Margaret Cronin Fisk
The National Law Journal
Fifty litigators who succeed in and out of the courthouse
Over the past two months, The National Law Journal has encouraged nominations from readers, sought suggestions from prominent lawyers and researched women involved in significant lawsuits to develop a list of the nation’s top 50 women litigators. The process produced more than 100 legitimate candidates with long, largely successful, records of representing clients in motion, trial and appellate work. In narrowing the choices to 50, we sought a reflection of the wide range of practice areas and types of careers women litigators have established. While any list of “the best” is necessarily subjective, we believe the roster of the final 50 includes not just the best women litigators nationally but many of the best litigators period. The list includes some well-known names, but it also cites some less-publicized attorneys. Within the list of 50 leading women litigators, we have selected 10 for special recognition. In careers started in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, these 10 women have established themselves as among the nation’s best litigators, often against daunting obstacles.
Half of a winning products liability duo
AT THE BEGINNING of Anita Porte Robb’s career as a litigator, she worked as a defense attorney at a mid-sized Kansas City, Mo., law firm. “But the experience made me want to work on the other side,” she says. Her firm was winning cases on motions or before juries, “for the wrong reasons. We won because the plaintiffs’ lawyers were being outlawyered–not because the defense side was right.”
These wins, she says, “bothered me deeply at a moral and ethical level. These were victims who deserved justice but didn’t get it.” Her husband, Gary Robb, who was practicing at another firm, had a parallel experience.
As a result, in 1984, both quit their other firms and founded the plaintiffs’ firm Robb & Robb in Kansas City. By 1987, the firm had had its first million-dollar verdict. Since then, it has become one of the nation’s most successful plaintiffs’ firms.
Verdicts won by the pair, who try many of their cases together, include two of the largest products liability awards ever–$350 million and $70 million over the same crash of a Life Flight helicopter. Other big judgments in the 1990s include a $20 million verdict in a medical malpractice trial, a $25 million verdict over the death of a judge and a $14 million settlement in a case involving the wrongful death of a child. In recent months, the Robbs have won a $27.5 million settlement in an action over the crash of a plane filled with skydivers and an $18 million settlement of the lawsuit arising out of the death of professional wrestler Owen Hart. The Robbs also represent the Mel Carnahan family, in an action filed after the deaths of the senator and his son in a plane crash.
While the Robbs often try cases together, there is a definite split in who does what work. In the highest-profile lawsuits–about one-third of their practice–he takes the technical aspects and she takes the medical details and damages. She handles medical malpractice litigation on her own; he handles garden-variety aviation cases. In several of her medical malpractice cases, Robb has been able to collect more than damages for her clients; she has also spurred changes in policies or procedures. In a recent case, for instance, the hospital agreed in writing to change treatment protocols relating to withdrawal of medications from patients with certain neurological conditions.
In one of the firm’s biggest victories–the $18 million settlement over the death of Owen Hart–the win was engineered by Anita Robb’s pretrial work. She took more than 40 of the 50 depositions of witnesses. Hart had been killed in May 1999 while preparing to make a descent into a wrestling ring at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. He was attached to a singular line held by a snap shackle device. The device released, and Hart fell 78 feet to his death.
Robb tracked down and deposed a former stunt coordinator for the World Wrestling Federation who testified that the federation’s executives had been pushing him to use the device on a stunt, “but he refused because it was a safety risk,” Robb says. Two months after she took this deposition, the WWF agreed to settle.