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Lawyers Weekly USA - May 28, 2001

The Golden Couple

Diana Digges
Lawyers Weekly USA

How Two Former Defense Lawyers Became One of the Most Successful Plaintiffs’ Duos in the Country

Robb and Robb have done it again. The husband-and-wife team in Kansas City, Mo., have added yet another victory to their string of blockbuster verdicts and settlements.

On March 15, Anita and Gary Robb won a $27.5 million cash settlement for the wrongful deaths of five skydivers and a pilot who burned to death in a plane crash in east Kansas City. The settlement was a record for small plane crash lawsuits.

That’s a stunning addition to a career studded with historic wins.

A few of the standout cases:

  • An $18 million cash settlement last year for the death of professional wrestler Owen Hart, who fell 78 feet from a harness while being lowered into the ring of Kemper Arena during a publicity stunt on live TV.
  • A $25 million jury verdict in 1998 for the widow and children of Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Coburn, who fell to his death while inspecting an abandoned building subject to condemnation.
  • A $14 million cash settlement in 1997 to the mother of a 14-year-old boy dragged to his death when his jacket cords got caught in the door of a school bus.
  • A $350 million jury verdict in 1995 to the family of a pilot killed in a helicopter crash.
  • A $20 million jury verdict in 1990 to an 8-year-old girl blinded and brain damaged by an overdose of fluids used during a general anesthesia.

The secret to this string of successes?

There isn’t any, insist the Robbs, who worry about being painted as super-lawyers.

“We focus on the fundamentals of preparing and trying a civil lawsuit,” says Gary. “If there’s any common thread to our results, it’s that we rarely leave a stone unturned.”

A common claim, but the Robbs have the right to make it, say Missouri lawyers who have watched their extraordinary career.

“They thoroughly investigate a case before they accept it, which I find unusual,” says William H. Sanders, dean of the Kansas City defense bar.

“They put the prospective client on hold, go in and do an investigation. They’ve got such a strong reputation they can do that. But once they sign a contract, they’ve made up their minds that they’re perfectly willing to go into trial. And then it’s non-stop discovery.”

The two attorneys live with their children in one of Kansas City’s grandest houses, a mansion built by lumber baron M.B. Nelson. Their offices occupy the 39th floor of the city’s tallest skyscraper. The art collection that adorns the walls at Robb & Robb (a tour is available at www.robbrobb.com) displays a decided thematic emphasis on law and justice, including the humorist Charles Bragg’s sketches of judges and lawyers and laughing jurors.

Clearly, these two love their work. And their passion for lawyering shows itself best not in a showboat style in front of jurors (though their courtroom skills are widely admired) but in their meticulous and dogged approach to discovery.

In case after case, the Robbs don’t stop until they have the evidence they need.

Gary intones the couple’s professional credo: “One must take every single deposition or depose every single witness who may potentially have knowledge incriminating to the defendant.”

If that means taking 70 depositions, as in the skydiving case, or traveling to England to take depositions for the Owen Hart wrestling case, or subpoenaing competitors of a defendant to unearth trade practices in an aviation case, well, so be it. If it means spending a million dollars out of pocket preparing a case, that’s a worthy gamble, they believe.

How do they know when to stop?

“When you’ve exhausted all of the available witnesses, or when you know that you have obtained critical evidence because it screams out at you,” says Gary.

And they are certain that every case has such evidence. Says Anita, with bedrock confidence: “In any given case, there’s going to be a silver bullet – a critical witness or a critical piece of evidence; there’s generally going to be only one or two, and they’re generally things the other side thinks you won’t find.”

But find them, they do – again and again. And that’s what makes defense lawyers not only respectful of Robb and Robb, but also a little wary, and increasingly willing to give them a wide berth.

“You are more likely to settle because you realize the danger of your adversary,” says Sanders. “When you walk into their office, in the reception room you see copper plates that are reproductions of newspaper headlines of their best verdicts. For a defense attorney, that’s a frightening reminder of their numerous and unparalleled successes.”

Jumping Ship

Both Gary and Anita Robb started out as defense lawyers; Anita at a large firm where she specialized in medical malpractice, and Gary at a large firm where he concentrated in product liability.

They had met earlier at the University of Missouri, not on a date or at a party, but working on early registration. “We both were trying to make sure we got into the classes we wanted,” says Anita.

They married in 1983 and, a year later, they left their respective defense firms and set up shop as plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“We always felt we were on the wrong side,” says Gary. “There were a number of instances where we felt that because we had greater resources as defense attorneys, we were able to prevail when we never should have. That was our job, and frankly, it was sometimes heartbreaking.”

Anita remembers vividly the experience that persuaded her to pack her bags. She was working for doctors in a case that involved a patient who was catastrophically injured while undergoing routine surgery. The doctors, fearful of a lawsuit, met with their lawyers in an “anticipatory meeting.”

“They asked about changes they should make in the records,” says Anita. “And advice was given about what things should be changed to make the case more defensible. I was offended and shocked. I was in my early 20s.” (She graduated from law school when she was 21.)

Jumping over to the other side unleashed energies and redoubled the dedication of the two young lawyers, but they still had to handle their share of losing cases.

“In the early days, we tried numerous motor vehicle accident cases, med-mal cases, whatever walked in the door – and we certainly lost our share,” says Gary. “But the only way to become proficient as a trial lawyer is to try as many lawsuits as possible.”

The first case they tried as a firm was the only one they’ve ever handled that featured “a non-human injury victim,” says Anita.

The 1984 case, in the small town of Nevada, Mo., involved a claim that defective milking equipment had caused a herd of cattle to contract mastitis. The cows were rendered unable to produce milk, remembers Anita.

“It was our first and only dairy cow case,” she says. And it was the first in what became a signature Robb and Robb victory: it broke records. At $225,000, the verdict was the highest ever in Vernon County, Mo.

Dogged Discovery

From that first, record-setting win to their most recent there is the one clear theme – tireless discovery. And some of the best evidence has come from the defendant’s competitors.

“We have found that to be an incredibly fertile area of critical information about the defendant manufacturer’s product and safety practices,” says Gary. “Many times a competitor will say, ‘We were at an association meeting and our competition said we should not worry about this safety issue because only a few people are killed with it, anyway.'”

In their most recent record-breaking win, the Robbs continued down a series of apparent dead ends until they found the evidence needed to convince a judge that the defendant, aircraft engine manufacturer Teledyne Continental Motors, was hiding something.

Engine failure was the central issue in the crash that left six people dead. The pilot heard “a banging noise,” cancelled the skydiving jump and attempted an emergency landing. In four minutes the plane dropped 5,200 feet. At 500 feet above the ground – too close for the skydivers to attempt a jump- the plane burst into flames. The five skydivers and the pilot burned to death for three to five minutes in an agony attested to by the chief surgeon of the burn unit at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

The plaintiffs believed that the engine failed because improperly designed oil transfer tubes had shifted, cutting off the supply of oil to the engine. The “oil starvation” caused two of the connecting rods to break and forced the pilot to attempt the emergency landing.

As soon as the Robbs took the case, they sprang into action, working their contacts to investigate other incidents of Teledyne engine failure.

They advertised in the ATLA Advocate asking aviation attorneys if they had heard of any similar Teledyne engine failures. They personally contacted members of the aviation committees of ATLA and the ABA. (Gary is a past chair of the ABA’s aviation litigation section.) From published reports of Teledyne engine failure, they tracked down lawyers and quizzed them to see if the cause was oil starvation.

“For months, we hit every dead end,” says Gary. “Someone says they’ve got a Teledyne case involving an engine failure, you call and 95 times out of 100, it will be a broken crank case or a bearing failure.”

But they did find that one, critical case- and it was one that Teledyne failed to disclose in discovery.

“Teledyne claimed there was only one [such case], and we knew from our own private investigation that that wasn’t true,” says Gary. “We had discovered one incident, and it was not the one they told us about.”

The judge ordered Teledyne to report all similar failures to the plaintiffs.

“Two months later, they coughed up three more,” says Gary. “So now we had five – but they still didn’t have the one we knew about.”

The judge eventually entered an order giving all the plaintiffs’ attorneys full access to the Teledyne files in Mobile, Ala.. Refusing to give the Robbs access, Teledyne was forced to move 8,000 files to the grand ballroom of a nearby hotel.

“This was the first time in an aircraft lawsuit that [a manufacturer] had ever been ordered to produce all of their original files,” says Gary. Teledyne appealed up to the state Supreme Court but lost.

So Robb & Robb, with a team of eight lawyers, holed up in Mobile for six days. They went through the files contained in 26 four-foot high steel cabinets and 111 large bankers’ boxes of documents.

They were long days, from 7 a.m. until late in the evening, punctuated by meals ordered out from the Steak and Shake across the street.

“Each of the 8,000 files contained anywhere from five to 50 pieces of paper,” says Gary. “We reviewed every one of those files and found nine additional engine failures.”

Toward the end of the fifth day, the team found a key bit of evidence: A report with the oil transfer tube affixed to it in a plastic baggie.

“We were just numb,” says Gary. “We could not believe that [Teledyne] would have represented to the court that they had so carefully gone through these documents. How could they claim they’d reviewed them all and yet missed one with the tube itself, in a plastic bag, stapled to the report?”

Though Teledyne never admitted engine failure, the company agreed to the $27.5 million cash settlement divided equally among the six families of the victims. More important, says Gary, the defendant agreed in a letter to each of the six plaintiffs that the engine overhaul manuals would be revised.

Safety First

By temperament, training and philosophy, the Robbs are reluctant to settle cases.

“We prepare for trial and continue unless we are stopped – that is, if the defendant offers our client a sum of money commensurate with an award a jury would make,” says Gary. “We don’t posture for settlement or grandstand.”

And if they feel there is an important public safety issue involved, they are adamant about exposing it.

A case in point: Their 1997 suit against a school bus manufacturer, in which the Robbs won a $14 million cash settlement for the mother of a 14-year-old boy who was dragged to his death when his jacket cord caught in a school bus door.

The Robbs felt “a massive public safety issue” was at stake.

“We convinced our client of the necessity of going to trial. When we got close to trial, the defendant moved their offer from 3 to 10 million dollars,” says Gary. “That was three times as much as any settlement that had ever been entered into for a child, but we advised our client to turn it down.”

They’d done 80 depositions, the pivotal one being the 78th, in which a mechanic revealed he’d been told to alter a key record.

The Robbs were not about to back down. What they would accept was this and only this: $1 million for each year of the child’s life and notification to parents in 150 school districts of the danger so that “no child’s sweater, backpack or pull cord from a jacket would get caught and this accident happen again,” says Gary.

They got it. It was the highest pre-trial settlement for any wrongful death of a child in U.S. history. And with a substantial part of the award, their client started a nationwide fund named for her son Ryan W. Sayles.

“It’s known as the RWS Fund, and you know what it stands for? Ride With Safety,” says Gary, obviously pleased. “She’s done much good with this foundation in addition to the good that she did by holding out for the remedial change. That’s an example of our approach to litigation: First and foremost, provide our client with justice. But with many clients, the money is not the end-all and be-all. They want to prevent what happened from happening again.”

In the 1995 case against the Life Flight helicopter manufacturer, the Robbs say they went the distance partly because they couldn’t stand “the complacency” of the defendant, the third largest helicopter manufacturer in the world, about safety issues.

“They knew the defective part of their engine,” says Anita. “And they’d made a calculated decision to not recall the products, but to let them fail and replace them when they came in for routine overhaul. They just hoped that the ones that crashed would be in Ghana or New Zealand or somewhere that didn’t have a tort system and they wouldn’t be accountable. Our clients felt strongly that they wanted the word out.”

No Sign of Letting Up

Despite the widespread respect the Robbs enjoy, and their extraordinary string of successes, they dismiss the notion that defense lawyers tread carefully around them. Quite the opposite, according to Anita.

“There’s a lot of arrogance in corporate culture,” she says. “This French company [in the helicopter case] is a perfect example. We were just unknown lawyers from Missouri to them. It’s easy for defense lawyers and their clients to lull themselves into a state of non-reality – some of them have a sense of invulnerability that is fed and fueled by corporate culture.”

That invulnerability was punctured when, once again, the Robbs broke records: The jury returned a $350 million verdict, the highest product liability verdict in U.S. history at the time.

Not content to rest on their laurels, the Robbs have their hands full with several high-profile cases: They are representing the Carnahan family for the wrongful deaths of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan and his son, Randy, in a plane crash; and the mother of the late Kansas City Chiefs star Derrick Thomas in a wrongful death product liability action. The all-pro linebacker was paralyzed and later died because the roof of his SUV caved in, the suit contends.

As in all their cases, the Robbs immerse themselves in the relevant subject until they master it – whether it’s skydiving, wrestling, or aviation – and take every deposition they can.

“For whatever reason, it’s been our experience that the most critical evidence in a case is not discovered or produced until many depositions have been taken,” says Anita. “Time and time again, we’ve seen that. So we just keep digging.”


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