Bay Area Conference Offers Rare Debate Insight

By Sara Warner

CCM Publisher

In the insular world of civil justice legal conferences, you usually end up surrounded by either the “defense” or “plaintiffs” side of the ledger. It can lead to a false sense of consensus, with everyone agreeing on the basic goodness and obvious common sense of their arguments.

That’s why the recent Perrin Conference in San Francisco was so very different. Officially billed as a “national overview” of asbestos-centered litigation, it nonetheless offered plenty of focus on California and benefited greatly by the participation of actual real-life judges. It’s not unprecedented for such events to include the judicial branch, but their presence is rare and seemed significant when both sides of the issues were in full debate.

(As an aside, CCM staff who have organized similar events praised the landmark Fairmont Hotel as a great venue; they were impressed with the structure, content, and balanced views from both presenters and audience. Granted, the CCM crew had just announced a national website for next year and was networking like crazy, so our collective view might be a little biased.)
I was lucky enough to attend the “Seismic Shift in CA Asbestos Litigation” panel, the “Women and Business” breakfast, some judicial management discussion and a very interesting “mock trial” exercise. It’s worth noting that several panels, including the mock trial, involved lung cancer and asbestos-related liability, which is an up-and-coming litigation area. During one presentation, an asbestos-defense attorney lamented the idea of having a liability trial for “somebody who smoked for decades” without a tobacco company in the courtroom, but was interrupted by a plaintiffs’ attorney who noted that either side could bring tobacco firms into the fray, but did not want to – albeit for different reasons.


When’s the last legal conference where a speaker was interrupted at the podium?


Probably my most significant session was the “Seismic Shift,” which offered great insight into how the courts of the honorable judges Jackson, Bendix, Grillo, and Lee differ in the operational structure (everything from caseloads and calendars to discovery issues).


But they remain similar in terms of case management and settlement policies (like no video conferencing/mandatory settlement appearances). Frankly, I found San Francisco Superior Court Judge Terri Jackson to be one of the more compelling participants on the panel. I truly sensed she had a deep passion for what she does professionally and views her job as an opportunity to protect and serve her community. (The CCM has long been a fan, and even published a profile of Judge Jackson in the print-edition update released in conjunction with the conference.)


You actually sensed that the judges viewed the conference as an opportunity to better communicate with defense and plaintiffs on issues like process and case management. All of the judges, apart from any bias some could allege, seem united in wanting to make their courtrooms more efficient for the benefit of a smoother path to justice for all parties involved.


Also prevalent was the theme of time management. I got the feeling that many judges are aware of typical attorney stall, “confuse and disrupt” tactics and these types of behaviors would not be rewarded in their respective courtrooms. This no-nonsense approach and specific examples of untoward behavior were really helpful in understanding what a day in court would be like.


With respect to balanced views, I think the Mock Trial Session offered an opportunity for the audience – mostly attorneys – to objectively evaluate both defense and plaintiff cases with their inherent strengths and weaknesses. It solidified my feeling that a case is won or lost on the perception of the jury, not always on the legal merit and certainly not advanced scientific arguments. I particularly enjoyed the expert testimony and exposure to the medical causes/differences between lung cancer and asbestos. In an environment where multiple causation is a variable, it strengthened the importance of expert testimony in asbestos cases.


But it also underscored another theme of the conference, and a key issue to those of us interested in rationing justice: more and more civil lawsuits are coming. In particular, the asbestos-liability lung cancer filings are expected to escalate while other types of cases, like mesothelioma, are not dropping off as some had expected. These are complex cases, and they take a bunch of court time.


For those of us already concerned with the rationing of civil justice, you had to wonder where the courtroom capacity is going to be found.