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Most lawyers sit at desks facing their office doors. Not John Fagan. He faces a window, letting him gaze out at what must be one of the most magnificent law office views in the world. There, only a few feet away, is Lake Tahoe, with its dark blue water reflecting the 10,000-foot peaks of western Nevada and eastern California. Fagan, managing partner of Hancock Rothert & Bunshoft’s tiny Tahoe office, takes advantage of the locale by keeping a boat nearby for occasional outings and dressing comfortably in shorts and golf shirts. Winter weather, meanwhile, often means a quick trip to the nearby ski slopes. It’s an admittedly good life that has given Fagan a perpetual smile and a mellow manner. But don’t let this seemingly laid-back work style fool you. Fagan and his normal complement of two Tahoe associates — who represent some of the biggest ski resorts in California — are just as aggressive at their jobs as any Armani-wearing, Gucci-loving legal shark in San Francisco or Los Angeles. “Around here, we call John ‘the smiling assassin,’ ” says plaintiffs’ lawyer Paul Rudder, who runs a two-attorney office in Mammoth Lakes on the eastern flank of Yosemite National Park. “John is always a perfect gentleman [and] always has a smile on his face,” says Rudder, who lost a ski accident case to Fagan last year. “But when he leaves the room you notice some of your vital organs are gone and you didn’t know they were taken. John is as smooth as they come.” It’s a description that Fagan might not have made himself. But he probably wouldn’t mind the image either — about himself or his team. “We’re really good at this,” he declares. “And I’m not bashful to say that.” What Fagan and his San Francisco-based firm are good at is ski-industry defense. The firm represents 75 percent to 80 percent of California’s ski resorts, Fagan notes, including big names like Heavenly Valley, Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain. He estimates yearly collections for his office alone at between $950,000 and $1.2 million. “They have been the heavyweight defense firm for the better part of 20 years and have handled the lion’s share — here in the west — of the defense work that we have encountered,” says Bob Roberts, executive director of the San Francisco-based California Ski Industries Association. Hancock — an 80-lawyer civil litigation firm that also has offices in Los Angeles and London — has been defending ski resorts since the mid ’60s. But there was no Tahoe office until 1987, when Fagan and partner Paul Rosenlund were shipped over from the San Francisco Bay Area to give ski clients ready access. Rosenlund returned to San Francisco in 1991, but Fagan stayed, befriending the locals and helping Hancock earn accolades from ski industry bigwigs. Personal injury defense for ski resorts accounted for a lot of the work early on, but Fagan, a member of the Association of Ski Defense Attorneys, has helped turn what was essentially a winter clientele into a year-round business. The firm is handling more employment, labor, construction and land-use issues for the resorts, and even recently negotiated an endorsement contract with Olympic gold medal skier Picabo Street for Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort. Hancock, with Fagan at the forefront, has also broadened its client base by successfully wooing the bicycling, golfing, mountain climbing and helmet manufacturing industries, some as distant as Italy. “We’ve taken the core work,” Fagan says, “and expanded it out.” EXILED TO PARADISE More work, though, hasn’t meant less devotion to ski issues. “California has the best case law in favor of ski areas, and that firm has done a lot of the work,” Larry Heywood, director of mountain operations at Tahoe City’s Alpine Meadows, says about Hancock. Fagan’s won some big cases for ski resorts, Heywood says, while maintaining relationships with everyone from the general managers to the often transient lift operators. “So in the end,” he says, “it’s the locker room, the boardroom and the courtroom, and [Fagan's] good in all three.” Fagan’s Tahoe adventure began two years after he and San Francisco partner Barry Bunshoft successfully defended Alpine Meadows in a 1985 trial pushed by the families of three skiers who were among seven people killed in an enormous avalanche on March 31, 1982. Bunshoft and Fagan, who was a third-year associate at the time, prevailed by convincing jurors that there were inherent risks in skiing and that the ski resort couldn’t be held responsible for an act of nature. It got Fagan noticed, and he soon was offered an office in Tahoe City. “I was still reticent at first,” Fagan, now 44, says. “I thought, ‘What did I do wrong? We won the case. Why am I being put out into exile?’ “ It didn’t take Fagan long to fall in love with his new life, though, and to begin insinuating Hancock into the daily life of the Tahoe basin. He also — in conjunction with the firm’s lawyers statewide — began chipping away at the law in the hope of making ski resorts less desirable targets for injured skiers. All that could have been accomplished without a Tahoe presence, says San Francisco partner Paul Nelson, himself a well-known lawyer in the ski industry. But that’s not the point. “It’s that the office has become its own entity and developed its own practice,” he notes. “It’s a small-town practice in one sense, but it’s also an extension of a big-city San Francisco practice.” In fact, ski industry leaders like that combo. Everyday contact has helped Fagan understand day-to-day operations top to bottom, they say, while Hancock’s overall expertise has resulted in several court precedents. In particular, they credit Hancock with getting the California Supreme Court to recognize that the assumption-of-risk doctrine, which essentially says there is an inherent risk in some sports that entails a degree of personal responsibility, applies to skiing. Hancock filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the skiing industry in a pivotal California Supreme Court case called Knight v. Jewett, 3 Cal.4th 296. Although the case dealt with injuries in a touch football game, the 1992 ruling, obviously reciting the amicus brief, repeatedly referred to skiing as a sport with inherent risks. “That made it easier,” Fagan says, “to go in front of the trial courts and the appellate courts” to get case law extending the assumption-of-risk doctrine to skiing. Hancock, and Fagan personally, used Knight’s language to win several ski-accident cases in the following years. The seminal case came along in 1997, when the state Supreme Court in Cheong v. Antablin, 16 Cal.4th 1063, tossed out a liability suit brought by a lawyer who had crashed into another lawyer while skiing at Alpine Meadows. Fagan had filed an amicus brief with the court in that case. Since Cheong, suing a ski resort hasn’t been so easy. “Fifteen years ago, when someone hit a tree they might have been able to get [a suit] to a jury,” Fagan says. “Now the chance of getting a case like that beyond summary judgment is very, very remote.” Rudder, of Mammoth Lakes, says that’s very true. “You tell me how I tell the [resort] they are at fault because the guy ran into a tree,” he says. “In ski cases, there is a highly developed body of case law and good lawyers on the other side. If you don’t choose the right cases, they’ll eat you alive.” In fact, Rudder and associate Laura Hagan have taken only two personal injury cases to trial against their nearby neighbor, Mammoth Mountain. They won one for a man injured on a downhill race course, but lost one for a woman hurt on a lift. The defense lawyer in the case they lost? A guy named Fagan. ‘A SOCIAL BUSINESS’ All of the Tahoe office’s success still hasn’t earned it proper respect in Hancock’s home office, though. “Other people see our office as this playground,” Jennifer Pruski, a 34-year-old associate who recently moved back to the home office, says as the Tahoe Gal paddlewheeler steams past her window. “They see us as not a functional office.” Partners at the firm admit they use the Tahoe branch as a recruiting tool by taking wide-eyed summer associates there on trips. Yet, it’s the rare hire who will ever land a spot in the small office. Scott Andre was one of the lucky ones. He had lived in nearby Truckee, Calif., for a couple of years before going to law school and always wanted to return to the Tahoe basin. He got his chance when Hancock hired him away from a small Walnut Creek, Calif., insurance defense firm a year ago. “I’m an avid skier, and I like to mountain bike,” the 35-year-old associate says. “To be able to combine a hobby interest with work was just a great opportunity.” And Fagan claims it’s only going to get better. His entries into the golfing and bicycling worlds are going great, he claims, and the firm’s representation of ski-binding manufacturers “provided a nice segue” into Europe’s motorcycle helmet and ski helmet manufacturing industries. “The European manufacturers would like to bring products into the United States,” Fagan says, “but they’re fearful of the litigation and the product liability laws.” He tries to quell their worries by helping them with liability insurance and teaching them about American litigation practices. And he’s already successfully defended Bieffe, an Italian motorcycle helmet manufacturer, in two California court cases, one involving a Sacramento traffic death. However, while Hancock has made European inroads, it has chosen not to venture into Nevada’s casino market, leaving that to gaming firms in Reno and Nevada. Likewise, it has largely kept its nose out of everyday local affairs in the Tahoe basin. That’s beginning to change, however. Fagan recently got Placer County, Calif., to impose restrictions on a developer who wanted to build houses on known avalanche paths, and a few years back he stepped in on behalf of the National Marine Manufacturers Association when the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency banned jet skis from the lake. Fagan sued in federal court, but lost and later negotiated a settlement that lets jet skis remain on the lake as long as they meet heightened federal environmental standards being issued next year. Environmentalists were satisfied because the agreement rid the lake of older, polluting jet skis while holding newer ones to strict standards. Rochelle Nason, executive director of the South Lake Tahoe-based League to Save Lake Tahoe, came away from the dispute with a good impression of Fagan. He was professional and a gentleman, which she says is important in the small-town atmosphere of the Tahoe basin. “Up here, the things that you do you are going to have to live with,” says Nason, a San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster litigator before joining the league. Fagan, sitting at his desk surrounded by memorabilia from his alma mater, the University of Michigan, is well aware of that fact. Tahoe’s the place that he, his wife and two sons call home. So he golfs and boats with clients in the summer, and hits the slopes with them just about every day in the winter. “It’s more like we’re friends,” Fagan says, “rather than being lawyer and client.”

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