Tom Girardi’s success as a plaintiff’s attorney is legendary. But it’s not the wins Girardi is most proud of, it’s the effective change his efforts set in motion.
Interview by: Cuyler Gibbons
Image by: Meeno
Tom Girardi, Pasadena resident and founding partner of downtown L.A. law firm, Girardi | Keese has been standing up to powerful interests on behalf of those they have wronged for nearly 50 years. And with some $11 billion (with a b) in judgements and settlements won, far more often than not it’s Girardi’s clients who find justice. A member of the board of directors and former president of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, and inductee into the California Bar’s Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame, Girardi recently took time out from his busy schedule to talk to Pasadena Magazine.
All legends need a good origin story. When did you first realize you wanted to be a lawyer?
That one is real easy. In the 6th grade at 7 o’clock, Perry Mason was on every Saturday night. And I would watch Perry Mason every week. He just seemed like a nice man, a gentle man and his won loss record was, Holy Toledo, just really cool. It happened in the 6th grade—and it never wavered. Even later when a jury didn’t look at things quite the way I did, it never wavered.
You are of course best known to the general public, because of the successful movie, for the Erin Brockovich case. Perhaps that’s the answer to this question but what case are you most proud of?
I think the Brockovich case certainly changed the way people thought about toxic chemicals. Prior to that there really wasn’t much done about those type of issues of at all. People understand the danger now. But I’m equally proud of a case that might have even had a bigger impact. That is a case we had against the Dodgers—and I want to immediately point out this is not the current Dodgers, this is the McCourt Dodgers.
This was where Bryan Stow got so badly beaten in the parking lot, causing brain damage, and the Dodgers took the position that “Hey, we didn’t beat the guy up, the felons did.” In that case we were able to show the total lack of security and the downgrading that had gone on. We were able to show all of these fights that would take place almost every game. The place was a mess. And the jury found in our favor—we got some great medical attention for Bryan; he’s doing so much better—and I think the important thing is that if you go into Dodger Stadium now, it’s almost like going to the airport. They’re showing a great deal of consciousness about alcohol, they have a lot more people in the aisles to watch people’s conduct etc., and then there was a rumor out that there was a memo to all the owners in Major League Baseball that says, “What are you gonna do to make sure we don’t have another Bryan Stow?”
So that decision has had an impact across the league, not just in Dodger Stadium?
Yes, that’s what I’ve been told by several lawyers I know, so those are very good things. The Brockovich case was certainly a good thing because it created an awareness by companies that they could be found at fault for not cleaning up their messes. We also were just successful in Carson where Shell was found to have contaminated the ground were there were 110 homes built and we were able to get a $240 million dollar resolution of which about $140 million of it was to clean up the property. So it was terrific. You know, as a lawyer I feel pretty good every now and then that some of the stuff we do really has an effect.
The law of course continues to evolve, but perhaps not always for the better. As a champion of the “little guy,” do you have concerns about the continued access to justice for those without institutional power?
Well I get a little worried every now and then with respect to the efforts to get rid of the jury trial in more and more cases. We have these arbitration agreements which are total nonsense. If you apply for a Visa card on page 16 of the application which you haven’t read, nobody has, is an agreement that says you waive your right to a trial by jury and agree instead to arbitrating any claim you may have. Some courts have interpreted those things as not appropriate, some have indicated they could be appropriate. So I think the real watchdog is the jury system. There’s no question about it, because when you have a jury there listening to a story, that’s a much better opportunity for fairness, than if you have an arbitrator listening to a story. The fact that there is a jury there gives everybody pause as to what they should be doing. A company that’s done the wrong thing, knowing pretty soon they’re gonna be judged by a jury, they say to themselves, I better clean my act up. And, on the other side, a plaintiff who is overstepping the bounds—the fact that a jury is going to be listening the case causes a lot of hearts to change.
If you had not become a lawyer, what is it you think you would have done?
Well, I guess I’d still be washing cars at the car wash!
So now, when you are not out lawyering, what do you do?
Well, one of the nicest things that’s happened to me, is I’ve been appointed to be a trustee of the Library of Congress. This has been a massively wonderful experience. Trustees get to see all this great stuff—the first draft of the Constitution, Hamilton writes in the margin, “This will take the country down.” Jefferson writes in the margin, “This is what we’re all about.” There is a letter from Abraham Lincoln to his best friend—“Mark, if slavery isn’t wrong then nothing is wrong. I just don’t know if I am the person who is supposed to do something about it.” Seeing these treasures there that are so wonderful and to be a part of this preservation, that has been really spectacular.
The strikes me as probably a silly question after talking to you, but do you have any plans to retire?
Well a friend of mine went to a doctor a couple of weeks ago and the doctor asked my friend if he knew what biggest cause of death was. Cancer? My friend said. The doctor said no. Heart attack, he asked? Doctor says no. What is it then? My friend asked. It’s retirement. So I’m gonna follow that doctor’s advice.