Attorneys René Haas, David Perry; Client John Caballero Turned Down Damages
John Caballero of Victoria, Tex., and his attorneys René Haas and David Perry of Corpus Christi, Tex., received this year's Steven J. Sharp Public Service Award for their roles in improving safety in the workplace and encouraging responsible corporate decision making. The award was presented in July at the Annual Convention in San Francisco.
In 1995, Caballero was literally scalped and permanently disabled by a blast of fluid and gas as he was testing a gas well for Esenjay Petroleum Corp. He won a $30 million punitive damages award against Esenjay after his lawyers demonstrated the company had been grossly negligent in the care of its wells.
Caballero decided to turn down the money in exchange for Esenjay's promise to institute a new safety program that would prevent other workers from suffering similar tragedies. The company agreed to work with a safety engineer to set up the program.
"The most important thing is that nothing like this happens to anyone else. It was more important to make sure that safety measures were started than to pursue money. In order to improve safety, we offered not to accept the $30 million verdict," said Caballero.
"Mr. Caballero's case is a prime example of the power of the civil justice system. Punitive damages play a vital role, and this case proved it. This type of damage award punishes a company for negligent behavior and serves to deter other companies from employing similar dangerous practices," said Mark Mandell, immediate past-president of AAJ. "Mr. Caballero and his attorneys made a bold decision and showed us how punitive damages can be used to bring important, life-saving changes to the workplace and to products we use every day."
After the safety implementation agreement, Esenjay was sold to Frontier National Gas Corp. Frontier felt it was not bound by Esenjay's agreement, so Caballero filed a lawsuit to compel Frontier to abide by it. That suit was settled in June, and the safety program, which will be assessed annually by an independent auditor, will go forward.
"It was historic for the defendant and the plaintiff in a civil case to come together. I was truly impressed that John Caballero let neither money nor retribution overcome his wish to have his horrible experience serve to protect others," said Perry.
Perry, who primarily represents plaintiffs in products liability and automobile cases, played a major role in creating the Attorneys Information Exchange Group, a national legal resource for automotive litigation. Haas served as a felony prosecutor and the first elected female judge in Nueces County (Corpus Christi), before devoting her career to the rights of consumers.
Both attorneys represented another family who offered to forgo a damages award as an incentive for a company to make safety changes. In May, a jury found General Motors negligent for choosing not to install head restraints in certain pick-up trucks. The family of a man who died as a result of injuries sustained in a GM Chevrolet truck wants the company to use the $31 million damages award in the case to recall all its trucks without head restraints and install the restraints at no charge.
Caballero and his lawyers proved that injured people and the companies that hurt them can work together for a common goal—in this case, the safety of others. Their actions embody the spirit of the Steven Sharp award, which is named for a young man from Oregon who lost both his arms in 1992 in a defective tractor hay baler. Sharp won an $8.5 million jury verdict, which was affirmed in June by the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.