Mark Johnson (from left), Clare Zhang and Rick Sager, Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn and Dial, Atlanta. (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Mark Johnson (from left), Clare Zhang and Rick Sager of Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn and Dial, Atlanta. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Frederick “Rick” Sager Jr. led a defense team from Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial that has successfully wrapped up a product liability defense over a devastating injury that happened 21 years ago.

The litigation had been going on for 19 years. The firm had the case for a decade. They tried it three times. The first was a mistrial. The second was a defense win, but it was reversed on appeal. When the defense won the third time in May, Sager didn’t even want to talk about it, fearing another appellate battle. When the deadline passed for the other side to file a notice of appeal in June, he still wanted to wait another week, in case there was a delay in the appeal being docketed.

At last this week, the team has breathed a big sigh of relief. No appeal this time.

“It seemed like the case would never end,” Sager said. “It’s kind of hard to believe it has actually come to a conclusion.”

It’s not exactly a time to celebrate. As is most often the case with hard-fought litigation, the story starts with a terrible event.

It was Aug. 25, 1997, Anthony Wade was a 36-year-old apprentice lineman working for Richmond Power & Light in Richmond, Indiana. The crew was using what’s known as a bucket truck to fix a transformer on a utility pole. He got into the bucket and maneuvered the boom to the pole so he could do the work, then lowered it toward the truck. But when he climbed out, he missed the one step on the outside of the bucket. He fell 12 feet to the ground, Sager said. He was paralyzed.

Wade, now 57, has been a quadriplegic ever since. “He is a very nice person,” Sager said. “He made a good witness.”

Sager said the winning defense team takes comfort in the fact that Wade has the benefit of workers’ compensation. Court records show that at least one defendant, a utility products distributor, was dismissed after settling with Wade. But Sager’s client, Terex-Telelect Inc., will pay nothing.

Terex made the bucket from which Wade fell. Wade’s lawyers alleged the bucket was defective and dangerous and should have had an interior step. Sager’s team argued the bucket was made exactly to the power company’s specifications and matched all the others in the fleet. The defense was that Wade simply missed the step coming out of the bucket, lost his balance and fell. The defense called it a “horrible” accident.

“We had a lot of respect for our opposition,” Sager said. “They did a great job. They all did. This trial was hard-fought.”

The plaintiffs team was led by W. Scott Montross of Montross Miller Muller Mendelson & Kennedy in Indianapolis and Randy Barnhart in Denver, formerly with Antonio Bates Bernard, now moved to Keating Wagner Polidori Free.

Reached by phone, Barnhart said he’d rather not comment on the outcome of the case.

The trial in Hamilton Superior Court in Indiana lasted seven business days. The jury’s verdict contained one sentence saying that Terex-Telelect was not at fault. “We all shook hands and congratulated each other when it was over,” Sager said.

Asked if it was the longest-running case he’d handled, Sager said, “For sure.” He added that he had “never had one lasting anywhere close to this long.”

The lesson for the firm from the three trials is to use each experience to inform the next. “No matter what the result from a prior trial, we learned that you need to act as if the next trial is a new case,” Sager said. “You have to understand that the other side is going to change their strategy. You have to change yours as well.”