Attorneys, Clients Recognized for Outstanding Contributions to Civil Justice
AAJ presented its Steven J. Sharp Public Service Awards during the Membership and Awards Luncheon at the Association's annual convention in Washington, D.C. This convention's recipients were attorneys Brian D. Monaghan and Sherry Bahrambeygui of San Diego, California, and their client Thomas W. Self, M.D., and attorney Jeffrey P. Foote of Portland, Oregon, and his client Linda McCathern.
"These recipients are truly deserving of this award," said AAJ president Richard D. Hailey. "By telling the story of American civil justice, cases such as these remain the key to turning public opinion around and making sure that our state and national policymakers fully understand what's at stake when corporations and the medical and insurance industries push for radical liability limits and other changes that limit the legal rights of all Americans."
During the recent debate in Congress over the need to protect the rights and health of managed care patients, AAJ learned of Dr. Self's amazing ordeal. In July 1995, after 12 years of spotless service, Dr. Self was terminated by Children's Associated Medical Group for refusing to spend less time on patient visits and to curtail tests and other treatment that he considered necessary—fired, in effect, for caring too much about his patients.
With the help of attorneys Monaghan and Bahrambeygui, Dr. Self filed suit against Children's Associated Medical Group. On April 6, 1998, a San Diego jury awarded Dr. Self $1.75 million for his wrongful termination. Dr. Self and the medical group subsequently settled the case for $2.5 million on the eve of a punitive damages phase of the trial.
This decision was the first jury verdict in favor of a physician under a California statute prohibiting doctors from being retaliated against for advocating appropriate care for their patients.
This claim struck a blow against cost-cutting health care organizations, validated Dr. Self's rights as a physician and highlighted the importance of patients' rights legislation now before Congress. Dr. Self has repeatedly spoken out against cost-cutting health care organizations in the hope that these groups will now think twice before interfering with doctor-patient relationships and putting profits before people.
The second presentation of the Steven J. Sharp Public Service Award was made to attorney Jeffrey Foote and Linda McCathern. Two days after a family reunion in Idaho in May 1994, McCathern was heading home to Portland when the new Toyota 4-Runner she was riding in rolled over, leaving her paralyzed from the shoulders down.
With the help of attorney Foote, McCathern was able to show that the 4-Runner's design was defective, and that it could have been made safer by building it longer, wider and lower, as well as by tightening its suspension. Toyota finally made those changes in 1996—too late to have spared McCathern from her ordeal.
In April 1997, a Portland jury found the 4-Runner's design to be defective and overly dangerous, and returned a $7.65 million verdict. Of that, $2.25 million was to compensate McCathern for her devastated life—a life in which she no longer can enjoy the simple pleasures we all take for granted, such as long walks or holding her daughters.
The verdict was the first in the nation against the 4-Runner.
Product liability "reform" legislation now being pushed in Congress by corporate interests would allow wrongdoers to calculate their potential liability gives the worst actors an incentive to continue harmful conduct so long as it is cheaper than their liability. Experience has shown that reckless parties don't just wake up one day with a conscience—it is the strong deterrent power of punitive damages that generates positive changes and safer products.
This case, and, particularly, this client, help tell the story of our civil justice system by demonstrating the inherent dangers of products liability legislation before Congress, and by doing so help safeguard the rights and advance the safety of all Americans.
These two cases embody the spirit and strength behind the creation of the Steven J. Sharp Public Service Award, which honors Steven Sharp, a young man who lost both arms to a defective tractor hay baler. Steven would have been barred from bringing his claim against the manufacturer of this baler had proposed products liability legislation been the law, simply because the tractor hay baler was more than 15 years old. Steven's case strongly illustrated the harm this legislation would inflict on innocent citizens—depriving people like him of access to justice.