Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC) is made up of outstanding advocates who battle powerful interests and win, holding wrongdoers accountable and making life better for all Californians. Many members are worthy of special recognition each year, but we recognize the work of one distinguished member lawyer, or several attorneys working together on the same case, with the Consumer Attorney of the Year Award. The award is given each year to a member who has overcome unusual obstacles or long odds to provide justice to victims as well as assisting consumers or changing consumer law for the better in the State of California.
 
We also present the Street Fighter of the Year Award to highlight the work done by California’s small practitioners. This award is given to a plaintiff's lawyer who has litigated a case that creates a more just society, regardless of personal benefit or financial gain. Pro-bono work and landmark cases that may not have produced a substantial financial verdict are given special consideration.
 
Special thanks to Juris Productions for providing the award finalist videos.
  

Consumer Attorney of the Year Finalists
 

Armen K. Akaragian
Mardirossian & Associates
Stanley K. Jacobs
Jacobs, Jacobs & Eisenfeldt
Garo Mardirossian
Mardirossian & Associates
 
Pannu v. Land Rover North America, Inc., et al.
 
 
Making Vehicles Safer
 
Sam Pannu was left a partial quadriplegic when his 1998 Land Rover Discovery I rolled several times on a Los Angeles freeway after colliding with another vehicle. The work of Garo Mardirossian, along with Armen Akaragian and Stanley Jacobs, led to life-saving changes in the vehicle’s design. Their office litigated the case for more than five years, with more than 50 depositions, including two trips to England to depose Land Rover officials. Their investigation found the Discovery I had preventable problems with handling stability and roof strength. Drop tests showed that a very inexpensive design change in the Discovery I’s roof would provide enough strength to prevent Pannu’s injury from the rollover. And Land Rover made simple changes to the vehicle when it began production of the Discovery II that prevent such a rollover from happening. After a bench trial, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge found the Discovery I was defectively designed and awarded significant damages to Pannu.

Michael S. Danko
The Danko Law Firm
 
Burdett v. Teledyne Continental Motors
 
 
Finding the Truth When a Federal Agency Didn’t
 
The crash landing of a private plane left David Michelberg with head injuries that prevent him from returning to his work as an electrical engineer or living independently. It took a civil suit to show a federal agency couldn’t be relied on to uncover the true cause of the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled the plane’s engine came apart because an unlicensed mechanic had failed to tighten several nuts during routine engine work. That ruling exonerated the plane’s manufacturer, Teledyne Continental Motors. But the NTSB’s investigation wasn’t exactly “independent.” The board relied on Teledyne engineers to determine the cause of the engine failure. Michelberg’s lawyer, Mike Danko, launched his own investigation that found a tiny amount of sealant in a spot on the engine where it didn’t belong, as a result of Teledyne’s confusing manuals for engine overhauls. A Santa Clara Superior Court jury found the misplaced sealant caused the nuts to loosen and found Teledyne responsible for the crash because of the confusing manuals.

Gary A. Dordick
The Law Offices of Gary A. Dordick
Albro L. Lundy III
Baker, Burton & Lundy
 
Schmidt v. State of California
 
 
Improving the Safety of California Highways
 
Clete Schmidt’s car was crushed, leaving him a quadriplegic dependent on a ventilator, after it crashed into a stone embankment near a rural T-intersection near Joshua Tree National Park. Schmidt did not have enough time to stop because he was unable to see the stop sign in time. Extensive work by his attorney, Albro Lundy, led Caltrans to make significant safety enhancements at similar intersections statewide. Lundy’s investigative team spent days searching Caltrans records before finding 30-year-old photographs that showed the approach to the intersection had “Botts dots,” providing a vibration warning to driver, that had since deteriorated. The investigators also learned a large “End of the Road” sign had once been at the site but had not been replaced. A Riverside Superior Court jury found Caltrans 90 percent responsible for Schmidt’s injuries. Schmidt’s crash was one of nine at that intersection over a two-year period. But in the 18 months after safety changes were made, there were no crashes there. Gary Dordick was brought on as co-counsel for the trial after Lundy was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor.

Ricardo Echeverria
Shernoff Bidart Darras Echeverria, LLP
 
Colombero v. United States Automobile Association
 
 
Digging Up Unfair Claims Handling
 
The company that insured U.S. Marine Capt. John Colombero’s Oceanside house maintained that the large crack in the middle of the house’s foundation was most likely caused by a high water table and not by a defect that would have been covered under Colombero’s homeowners policy. Attorney Ricardo Echeverria litigated the case, despite facing expert fees that were more than the amount of the claim, and found the company’s experts were far from unbiased. Echeverria was able to show the crack was caused by a tiny hole in an underground pipe that leaked enough water to saturate the soil and cause earth movement that in turn caused the crack. Echeverria took the case to a jury trial in San Diego Superior Court to focus attention on the company’s claims-handling practices. The jury found in favor of Colombero after Echeverria showed the company did not conduct a fair and balanced investigation of claims, because it maintained an approved list of engineering experts to assist claims adjusters.

Ingrid M. Evans
Waters, Kraus & Paul
Andrew S. Friedman
Bonnett, Fairbourn, Friedman & Balint
 
Buhs v. American International Group, et al.
 
 
Winning Financial Justice for Seniors
 
Beverly Buhs and her husband bought an annuity from a company later bought by AIG that was intended to provide for her after his death. Attorney Ingrid Evans showed AIG has experienced a significant windfall by selling such deferred annuities to older customers. Buhs didn’t find out until after her husband died that the annuity was subject to a substantial “death forfeiture” surrender charge if cashed soon after purchase. That penalty left her with less money than she and her husband deposited in the annuity when they purchased it, when her husband was 75. Industry standards make clear that deferred annuities are inappropriate investments for people older than 65. Evans reviewed the annuity contract and found no sign of the forfeiture penalty, even though AIG claimed the penalty had been disclosed. A class of 750 elderly widows and widowers was formed, and after four years of litigation, the victims received a settlement that restored their money.

Julia E. Haus
Julia E. Haus Law Firm
 
Ellsworth v. Blocker, et al.
 
 
Preventing the Repeat of a Tragedy
 
Eighteen-year-old Bobby Ellsworth was killed when the pickup in which he was a passenger was involved in a head-on collision. Attorney Julia Haus discovered the truck had been involved in a previous crash in which the air bags deployed. The insurance company totaled the truck, then sold it at auction to an auto body shop owner who did not replace the air bags, even though he claimed that the air bags were in place and working when he re-sold the vehicle. A medical expert testified during the trial in San Diego Superior Court that Ellsworth would have survived the crash had air bags deployed. The jury awarded substantial punitive damages. The case was referenced by a federal judge in a later decision requiring the U.S. Department of Justice to issue rules mandating information on totaled vehicles be submitted to a national database. The California Department of Motor Vehicles is required to give consumers access to that database as the result of a bill that was enacted with the help of the Ellsworths.
 

Street Fighter of the Year Finalists
 

Richard Alexander
Jeffrey W. Rickard

Alexander Hawes, LLP

 
Hilson v. Tran
 
Winning Damages for a Critically-Injured Child
 
Attorneys Richard Alexander and Jeff Rickard fought to win compensation for the family of a 12-year-old accident victim by proving the driver who hit him was partially at fault and then overcoming the unwillingness of a racially-prejudiced jury to compensate for pain and suffering.  Rasheed Hilson was chatting with friends outside the gym following an after-school basketball game at a San Jose middle school when he saw his bus.  He ran down the school driveway into the street and was struck by a car, suffering catastrophic brain damage. A San Jose police investigator determined the speed limit was 35  because the school day had ended. But Alexander and Rickard established the speed limit was actually 25 because the school grounds were not fenced. As a result a Santa Clara Superior Court jury found the driver 35 percent responsible and awarded economic damages to Hilson.  But the jury erroneously did not make an award for pain and suffering, and after Alexander and Rickard moved for additur, the judge added damages that resulted in a substantial additional award to Hilson.

Simona Farrise
The Farrise Law Firm
 

Stewart v. Union Carbide Corporation
 
First Punitive Damage Award for Asbestos
 
Attorney Simona Farrise led the trial effort in a case that resulted in the first assessment of punitive damages for an asbestos claim on behalf of a cancer victim. Larry Stewart, a 59-year-old career plumber, was diagnosed in 2007 with mesothelioma. That is a cancer that is caused only by asbestos exposure. Larry Stewart was exposed to asbestos while working on construction projects in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s. Farrise won a substantial award from a Los Angeles Superior Court jury when the defendant, Union Carbide, was found 85 percent responsible for Stewart’s cancer. The company mined and processed asbestos in California. Union Carbide did not give adequate warnings of the extreme dangers posed by asbestos exposure, even though internal documents showed corporate management was well aware of the risk.

Bradley C. Gage
Goldberg & Gage
Sanford M. Gage
Engage Mediation

 
Hernandez v. City of South Gate
 
Fighting Prejudice in a Police Department
 
Attorney Bradley Gage represented four South Gate Police Department officers who suffered discrimination at work because of their association with a former police chief who is Latino. Gage said he was warned that “if I pursued the case I was going to be shot by one of the top managers for the police department.” He asked his father, retired attorney Sanford Gage, to assist him after his initial co-counsel decided the case would not be won and withdrew shortly before the trial. The defense attorney was a name partner in a Los Angeles firm specializing in employment discrimination cases. But a Los Angeles Superior Court jury found each of the four plaintiffs had been subjected to harassing conduct as the result of the race or national origin of a person with whom they were associated. The former chief hired two of the plaintiffs and promoted the other two. The officers were given unfavorable assignments, their personal property was vandalized, and they were unfairly denied training opportunities and promotions.

Patrik Griego
Janssen, Malloy, Needham, Morrison, Reinholtsen & Crowley, LLP


Beals v. Sun Valley Floral Farms et al.

Winning Back Pay for Exploited Workers
 
Attorney Patrik Griego took – and won – a case that several lawyers had turned down because of the relatively small amount of money at stake in the claims and the difficulties of representing a client base where many were transient, did not speak English and were undocumented. About a thousand workers were unlawfully denied overtime pay because their employer, Sun Valley Floral Farms, declared they were not entitled to receive it because they were “harvesting” flowers.  But the workers’ actual task was bunching and wrapping tulips to be sent to retailers, which entitles them to overtime for any work performed over eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. Many workers suspected they were entitled to overtime but were afraid to raise the issue because they feared deportation. Griego assured the workers their employer could not use their immigration status as a defense and earned an award that compensated workers for lost overtime pay over a four-year period.

Gideon Kracov
Law Office of Gideon Kracov
 
East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice v. Bell Public Fin. Authority et al.
 
Reducing Pollution in Low-Income Areas
 
Low-income communities near rail yards have the highest rate of air pollution in California. That’s why attorney Gideon Kracov fought an attempt by BNSF Railway to add 15 acres to its truck parking lot in Bell without an environmental analysis. “The era where we do whatever the railroad says is over,” Kracov says. “The expansion of the railroad facilities raises very important health issues.” The city bought the property from the federal government (there had been military barracks on the site) and planned to lease it to the railroad. That would have brought hundreds of additional trucks and their resulting pollution into the neighborhood. But Kracov, representing a neighborhood activist group, blocked the project in court. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge invalidated BNSF’s option to lease the site, because the city had not performed an environmental review, and also blocked the extension of an BNSF’s existing lease to use 14 acres of city-owned property for stacking empty shipping containers.