SFTLA Celebrates 60 Years of Promoting Education, Creativity and Justice
Educate. Recreate. Celebrate. For 60 years members of the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association have gathered to learn, better the lives of the less fortunate, and to have fun.
It all began with a simple idea and a phone call or two. One afternoon in 1950, Bob Barbagelata, a 24-year-old recent admittee to the California bar, sat at his desk in the offices of Shirley, Saroyan, Shearer & Sullivan in San Francisco preparing a trial brief for his boss, the well-known trial lawyer, J. Francis Shirley. As Barbagelata drafted his argument, Shirley appeared in his doorway with a message. Melvin Belli, the already well-known trial lawyer had telephoned with an idea. Shirley told Barbagelata to call him back and find out what he had in mind. When he did, Belli told him that he wanted trial lawyers in San Francisco to start getting together informally.
Belli said he had attended a meeting of workers compensation lawyers on the East Coast. They had formed a group called the National Association of Claimants Attorneys (“NACCA”). He also knew that defense lawyers in the city had started meeting informally, too. Belli felt that trial lawyers who regularly represented injured claimants could benefit from meeting as well.
Belli, Shirley and others contacted several other lawyers in town and they started meeting. The San Francisco Trial Lawyers (though not yet so-named) was born.
The group identified their goals early and those goals have never changed: educate and train trial lawyers, achieve rulings and support and pass legislation to protect and advance individuals’ rights, and have fun doing it. While much has changed since 1950, these goals have never changed or become any less important. These aspirations have prevailed and continue to guide the association today.
In the 1950’s, Belli and Shirley invited lawyers whose successes they learned about. For example, Belli telephoned courtroom advocate Nate Cohn to congratulate him and invite him to a meeting after Cohn won a plaintiffs’ verdict of $40,000 in San Mateo county for a young man who was injured in a construction accident. Since juries in the county customarily awarded $5,000 to $15,000 for loss of an arm or leg, Belli recognized that Cohn’s result was extraordinary.
Belli’s practice of personally inviting successful lawyers to join led to an impressive roster. The early members included some of the most well known and experienced trial lawyers in the City. They include Belli (its first President) and his partner Van Pinney, Shirley, James Boccardo (founder of San Jose’s Boccardo Firm), Shirley, Thomas C. Ryan (F.E.L.A. specialist), Newell J. Hooey, Leland J. Lazarus, Lou Ashe, Victor Cappa, Irving Sugarman, Leslie Gillen and Arthur C. Zeif. Others include John Finger and Ingemar Hoberg (of Hoberg and Finger fame), Fitzgerald Ames, Sr. (whose Greyhound v. Superior Court case many of us have cited to law and motion commisioners), Marvin E. Lewis (CTLA’s first president), J.N. “Nick” DeMeo, Oscar Goldstein (and later his son Burton), Leo Friedman, Martin Field, Ernest E. Emmons, Jr., Ralph Leon Isaacs, William A. Sullivan and George T. Davis.
The early meetings were informal, but no less educational. Early on, the meetings were often held at attorneys’ homes. Then, before the days of self-imposed “prohibition,” the host provided the necessary refreshments to stimulate candid conversation. Judicial rulings and temperaments, frequently encountered defense attorneys and witnesses, jury verdicts, trial tactics and techniques and recent judicial decisions were all open for discussion. Since publications such as Jury Verdicts Weekly were unavailable, this was an invaluable source of such information. Lawyers tested legal arguments, brainstormed about legal theories and exchanged experts’ names. Since many of those who attended were solo practitioners or attorneys from small shops, and attorneys tended to have practices wider in scope than ours today, the information and insight was irreplacable. One topic was not discussed: the source(s) of their cases.
Members also formed long lasting friendships. For example, at one meeting hosted by Fitzgerald Ames at a bus garage with a lavish spread of food and drinks, Ames explained how he had achieved a very large verdict in a personal injury case. Nate Cohn, who sat with Bruce Walkup, quipped to Walkup that someday they would be telling their own tales of courtroom success. Indeed, Cohn’s dream was realized. While he describes Walkup as “one of the greatest trial lawyers in the United States,” he became a very successful trial advocate in his own right. At another meeting, hosted by Hoberg at a Swedish restaurant, Hoberg shared his success stories in the courtroom.
The group’s leadership developed from this early core group and most served as the organization’s president at some point during the organization’s first 15-20 years.
During 1976 through 1978 the SFTLA grew greatly. Meetings moved from their Leopard Café “hangout” on Front Street to elegant dinners at some of the finest San Francisco restaurants, including the St. Francis Yacht Club and the Italian Athletic Club. In 1977, the group handed out its first Judge of the Year award, whose first recipient was Eugene Lynch, Retired Federal Court Judge, then a San Francisco Superior Court Judge. Also that year, the President George Shelby organized a the group’s “roast” for retiring San Francisco Superior Court Judge Lee Lazarus, who himself was an early SFTLA member who served as SFTLA president in 1954. Howard Nemerovski (Howard, Rice, Nemerovski) masterfully emceed the roast.
In 1978 The Honorable Ed Cragen was given the Judge of the Year Award and Judge Francis McCarty was given the Lifetime Service Award honoring his retirement. Neal Wincell, who served as SFLTA President was given the CTLA Chapter President of the Year Award.
Over the years, group’s structure grew more formal. The association incorporated on May 3, 1983. Prior to incorporation, the association was a chapter of the California Trial Lawyers Association. In that same year offices moved from Market Street to their current home in the Standard Oil Building. The first executive director, the well-loved Carlene Caldwell, began serving the group in 1978. After her departure in 1991 Leslie Dean and Kay Burke briefly served until 1992 when Diane Rito stepped in. Juliette Bleecker has been director since 1999.
Education was always a top priority. Building on the informal exhange of information in the earliest meetings, beginning in the 1960’s and continuing through at least 1969 when LeRoy Rice served as organization president, members reported on recent case law developments. Rice, or a member who volunteered, selected and reported on 10 new published cases at each meeting. In the 1976-1978 era Marvin Lewis served as education chair and invited distinguished speakers, including Bob Cartwright, Marvin Lewis, Sr., Bernard Witkin, Melvin Belli, David Bauer, Joe Cotchett, Ronald Winchell and James Boccardo. In 1984, when Kenneth Rosenthal served as president, the board presented a continuing legal education course entitled “What’s New in Tort and Trial Practice.” This long-running program, now in its 16th year has been presented annually by appellate specialist Dan Smith, Craig Needham and other highly knowledgeable members.
Education of its members remains a high priority. The monthly programs on topics ranging from employment law, to psychological injury, to premises liability to motion practice to liens are presented by well-qualified panelists and highly regarded.
The ongoing education of its members supported the organization’s second goal, that of fundamentally changing California law and to profoundly affect and promote individual’s rights to recovery. Educating each other and sharing ideas benefit the young and the seasoned lawyers, alike, making their practices more creative. Creative lawyering--finding new solutions for problems—was and is central to their success in the courtroom and before the legislature. Whether through an individual case or by work directly with the legislature. SFTLA and its members have served as catalysts for changing unfair case law and legislation.
For example, Bob Barbagelata took on a case against Allstate Insurance Company on behalf of Joe Canada, a long time employee, who was fired after he refused to follow practices he thought were unfair. At that time, no one had identified the practice area of “wrongful termination.” Barbagelata filed an action for breach of contract and fraud. His success brought him many more cases against Allstate and other companies for wrongful termination. Later, his understanding of insurance company practices and procedures served as an excellent background for protecting the rights of insureds (and third parties) for unfair conduct. Searching for authority for his belief that companies should not be permitted to treat insureds unfairly Barbagelata found Ins. Code 790.03, the unfair practices act, drafted a cause of action based upon it, which became a staple of plaintiffs’ counsel practicing in the area. Barbagelata (and many other group members) protected the rights of many unfairly treated insureds in the “bad faith insurance” practices since.
In each decade since its founding the SFTLA has worked hard to convince the lawmakers when specific legislation was unfair. Examples include revocation of the guest statute, which prevented guests in automobiles from bringing an action against the driver of a car at fault for an accident. Members advanced the case law leading to the abolition of contributory fault doctrine, which completely barred a plaintiff’s recovery in those cases where the plaintiff was as little as 1% at fault. In 1986, when Al Abramson was president, insurance companies and big business advocated “tort reform” and put Proposition 51 on the ballot. The measure, which abolished the time-honored rule of joint and several liability, designed to provide adequate sources of compensation for injured victims, retained the old rule as to economic damages, but severely limited recovery of non-economic damages by limited a defendant’s responsibility to its proportional share. Abramson received the state award for Chapter President of the Year for his efforts to educate the legislators on Prop 51, even though the measure eventually passed. In keeping with the organization’s long-term goals and vision, education programs on the new law began in earnest.
In the 1990’s the group has fought hard in Sacramento to protect consumer rights. Court decisions and legislation had eliminated third party bad faith and peculiar risk of harm and severely curtailed lender liability. In the fall of 1993, in response to the Keane Attorney Fee Limitation Initiative and the Andrew Tobias “Pay at the Pump” No Fault Initiative, SFTLA worked overtime. Its efforts, lead locally by 1994 President Bill Veen and supported on the state level by CTLA, defeated both measures. These efforts redoubled during Mike Kelly’s 1995 presidency when he and lead the group’s costly fight against a series of insurance company sponsored initiatives designed to make recovery for injuries more difficult. This year, Tom Brandi and other members have worked tirelessly in Sacramento to reform unfairly restrictive recoveries in cases where individuals were harmed by medical malpractice or treated unfairly by their health maintenance organizations.
Educate. Recreate. Celebrate.
For 60 years so has it been. May it be so evermore.