Some cases defy their traditional legal classifications, because their impact and reach are much broader. The two finalists and the winning firm in this category went beyond helping the individuals and classes they represented; they sent strong messages about the costs of not protecting the environment. The cases involve property owners near a closed nuclear-weapons facility in Colorado, owners of homes built atop an old chemical tank farm in California, and residents living alongside the Ohio River, near a plant where chemicals were dumped. One case took a quarter-century to resolve, and our winning firm’s bellwether case has implications for 3,500 more individuals.

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Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Rafferty & Proctor

Berger & Montague

Girardi | Keese

 


Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Rafferty & Proctor

WINNER

LARGEST OFFICE: Pensacola, Florida
ATTORNEYS: 40

The firm won two plaintiff verdicts in bellwether cases against E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. for allegedly contaminating the Ohio River and drinking water near its Washington Water Works plant outside Parkersburg, West Virginia, and contributing to the plaintiffs’ illnesses.

The chemical, commonly known as C8, is used to manufacture one of the company’s signature products, Teflon. The first plaintiff, Carla Marie Bartlett, 59, was awarded a $1.6 million verdict on Oct. 6, 2015. Bartlett, from nearby Guysville, Ohio, described the pain of being virtually cut in half to remove kidney cancer she alleges was caused by drinking the tainted water. A judge last February denied DuPont’s motion to void the verdict and retry the case.

In another of the firm’s cases against DuPont, plaintiff David Freeman, 56, won a $5.1 million verdict for compensatory damages and $500,000 for punitive damages for allegations that the same chemicals caused his testicular cancer. Both cases are on appeal.

The National Law Journal: What’s a word or phrase that best describes the firm?

Michael Papantonio, shareholder: Built on integrity and results.

NLJ: Describe the national importance of your case and why your firm prevailed.

MP: Given the decades over which our country’s rivers and groundwater have suffered from industrial contamination, it is crucial that the companies which profited by freely polluting our waterways now stand accountable to those who have been injured by their harmful waste products.

NLJ: What traits do you respect most in opposing firms and lawyers?

MP: A respect for the truth and the rule of law. We can see a clear difference between those lawyers who want to win at all costs, no matter how untrue their positions may be, and those firms and attorneys who will play by the rules and allow the advocacy system to come to the right and just result.

NLJ: What is your biggest worry about practicing law?

MP: Judges who have been appointed with the help of corporate influence who then bias all their rulings in favor of corporations and against the individual citizens who seek redress for the wrongs done to them.

NLJ: What do you think will be the most important development in the law/legal business that will impact your firm in the next 10 years?

MP: The influx of Wall Street-type investment into the practice of law. Without strict safeguards, the average citizen and his down-home lawyer may be completely left out of the justice system.


Berger & Montague

FINALIST

LARGEST OFFICE: Philadelphia
ATTORNEYS: 63

In May, the firm inked a $375 million class action settlement with Rockwell International Corp. on behalf of thousands of property owners near the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Denver. The litigation, which took nearly a quarter-century, proceeded through a four-month trial, verdict and judgment. There were two appeals to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and two rounds of certiorari petitions to the Supreme Court before the case settled. Settlement approval is pending.

The National Law Journal: Describe the national importance of your case and why your firm prevailed.

Merrill G. Davidoff, managing shareholder: Our firm prevailed because despite decades of “scorched-earth” litigation … we kept pressing forward for a recovery on behalf of our clients and the thousands of class members they and our firm represented.

NLJ: What traits do you respect most in opposing firms and lawyers?

MD: Skilled lawyers who do not mis-cite or misrepresent cases (law) or facts, and whose word can be relied upon even before it is reduced to a writing.

NLJ: What do you think will be the most important development in the law/legal business that will impact your firm in the next 10 years?

MD: The continued upward march in the costs of law practice may further accelerate the trend towards large firms and further erode litigation boutiques like ours.


Girardi | Keese

FINALIST

LARGEST OFFICE: Los Angeles
ATTORNEYS: 30

Last summer, on the eve of trial, Girardi Keese obtained a final settlement of $267 million for residents of Carson, California, whose homes were built on a Shell tank farm that had been dismantled. There were 110 homes involved. The occupants will receive a total of $120 million in cash, and $147 million will go to clean up the property.

The law firm reportedly spent $9 million on the case, which took seven years, and 1,000 individuals will receive payments from the case.

The National Law Journal: What’s a word or phrase that best describes the firm?

Tom Girardi, senior partner: Alligator with slightly closed eyes lying on the bank.

NLJ: What’s one interesting fact about your firm, or its lawyers, that few people know?

TG: All lawyers have been here since they law-clerked for the firm some 40 years ago. The concept that we are “Doing some good to stop bad conduct” is very inspirational.

NLJ: What traits do you respect most in opposing firms and lawyers?

TG: Those lawyers on the other side who try to solve a large problem for their clients are doing much a better job than those lawyers who pound the table for additional “Answer to Interrogatories.” The first group is a formidable opponent and difficult to be against in trial. The latter group gives us the opportunity for seven- and eight-figure verdicts.