This article is part of National Law Journal’s 2018 Pro Bono Hot List recognition package that celebrates law firms that do well by doing good. See the other stories here.
Bill Blazinski entered Edgewood Arsenal in 1968—the middle of the Vietnam War.
During Blazinski’s 60 days in the U.S. Army facility, he said he was locked in chambers filled with tear gas as his eyes watered and his skin burned. Twice, he said, he was given drugs without being informed of their long-lasting effects.
He and the thousands of other American soldiers tested at Edgewood were bound to silence, even as health complications, including cancer, began to emerge. They were left with no medical care, and no options.
Then came Gordon Erspamer. The Morrison & Foerster lawyer’s own father had passed away due to the lingering effects of war-test radiation, and his father, too, was denied medical care. So in 2009, Erspamer filed a case on behalf of Vietnam vets against the CIA and other government entities, seeking medical care for those with conditions were linked to testing at Edgewood.
“Gordy was literally a legend in the veterans’ community,” said Michael Blecker, a Vietnam veteran and the executive director of veterans group Swords to Plowshares, who co-filed the suit.
After Erspamer’s passing in 2014, MoFo partner James Bennett took up the case, alongside Ben Patterson and Stacey Sprenkel who were already involved. Last year, after a nearly nine-yearlong court battle, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the Army to provide test victims medical care. Last month, the first veteran applied for care.
Earlier rulings in the case released test subjects from oaths of secrecy and ordered the Army to provide the veterans notice of potential health conditions linked to testing.
“Quite frankly, for that office to stay with it all these years and keep fighting for us, I guess I can’t say enough about them. They’ve been wonderful,” said Blazinski, who plans to apply for medical care for his cancer. “I can’t say enough for what they did, with the obstacles the government had thrown at them.”
Blazinski and Blecker noted the MoFo lawyers’ dedication, empathy and transparency throughout the case. Bennett estimated that the firm spent more than 10,000 hours on the case.
In addition to the Edgewood, MoFo’s J. Alexander Lawrence and Jayson Cohen worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to end an Arkansas court’s practice of jailing individuals who couldn’t afford the fines for bounced checks.
Plaintiff Charles Dade noted MoFo’s professionalism, and said the case’s success has allowed him to break a cycle that put him in jail every time he approached paying off a fine. Now, he’s re-starting his business and moving forward.