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Several small firms started the year with big jury verdicts. Here we take a closer look at the work behind a few of the sizeable wins. TRIAL TECHNOLOGY Firm: Rose Walker, Dallas Verdict: $96,120,443 Case: Interstate Southwest Ltd. v. AVCO Corp. and the Lycoming Reciprocating Engine Division of AVCO Corp. Lead Plaintiffs Attorneys: Martin Rose, Harold Walker Issue: Fraud. Airplane engine manufacturer relied on fraudulent investigation in blaming supplier for defect in an engine part that led to crashes and deaths. In February, a jury in Grimes County, Texas, put a whole new spin on the phrase “Don’t Mess with Texas.” After a seven-week trial, the jury found airplane engine manufacturer Textron Lycoming solely liable for producing faulty engine crankshafts that caused small planes to fail in midair. Between 2000 and 2002, there were 24 engine failures, resulting in 12 deaths. The defendant had publicly blamed the plaintiff, Interstate Southwest (the manufacturer of metal forms that the defendant turned into crankshafts) for the machinery problems that led to the crashes, but to no avail. Nearly 90 percent of the $96 million verdict against the defendant was punitive damages. “[There was] an enormous amount of metallurgical evidence — which can get dull — but we tried to keep it as focused and simple as possible,” says plaintiff’s attorney Martin Rose. The historic courthouse in Grimes County wasn’t exactly set up for trial technology, so Rose’s partner Harold Walker brought in a supplemental sound system and a 100-inch television screen. All text and video evidence was organized by litigation software that contained an instant edit feature — allowing them to quickly delete testimony that was deemed inadmissible. Rose and Walker also used a Web-based search engine to manage trial documents, which was on a dedicated hard drive. The access to information often proved invaluable. “One expert was challenged when testifying that there was never a certain document in [the defendant's] file. We pulled it up and printed it in about 45 seconds.” Defendants, represented by Jones Day, have filed a motion for new trial, and the appeal process has begun. “We’re just 15 lawyers,” says Rose. “Most of our opponents are big firms. But we’ve learned to handle it well.” A SHADOW JURY Firm: Fritz, Byrne, Head & Harrison, Austin, Texas Verdict: $71 million Case: Kathleen Cailloux v. Baker Botts LLP, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., et al. Lead Plaintiff’s Attorney: Rick Harrison Issue: Breach of fiduciary duty. A disabled widow claimed she was given misleading information when she transferred her bequest from her husband to a foundation. In February a Texas jury returned a verdict in the case of an octogenarian widow who claimed to have been mislead by her banker and attorney. There was one problem. “The family is extremely wealthy,” says plaintiff’s attorney Rick Harrison. “Our concern was the jury might think she didn’t need the money, and wonder why they were bringing the case in the first place.” Background: Houston businessman Floyd Cailloux died in 1997, leaving a $65.5 million estate to his wife, Kathleen, as a trust, under which she would receive an annual income. The Wells Fargo Bank was appointed the estate’s executor. Mrs. Cailloux consulted with an attorney from Baker Botts who recommended that she disclaim the inheritance to reduce what he asserted would have been a significant tax liability. With the disclaimer, the money automatically transferred to a family foundation controlled by the Wells Fargo Bank. Cailloux later sued the firm and bank claiming breach of fiduciary duty. She maintained that she would in fact not owe taxes had she kept the inheritance and that the bank trust officers and attorneys conspired to direct the money to the bank-controlled family foundation. Both Baker Botts and Wells Fargo claim they acted in good faith. The jury apparently felt otherwise. Cailloux was awarded the value of the estate plus $5.5 million in prejudgment interest. Defendants have indicated plans to appeal. As the trial approached, Harrison arranged several focus groups because of his concern that conveying his client’s loss to the jury might be challenging because she already had significant assets. To Harrison’s pleasant surprise, the family’s wealth wasn’t even an issue. Harrison also used a demographically similar shadow jury during trial. To ensure impartiality, shadow jury members were told their opinions were being gathered for another firm’s upcoming trial. Harrison found the feedback invaluable. “They would come back with questions we thought we’d already answered,” he says. “So the next morning we’d revisit the issue in court.” Says Harrison: “The information from those groups helped refine our strategy and see what the jury was likely to grasp, and what they wouldn’t.” KEEN NEGOTIATIONS Firm: R. Rex Parris Law Firm, Lancaster, Calif. Verdict: $135 million Case: Gutierrez v. State Farm Automobile Insurance Co. Lead Plaintiff’s Attorney: R. Rex Parris Issue: Class action. Adjusters claimed that an insurance company owed them back pay for night and weekend overtime. How does a California personal injury lawyer go from being the face on claims adjusters’ dart boards to the top of their holiday card list? By negotiating a $135 million settlement that pays that adjuster anywhere from $5,000 to more than $100,000 in back overtime pay. In 2000, attorney Rex Parris filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of California State Farm automobile and fire claims adjusters. The plaintiffs claimed that State Farm had misclassified the adjusters as exempt from overtime pay, when they were actually entitled to compensation. The class action lawsuit covered more than 2,600 current and former adjusters. “There were two other small firms associated with us on the case,” says Parris. “We took over 300 depositions.” It took five years to obtain a resolution. The court granted the plaintiffs summary judgment on the issue of overtime entitlement, which left only the amount of compensation. Which can be a complex issue according to Parris. “If an employer doesn’t keep records — which they didn’t — the employee is allowed to do a statistical survey to determine the overtime hour figure. The employer is then put in the situation of having to negate the survey, which it can’t do without accurate records.” “We’ve heard from many of the people getting settlement checks,” says Parris. “Some were crying because they said they’d finally be able to get a house, send the kids to college, or things like that. It really opens your eyes.” Karen Dean is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Ga. Source: VerdictSearch, a division of ALM.

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