages available.
 
The case received unprecedented media coverage – making national news several times. It was on the front page of the local paper 35 times. Fresno’s State Senator, Dean Florez, held hearings on enforcing Title IX.
 
After a nine week trial, the jury only deliberated four hours and delivered unanimous decisions on nine separate counts – all in favor of the plaintiff. Fresno State was ordered to pay past economic damages, future economic damages, past noneconomic damages and future noneconomic damages.
 
Since the lawsuit, Fresno State has acknowledged problems with its treatment of women athletes and coaches. Most importantly, the case prompted colleges and universities nationwide to reevaluate their compliance of Title IX.
 
 

Gary M. Paul
Waters & Kraus, LLP
Davis and Davis v. Leslie Controls, Inc. and Warren Pumps, LLC.
 
Veteran “Jack” Davis survived the Korean War only to be killed by the gaskets and other asbestos coated parts he was exposed to while working for the Navy and the private sector.
 
The plaintiff, a 74-year-old former fireman and boiler tender, served aboard the destroyer U.S.S. DeHaven during the Korean War. After the war, he worked for American Pipe and Steel, Sound Control Company, Shell Oil, Phillip Petroleum and Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). 
 
The plaintiff attributed his mesothelioma to products manufactured by Leslie Controls and Warren Pumps, which he worked on throughout his civilian and Navy career.  The defendants laid blame on the manufacturers of the asbestos parts they used and the plaintiff’s former employers. 
 
But the jury ruled that the defendants knew that their products would have to be periodically overhauled and repaired, resulting in exposure to the asbestos contained within.  The jury also accepted that low-level exposure to asbestos in small gaskets, insulation and other pump parts is sufficient to cause mesothelioma, and the jury was willing to award substantial damages to a relatively older plaintiff.  The Los Angeles superior court jury deliberated for five hours before returning their 10-2 verdict after a five week trial.

Street Fighter of the Year Finalists:

Richard Alexander
Scott C. Glovsky
Jeffrey S. Mitchell
Kim Valentine
Daniel Y. Zohar 

 


Richard Alexander
Alexander Hawes, LLP
Liu v. Chau

George Liu rear-ended another vehicle due to an illegal U-turn by a third party. He was left a paraplegic, saddled with $300,000 in medical debt and was facing lifetime future medical expenses of some $6 million.

The insurance company failed to pay on the $30,000 policy, claiming that George, a 24-year-old driver of a racing motorcycle, failed to stop in time. That’s when the good faith action began.

In mediation, the insurance carrier stated it would never pay above a certain amount, even when presented with a letter from the adjuster stating that refusing to pay on the policy was “idiocy.”

A week before trial, the insurance company offered to pay its previously “unacceptable” settlement amount.  But the offer only represented a fraction of George’s medical expenses, so it was rejected.

On the first day of trial, the insurance company doubled their offer.  This too was rejected as woefully unfair.

After two days of trial, the insurance company more than quadrupled its previously “unacceptable” settlement amount.  This represented a significant portion of George’s current and future financial burden and was accepted.

Computer modeling of the accident sequence and focus groups on dealing with a young plaintiff driving a racing motorcycle both helped secure this win.  But more importantly were a client and attorney willing to stay the course for justice.


Scott C. Glovsky
Law Offices of Scott Glovsky
Smith v. Doe Insurance Company

When Janell Smith was admitted to the hospital, she weighed 68 pounds and needed a feeding tube to keep her alive.  She was 26 years old. 

After three weeks of treatment for severe anorexia, her insurance company pulled the plug on her hospitalization. This was despite her “unlimited” hospital coverage for anorexia and the fact that she was too underweight for outpatient treatment.

Five days after her discharge, she committed suicide.

Suicide is an all-too-common outcome for those suffering from anorexia, which has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness.  One in ten anorexics die from their disease and up to 10 million women and girls are afflicted with eating disorders like anorexia.

Despite the severity of this epidemic, insurance companies are systematically pressuring hospitals to discharge patients with severe, and often fatal, eating disorders.

Janell’s parents courageously told their horror story to others through media outlets like Anderson Cooper 360, The Early Show and People magazine in the hopes they could prevent someone else’s daughter from suffering a similar fate. 

The settlement of this case will allow Janell’s parents to continue their efforts to fight this deadly disease. The work of attorneys like Scott Glovsky will keep other young women from being victimized by their insurance companies. 


Jeffrey S. Mitchell
Bostwick & Associates
Prinz v. Lassen Medical Group

Rural Shasta County is among the most conservative in California – George Bush won 67% of the vote here in 2004. Not the ideal venue for a medical malpractice case.  In fact, a plaintiff had not won a malpractice case here since 1985.

Then Jeffrey Mitchell went into this lions’ den to fight for his client, Mike Prinz.

Thanks to blood thinning drugs, Mike had made a complete recovery after suffering a small stroke.  Months later, his doctors pulled him off his medication and failed to provide a “bridging therapy” prior to an unrelated elective surgery.

Twelve days after removing him from the medication, Mike suffered a catastrophic stroke.  Instead of returning to his work supervising developmentally disabled adults, he needs around-the-clock care.

Jeffrey Mitchell didn’t listen when he was told “you can’t win a medical malpractice case up here.”  As a result, he secured a significant award for his client, generated extensive and positive press coverage which will hopefully pave the way for other patient victories, and reinforced our faith in the jury system.


Kim Valentine
Barbaro & Valentine LLP
Adams v. Villa Valencia

Mary Kathleen Adams, a 104-year-old retired school teacher, broke her leg at home. After a brief hospital stay, she was admitted to Villa Valencia Healthcare Center for physical therapy. Eight weeks later she was dead. During her stay at Valencia, Mary suffered multiple falls, injuries and Stage IV decubitus ulcers, which provided a pathway for the sepsis infection that ultimately killed her.

The defendants tried to hide behind their convoluted corporate structure, stating that a parent company in Virginia ran the facility, and tried to characterize the injuries Mary received at Valencia as pre-existing.

The evidence demonstrated the facility had been operating without an administrator and a director of nursing; that it didn't have policies and procedures available for care staff; and, that it understaffed the facility.

The jury returned a significant award in both non-economic and punitive damages.  More importantly, care providers were put on notice that they can’t hide behind a blurry stonewall of corporate structuring when their business model puts profits over people.


Daniel Y. Zohar
Zohar Law Firm
The Matter of the Rate Application of Allstate Insurance Co., et al.

Allstate had requested an across-the-board increase for its two million auto insurance customers. Then Daniel Zohar took action. Once the smoke had cleared, Allstate was ordered to lower the rates by nearly 16%.

Proposition 103 prohibits excessive insurance rates, but making certain that insurance companies comply often requires a successful intervention – which presents unique challenges.

These hearings have limited written discovery and no depositions, meaning that Allstate’s team of expert witnesses had to be examined on the fly. Since most of the hearings centered on fuzzy rate calculations, complex actuarial tables and detailed economic analyses, cross-examinations were especially difficult.

If that wasn’t enough, compensation is only granted after successfully challenging the insurer AND proving that the Intervenor made a “substantial contribution” to the hearings.

In the end, Allstate’s bevy of lawyers and experts tried to plead poverty to the Insurance Commissioner while they proudly announced to Wall Street their $5 billion income.

Thanks to Daniel Zohar, they failed, and their customers couldn’t be happier.


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

 

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