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When Gerald Sterns heard that the U.S. Supreme Court was going to review a $1.4 million award he won against a Greek airline he was pretty disappointed. But with 40 years of trial experience under his belt, he thought he had a good shot at scoring another victory. That is, until he discovered the court’s track record in aviation litigation: Since 1986 it had heard eight cases in which passengers sued either an airline or pilot, and in every one it had found against the passengers. For Sterns, a plaintiffs lawyer who specializes in aviation cases, a lot was at stake. His firm, Sterns & Walker, had spent more than $100,000 and six years representing Rubina Husain, the widow of an asthmatic doctor who died after flight attendants refused to move him further away from the plane’s smoking section. Sterns’ worries proved to be unnecessary. Last month the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 2 that Olympic Airways was responsible for the doctor’s death. The case was significant in clarifying what constitutes an airline accident. But it also exemplifies the financial risks for plaintiffs lawyers like Sterns. Cases can crash and burn. And if hijacked by a higher court, payday can be delayed. In a good year, Sterns said his firm does as well or better than the big San Francisco powerhouses. In a bad year, it brings in nothing. “If I go to an ATM machine and money comes out, that’s good and if it doesn’t, that’s bad,” Sterns said. Sterns works with a partner, Elizabeth Walker, three associates and an of counsel who spends half his time in Berlin. Walker, who is also Sterns’ wife, is currently on sabbatical. In addition to aviation cases, which make up 60 to 70 percent of its caseload, the firm also handles automobile mishaps such as Ford Explorer and Suzuki rollovers, employment discrimination and wrongful termination and medical malpractice cases, all on a contingency basis. Sterns & Walker is among about a dozen firms in the country that specialize in representing the family members of those killed in airplane disasters. Associate Susie Injijian said she was drawn to the firm by the chance to do trial work and has found the caseload particularly gratifying. “Plane crashes involve difficult and complex liability issues,” Injijian said. “It’s really an exciting practice. There is nothing routine in what we do. Every case is unique.” IN THE COCKPIT The 71-year-old Sterns owns a one-story building on Clay Street, a few blocks from the federal courthouse in Oakland. Visitors are buzzed into a reception area, which includes an aquarium with a pair of clown fish. Sterns’ corner office is filled with memorabilia. A big antique partners desk, designed for two people to work facing each other, has rows of animal figurines — a Singapore lion, New Zealand kiwi, a rhino from Nairobi and a camel from Dubai — the locales of various plane crashes. Two model airplanes are on a stand in one corner of the room. And among the plaques lining the wall is a framed piece by former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen that mentions Sterns’ lead role in litigation from the Paris DC-10 crash in 1974. During an interview at his office, Sterns’ son John, who is a legal assistant at the firm, pulled out a copy of a book about the crash, “The Last Nine Minutes: The Story of Flight 981.” Author Moira Johnston gives a gripping account of the crash and the investigation and litigation that followed. In one of the biggest aviation disasters in history, 346 passengers and crew were killed when a cargo door blew out, and the DC-10 crashed into a forest in France. When Sterns got the case he was a name partner at what is now Walkup, Melodia, Kelly, Wecht & Schoenberger. In 1977, after 17 years with the firm, he decided to strike out on his own. The DC-10 litigation had put him on the map and made him a go-to attorney in aviation disasters. Both former colleagues and opponents say he is a great trial lawyer with an engaging personality. “He represents to some of us a particularly difficult opponent because he is so likeable,” said Michael Marron, of counsel at McQuaid, Bedford & Van Zandt, who has squared off against Sterns in litigation against The Boeing Co. and other companies. “He is able to smilingly schmooze his way into the hearts and minds of triers of fact — jurors, judges and arbitrators.” Marron said that he used to think of the 6 foot 6 inch Sterns as an elongated version of Woody Allen, with his glasses and tousled hair and demeanor. “He’s kind of self-deprecating and �aw shucks,’” Marron said. “You have to watch out for [lawyers like Sterns]. They can �aw shucks’ themselves into multimillion-dollar verdicts.” Sterns’ list of cases covers almost every drama in the skies over the past three decades: the 1987 in-flight shooting of two pilots by a former US Air employee; the Pan Am Lockerbie terrorist bombing over Scotland in 1988; the missile shoot-down of Korean Airlines 007; the 1996 crash of the Air Force T-43 carrying Commerce Secretary Ron Brown; and the 1999 crash of Egypt Air Flight 990 off Long Island. In the Egypt Air case, Sterns is representing family members of those on the flight as well as the estate of Gamil El-Batouty, the backup pilot accused by Boeing of intentionally crashing the plane. Sterns said El-Batouty’s reference to God on the cockpit voice recorder was his reaction to the plane being out of control, rather than a signal of suicide. A consummate storyteller, Sterns can talk easily about both the technical details and emotional anguish in his cases. The 1987 in-flight shooting was attributed to a lapse in security. The US Air employee had turned in two security badges when he was fired but, unknown to his employer, had stored away additional badges, one of which he used to slip through security and onto a plane with a gun. The employee’s badge was found in the crash debris, along with a note he wrote to his former supervisor, who was seated a few rows ahead of him. “You didn’t give me and my family a break, and I’m not going to give you one,” the note said. The employee shot his former boss before breaking through the cockpit door and killing the pilots. Describing another case, in which a Lauda Air Boeing 767 rolled over and fell out of the sky without warning, Sterns sketched out the cause of the mishap on a piece of paper. The left engine’s “thrust reverse” engaged on its own, so while one engine was pulling the plane forward the other was pushing it backward, Sterns said. This created lower pressure below the wing so there was no lift on that side of the plane. “It’s Bernoulli’s principle,” he said. Sterns continues to snag big cases, but he said the competition has gotten stiffer in the last several years as clients have become more sophisticated. In a typical air disaster , there ‘s now a beauty contest in which a string of lawyers meet with family groups to present their skills. “It’s scheduled like a vaudeville show,” Sterns said, with each lawyer designated a time slot to do his or her shtick. Sterns gets his cases through referrals and networking. The former general counsel of Airbus and a Paris lawyer both called him after a 737 crashed over the Red Sea to see if he was interested in representing the families of the French tourists on board. He flew to Paris last month where he held a press conference and did a presentation to a group of families. He’s also talking with the lawyers representing the family of theIsraeli astronaut killed on the Columbia space shuttle mission and may play a role in litigation over that disaster. The biggest concern as a plaintiffs lawyer is spreading yourself too thin, Sterns said. Sterns & Walker looks at about 10 to 15 cases per month and takes less than one case per month. “No matter how Don Quixote you want to be, there’s no way you cantake every case that comes along,” Sterns said. Sterns’ fee ranges from 25 to 40 percent of an award or settlement. Passenger cases are more competitive, he said, while cases on behalf of crew members are more challenging and thus usually cost more. Sterns said the risk is high in fronting the expenses for a fight; wins pay for the losses. For example, Sterns said he plowed $265,000 into a suit against the California Department of Transportation on behalf of the survivor of an automobile accident. Sterns argued that the oleander bushes the city planted in the highway median had acted as a trampoline, lifting a Ford pickup into the air and onto his client’s car. He lost. How does Sterns survive the uncertainty and the periods of drought? “By hook and crook,” Sterns said. “You have a line of credit.” He also frequently teams up with lawyers at other firms — like Walnut Creek’s Bowles & Verna and the Miami plaintiffs firm Podhurst Orseck — to tackle big cases. In the Husain case, he brought in H. Bartow Farr III, of Washington D.C.’s Farr & Taranto, who had experience arguing before the Supreme Court. Sterns said he has gotten several offers to hook up with another firm. While it’s appealing to be rid of overhead costs, Sterns likes the independence of running his own shop. He also loves the work and says he has no plans to retire anytime soon. “There is an ever-changing panoply of interesting issues and people,” he said. Each case involves “completely different challenges, different people and often different countries.”

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