Champion for Civil Justice
 
Chief Justice Ronald M. George
 
The announcement earlier this year by Ron George that he will retire as Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court at the end of his term on January 2, 2011, means an extraordinary career of 38 years of service on state courts will come to an end. Since he was appointed Chief Justice in 1996, Ron George has fundamentally transformed the judicial branch from a balkanized collection of local courts into a strong, unified third branch of government. His political acumen, strategic thinking and considerable interpersonal skills have produced unprecedented results. The Chief’s leadership has produced historic reforms, particularly the creation of a single superior court in each county through the merger of municipal and superior courts, the state’s assumption of funding for the 58 county trial courts and the transfer of ownership and governance of all state courthouses to the state. In his role as Chair of the Judicial Council of California, Chief Justice George led major initiatives to promote excellence in state court service. The results have included reforms in jury service, foster care and the availability of court interpreters, as well as the launch of a statewide case management system. We are especially grateful to Chief Justice George for his vigorous and persistent fight to restore adequate funding for the courts during California’s current budget crisis. And we have worked closely with him on the adoption of electronic discovery rules, legislation to allow telephone appearances for many hearings, and the creation of an expedited jury trial option that was signed into law this year. A graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Stanford Law School, Chief Justice George’s judicial career began in 1972, when he was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court by Governor Ronald Reagan. Chief Justice George’s many honors include the Justice of the Year award from CAOC in 2006. We at CAOC congratulate Chief Justice George on a career of exceptional achievement and thank him for the extraordinary leadership he has provided to California courts.

Legislator of the Year
 
 Senator Alex Padilla
 
As a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Senator Alex Padilla (D – Pacoima) took on an atypical route for a person with a degree in mechanical engineering and has dedicated himself to serving his community. First elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1999, Padilla made history when he was elected president of the City Council, becoming the first Latino and youngest member ever to serve in that capacity. Since being elected to the State Senate in 2006, Senator Padilla has worked tirelessly to serve his consumers, patients and underprivileged communities with an outstanding pro-consumer voting record. During his tenure, Senator Padilla has authored legislation that requires restaurants to post nutritional and calorie information on their menus (SB 1420), provides necessary funding to keep the doors open for pediatric care centers (SB 1236), and ensure adequate consumer protections are in place for consumers who trade-in their vehicle to an insolvent auto dealer (SB 729). Most recently, Senator Padilla championed CAOC-sponsored SB 1237, the Medical Radiation Safety Act, the first comprehensive legislation in the nation aimed at preventing radiation errors. The need for the bill stemmed from a tragic series of events that took place at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in which hundreds of patients were exposed to excessive levels of radiation over the course of eighteen months. Thanks to Senator Padilla’s efforts, all hospitals will be required to keep an accurate record of the dose of radiation within the patient’s medical record and notify a patient of the occurrence of any radiation error. As a champion for patient-safety, Senator Padilla’s intelligence, pragmatic diplomacy and dedication made him a natural choice for Consumer Attorneys of the California 2010 Legislator of the Year.

Legislative Advocate of the Year
 
Michael Heuser
 
CAOC is proud to name Michael Heuser as its Legislative Advocate of the Year. In July 2009, Heuser was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after suffering a stroke. Within days of being released he suffered from welts, rashes and blurred vision, and he lost his hair in a four-inch band around his head. Heuser immediately went to officials at Cedars-Sinai for an explanation, but they attempted to evade his quest for the truth by offering him a hair piece. Heuser was reluctant to give up, and his persistence eventually revealed that he and 268 other patients at Cedars-Sinai had been exposed to at least eight times the maximum recommended dose of radiation during routine CT scans. Because he was the first to report the overdose, he was dubbed “Patient 1” by state health officials.  It resulted in nationwide attention to the lack of appropriate safeguards when conducting CT scans.  Heuser testified to the importance of implementing safeguards for medical radiation at U.S. Congressional hearings and voiced his support for SB 1237 (Padilla), the first law in the nation to implement safeguards and notification requirements for radiation overexposures.

Consumer Advocate of the Year
 
Debbie Allen
 
CAOC’s Consumer Advocate of the Year is Debbie Allen, who is the founder and director of the Shelby Lyn Allen Alcohol Poisoning Education Foundation.  Debbie and her husband Steve tragically lost their 17-year-old daughter Shelby in December 2008 after she attended a party where alcohol was being served and the parents were present.  In the wake of Shelby’s death, Debbie came to realize how little most teens and parents know about the dangers of alcohol poisoning. Her response was to start the Shelby Lyn Allen Alcohol Poisoning Education Foundation.  The organization works to prevent alcohol poisoning by educating high school students, young adults and parents about the risks associated with binge drinking and the importance of seeking immediate medical attention if a friend is suffering from alcohol poisoning. Debbie had worked as a CHP officer at the state capitol under Governor Dukmejian, but she played a different role at the capitol this year as an advocate of AB 2486 (Feuer), which removed an absolute civil immunity for social hosts who serve alcohol to minors.  Debbie courageously took on this task, presenting her daughter’s story to both Democrats and Republicans in legislative hearings to affirm the need for the legislation.  Debbie’s efforts paid off as the bill was approved by overwhelming margins, and Governor Schwarzenegger signed it into law in September.

Lifetime Achievement
 
Thomas T. Anderson
 
Tom Anderson has enjoyed a distinguished legal career covering more than 50 years and has gained national attention for his tireless work on behalf of consumers and victims of personal injuries.  He has been invited and become a member of the most exclusive trial lawyer organizations in the country, including the Inner Circle of Advocates, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and International Society of Barristers.  He has given generously of his time and resources to the trial bar, including having served as an officer and member of the Board of Governors of the American Trial Lawyers Association (now American Association for Justice), the Western Trial Lawyers Association, and as president of our organization in 1970.  As our association approaches its 50th birthday, we honor Tom Anderson for his outstanding career and exceptional dedication to the legal profession, as well as for his very special contribution in 1961 as one of the founding members of this organization, as the California Trial Lawyers Association.
 

Robert E. Cartwright, Sr. Award
 
Craig Needham
 
Craig Needham is the recipient of the Robert E. Cartwright, Sr., Award, given “in recognition of excellence in trial advocacy and dedication to teaching trial advocacy to fellow lawyers and to the public.” Needham is a founding partner of what is now Needham, Kepner, Fish & Jones LLP in San Jose and has represented injured plaintiffs and their families for more than 40 years. He also has a very active mediation practice and often serves as a judge pro tem for settlements and trials.  Needham has earned the Santa Clara County Trial Lawyer of the Year award and has been on the faculty of several Bay Area law schools.  In 1984 he co-founded the “What’s New in Tort and Trial” seminars now co-sponsored by Consumer Attorneys of California in conjunction with local trial lawyer associations statewide.

Marvin E. Lewis Award
 
Christine D. Spagnoli
 
Christine Spagnoli has been selected for the Marvin E. Lewis Award, given “in recognition of continued guidance, loyalty and dedication, all of which have been an inspiration to fellow attorneys.” Spagnoli is a past president of both Consumer Attorneys of California and Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles and has been very generous with her time on behalf of both organizations. She has litigated a number of high-profile product liability and personal injury cases and has specialized in automotive product liability and tire failures, having won suits against General Motors, Ford/Firestone and Cooper Tire. A frequent lecturer, Spagnoli has shared her knowledge of trial techniques with several regional and national organizations of attorneys.

Edward I. Pollock Award
 
Frank M. Pitre
 
Frank Pitre is honored with the Edward I. Pollock Award, given “in recognition of many years of dedication, outstanding efforts and effectiveness on behalf of the causes and ideals.” With more than 20 years experience in mass tort cases, Pitre has earned national acclaim for his work in consumer fraud and personal injury cases. He is a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, American Board of Trial Advocates, International Academy of Trial Lawyers and the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Pitre was co-lead trial counsel in a consolidated injury and class action case in which Pfizer agreed to pay $894 million related to the painkillers Bextra and Celebrex, and he was part of the plaintiffs steering committee in the Fen-Phen litigation. He is a past president of Consumer Attorneys of California and has served on the board of directors of the San Mateo County Bar.

Consumer Attorney of the Year
 
Roger Dreyer and Harvey Levine
Strange v. Entercom Communications

FORCING ACCOUNTABILITY FOR DANGEROUS RADIO CONTESTS
 
Jennifer Strange, a 28-year-old mother of three, took part in a water-drinking contest put on by a Sacramento radio station in which the contestant who could go the longest without urinating or vomiting would win a video game system. Shortly after she returned home from the contest, she died of acute water intoxication, the result of drinking almost two gallons of water in just over three hours. The station is part of a national chain. Attorneys Roger Dreyer and Harvey Levine showed officials of the radio station did not submit the contest to review by its national legal office, as was required under the policy of the station’s owners, and did not make any attempt to research whether the contest would be dangerous, even though the broadcasters made references on the air to the earlier death of a Northern Californian from water intoxication. Not only did a jury grant the largest non-economic award ever in a Northern California wrongful death case to Strange’s widower and children, the company agreed to change its employee training at its 110 stations nationwide and change its procedures for approving and staging contests.

Street Fighter of the Year
 
Dennis A. Schoville and Louis G. Arnell
Buell-Wilson v. Ford Motor Company

BATTLING FORD TO IMPROVE VEHICLE SAFETY

Benetta Buell-Wilson was driving within the speed limit in a 1997 Ford Explorer on Interstate 8 in Southern California when she swerved to avoid a piece of metal on the road. When she corrected, the Explorer tipped and then rolled more than four times, with the roof collapsing, landing upside down. Buell-Wilson was left a permanent paraplegic. Attorneys Dennis Schoville and Louis Arnell argued the Explorer’s design was defective because it had a high center of gravity and a narrow wheelbase, making it susceptible to rolling over, as well as a defectively designed roof structure. Furthermore, they argued Ford engineers had recommended changes but were ignored. Schoville and Arnell had just one associate to assist them in taking on Ford’s extensive high-powered defense team. After a two-and-a-half-month trial, the jury awarded both compensatory and punitive damages; after appeal it was the highest sustained punitive damage award ever in California. The verdict was returned in June 2004, but the case is only now eligible for an award because of ongoing litigation, which finally came to an end when certiorari was denied at the U.S. Supreme Court late last year.

Return to Convention Wrap-Up