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San Francisco plaintiffs attorney Harry Wartnick, a pioneer in asbestos litigation who rose to the top of the field, died Monday after a long struggle with heart problems. He was 55. “He was Mr. Asbestos,” said retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge Alfred Chiantelli, now a mediator with ADR Services. “Whenever anything was going to happen with asbestos litigation in San Francisco, Harry would always weigh in on the matter and was pretty much listened to,” said Steven Harowitz, one of Wartnick’s former partners. Wartnick’s work served as a model for asbestos lawyers throughout the country, said Philip Borowsky, a managing partner with Borowsky & Hayes and Wartnick’s friend and former partner. Wartnick was elected by victims’ lawyers nationwide to serve on the plaintiffs’ negotiating committee for the restructuring of the $2.2 billion Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust. And he was appointed by the court as negotiating and class counsel for future asbestos victims in the settlement of the Ahearn v. Fibreboard insurance coverage dispute. Wartnick began his law career in the workers’ compensation department at what was then Boccardo, Blum, Lull, Niland, Teerlink & Bell, a prominent San Jose personal injury firm, in the early 1970s, said Brian Lawther, who was Wartnick’s original boss and remains a partner at Boccardo Law Firm. “You cannot comprehend how insightfully brilliant he was,” said Lawther. “He was good from the get-go.” In the mid-1970s, Wartnick joined the San Francisco firm that became known as Cartwright, Slobodin, Bokelman, Borowsky, Wartnick, Moore & Harris, where he rose from associate to name partner. “He’s the one that really brought the firm into asbestos litigation,” Harowitz said. Wartnick, Harowitz and three other partners left that firm to start their own in 1995. It was first known as Wartnick, Chaber, Harowitz, Smith & Tigerman. Wartnick managed the firm and its national litigation, said Madelyn Chaber, now an Alameda solo. “Harry didn’t really go to the courtroom anymore after his initial heart attack,” when he was in his 30s, she said. The firm became known for handling asbestos and tobacco cases. One of the firm’s landmark victories came in 1999, when Chaber won a $51.5 million jury verdict against tobacco giant Philip Morris on behalf of a Southern California woman, Patricia Henley, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer. A judge later reduced the award to $26.5 million, which was affirmed in Henley v. Philip Morris, 93 Cal.App.4th 824. It remains on appeal. At its peak, the firm had more than 20 lawyers and 100 employees, and was one of the largest plaintiffs firms in Northern California. “But that didn’t last very long,” Harowitz said. In 2001, the firm began “winding down.” Chaber had resigned, and Harowitz and Tigerman started their own firm. Wartnick continued working with an associate under the name Wartnick Law Firm to wrap up unresolved cases, Harowitz said. “One of the reasons we were winding down the previous firm was because of Harry’s health,” Harowitz said. “The idea was that he was going to cut back. But he was working pretty much full time.” Following Wartnick’s death, Harowitz and Tigerman will be taking on more responsibility at their old firm, Harowitz said. “We moved on with the understanding that if something should happen with Harry — this was not totally unforeseen — we would return to run the firm, along with our old firm.” Plaintiffs, defense attorneys and judges have described Wartnick as passionate on behalf of his clients, yet gracious to his opponents. “He made some very impassioned appearances,” said San Francisco Superior Court Judge Alex Saldamando. “He was as dedicated to the cause of his clients and the interest of his clients as any lawyer I’ve ever dealt with,” said First District Court of Appeal Justice Stuart Pollak, who sat many years on the San Francisco Superior Court bench. “But you know, his word was good,” he added. “He was always, I thought, very gracious toward people on the other side.” Pollak recalled with a laugh that Wartnick was “sometimes stubborn from time to time, but never in a way that you could get really angry at him.” For instance, the justice said, Wartnick was one of the last people to come around to the idea of electronic pleadings. “He was always worrying about all the things that could go wrong.” William Levin, of Levin, Simes & Kaiser, knew Wartnick first as an adversary on asbestos cases, then as a mentor when Levin decided to become a plaintiffs lawyer a few years ago. “He had a lot of professional integrity,” said Levin, who was defense counsel in Fibreboard. “You could count on his word [and] he did try to put himself in your shoes when discussing an issue or a case.” Mary Alexander, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, remembers Wartnick as a mentor who was skilled at teaching courtroom strategy when she worked with him at the Cartwright firm beginning in 1984. “I felt that, personally, Harry gave me great opportunities in the firm, because he asked me and allowed me to try asbestos cases.” What people might not know about Wartnick is that he was colorblind. “He’d come to the golf course or the office and he’d have on one sock that was bright red and one sock that was bright yellow, and lime green pants,” said Lawther, his former boss. “He was a fashion nightmare. It was the funniest goddamn thing, pardon my language, I’ve ever seen.” Wartnick is survived by his wife, Joan Pollitt, and his mother, Lillian Raen. A memorial service will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Sinai Memorial Chapel, 1501 Divisadero St., in San Francisco. Donations may be made to the Harry Wartnick/School of Law Fund, Stanford University Office of Development, Attn: gift processing, 326 Galvez St., Stanford, 94305.

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