In defense of trial lawyers

Gymnast Sterling Riethman’s heartfelt words at the AAJ convention should inspire all CAALA members

Stuart Zanville
2018 November

Since nearly all readers of this column are trial lawyers, it’s not unusual that what I write is generally targeted to them. This column is a little different; it is also about them. But first, a little history lesson.

A few weeks from now, we will celebrate the 227th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. As every trial lawyer knows (shame on you, if you don’t), among the provisions of the Bill of Rights is the right to a civil jury trial promised in the Seventh Amendment.

A few months ago, legendary consumer advocate Ralph Nader spoke to a group of reporters and attorneys. Legal journalist Michael Marciano attended the meeting and wrote that Nader had sounded an alarm bell: The constitutional right of Americans to sue for injury has eroded in recent years to a point of crisis that trial lawyers can no longer ignore. He quoted Nader saying that, “There is an urgent crisis here where the law that is designed to protect the health and safety of the American people and deter wrongdoing is being destroyed. Trial cases before juries are declining. Verdicts in most cases are declining, and the number of cases being brought under tort law are declining, despite a growing population.”

American Museum of Tort Law Executive Director Rick Newman attended the meeting and said that the civil justice system is “under tremendous assault, and it has been for 35 or 40 years. One of the erroneous beliefs is that the system is somehow broken, with frivolous lawsuits, greedy lawyers and runaway juries.” Of course, every trial lawyer knows how absurd it is to defame trial lawyers by instilling the frame that they are all greedy and file frivolous lawsuits.

I have had the privilege of serving CAALA for the past 14 years, and I have met and spoken with thousands of the trial attorneys who are members of this organization. It is always disheartening to me that trial lawyers are demonized instead of recognized for protecting people from unsafe products, unsafe medicine and unfair business practices.

It is rare when someone stands up and defends trial lawyers, but I want to share with you words that should be read by every trial lawyer, young or old, who is tired of being attacked for what they do to protect people.

Sterling Riethman is a gymnast, a former NCAA diver, and an advocate who courageously spoke out against abuse by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. She was invited to speak at the annual AAJ convention where her trial attorney John Manly was awarded the Steven J. Sharp Public Service Award.

Like everyone in the room, I was moved by Sterling’s heartfelt words about trial lawyers who are usually under attack. Her comments were about her attorney, John Manly, but they are also about every trial lawyer. Please take the time to read them, especially if you are on the receiving end of barbs just because you are a trial lawyer. If you want to see the video of Sterling Riethman’s comments, it is available on the AAJ web site.

From the very beginning, the true heroes of this story have been the ones who have done the seemingly simple tasks that so many before had failed to accomplish. They listened, they believed, and they took action. They recognized someone in need of a skillset they possessed, and they used those skills to the very best of their ability regardless of the obstacles in their way. That is what a hero does and that is precisely what Mr. John Manley has done here. From the very first phone call I had with John I knew I wanted to be on his team because it was overwhelmingly apparent that his first and foremost priority was taking care of me as a human as opposed to me as just a client. Every step of the way our lawyers had our backs and in those moments that’s all we needed to keep going.

I’m honored to stand here today next to people who fight tirelessly to protect countless people they will never meet. They look evil in the eye and they run right into the fire instead of away from it. They’ve taught me what true grit looks like. They’ve taught me what true compassion looks like and what a true hero looks like.

So today I stand here thankful not to John Manley and the rest of our legal team, but to every lawyer in this room; each and every one of you has the power to change your clients’ lives in ways you could never imagine just by treating them with the basic human decency they so badly want at a time when they so badly need it. You have the opportunity to empower and protect, and you have the opportunity to use a highly specialized skillset to inspire an immeasurable amount of change.

You are the good guys in this story. You don’t have to wake up in the morning and commit ­to being brave for the day. You simply have to listen, believe and then act. Who knows, those three little things may just change the world someday. They certainly changed mine.

— Sterling Riethman, AAJ Convention, July 2018

Stuart Zanville Stuart Zanville

Stuart Zanville is the Executive Director of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA). Contact him at (213) 487-1212 or by e-mail: stuart@caala.org.

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