Bill Keating is an intimidating presence—on the football field or in the courtroom. The former Denver Bronco turned personal injury lawyer is known for his record-breaking victories in the courtroom. But his winning qualities, according to those who know him, aren't his imposing size or occasional bursts of passion, but his empathy and dedication. And if you ask him about himself or his cases, he'll inevitably turn the subject to his clients, praising their attitudes and resilience.
"I think his strength is absolute preparation and he seems to really empathize with his clients," says Denver attorney Jim Dieterich of White and Steele, who's litigated against Keating at least a dozen times during the past 30 years. "He may be smiling, but he doesn't give you an inch. I've settled some cases with him involving a lot of money and it doesn't matter how much is involved, he's not going to quit fighting until he feels like he's gotten every nickel there is to get. With Bill, you certainly don't want to be seduced by his charms into thinking he's going to give you a break. He won't."
Mike Keating, Keating's son and a colleague at Fogel Keating Wagner Polidori Shafner, equates his father's personality to that of a rugby player. "He can be very friendly and easygoing when it doesn't involve the task at hand, but when the game starts, then he becomes more focused and aggressive. ... People always said to me, ‘Your dad is so nice. He must have been the coolest dad growing up.'
"Well, that all depends," Mike says. "I thought he was going to kill me when I threw a high school party."
Keating was a senior English major at the University of Michigan when, injured and unable to play football, he started thinking about a career in law. He took the LSAT before leaving Michigan, but decided to put his law school plans on hold when he got a chance to play football for the Broncos in the 1967 season. He went on to play for the Miami Dolphins for half a season and was invited to Raiders camp in the summer of 1968. Cut from camp that year, he jokes that his coaches pulled him aside to say he had a great career ahead of him. It just wasn't going to be in football. Upon returning to Denver, where his wife Mary still lived, they decided to stay. As luck would have it, the University of Denver law school had yet to fill for the coming semester.
After graduating and working for a year for a federal judge, Keating was hired by a small firm where he met Marshall Fogel and Bob Wagner. When that firm dissolved a few years later, they started their own. "There are certain people who would succeed at any walk of life and Bill is one of them," says Wagner, still Keating's partner today.
In the firm's early days, Keating took any case that would get him into a courtroom, including criminal and domestic relations cases. As the practice matured, they cut away at everything but the personal injury claims. "We liked the scientific, technical, medical issues," he says.
As Keating became more selective about the clients he took, he was attracted to cases with claims that were technically complex and interesting. Rob Freeman had one of those cases.
In 2001, about a month before 9/11, Freeman—a Special Forces sergeant—led a demolitions training exercise at Fort Carson. Ten men each set the time dials on an explosive device for 15 minutes and then went back to a bunker to wait for the detonations. The time came and went and they were one explosion short. Freeman waited another 45 minutes and then went to blow up the dud himself so it wouldn't be left in the field. "He gets within four feet of this thing and, boom, it goes off," Keating says. "It blows his arm off about mid-forearm, does serious damage to his leg, so his foot is just kind of hanging on, and peppers his chest with shrapnel."
Keating met Freeman at Fort Carson about 10 weeks after his injury. Refusing to rest, he was hobbling around with his elbow on a crutch to support his leg. "This guy's such a tough nut," Keating says.
He started to research the device and found issues with its manufacturing. Among other problems, there had been instances where the interior piece of the time dial was put in backwards, so that when a soldier thought he was setting it to go off in 60 minutes, it would actually go off in 15, and vice versa. That's what he believed happened to the device that injured Freeman. Keating filed a lawsuit, and—though he couldn't get the military to give him actual explosives to test—he researched the patents and technical documents at length and deposed several Special Forces officials and employees involved in the product's manufacture.
"As far as the investigation, boy, I was amazed at some of the information they were able to find," Freeman says of Bill and Mike. "I couldn't find it. They get their information correct so that when they have to go to litigation, they are prepared and really ready to wheel and deal."
The case was resolved with a confidential settlement, one Freeman says he was pleased with. "I never expected to get a friendship out of a situation like that, but I got two," he adds. "Bill and Mike."
Freeman surprised Keating as well. With his military career over, Freeman decided to go to college and was working on his degree throughout the years it took to research the case and get it settled. "He had a horrible injury and he said, ‘I'm moving on to something else,'" Keating says. "He's just a great guy. We were really happy to do something positive for him because it helped him to re-establish himself and move on with his life.
"We get involved in people's lives at a time when they're in the worst spot in their lives and face tremendous challenges," Keating says. "You hope that some monetary assistance has at least reduced some of the worry and burden and losses they have so they can respond the best way they can.
In June 2004, Andy Blood—a 24-year-old rock climber—had just begun his dream career as an Xcel lineman, working on utility poles high above the ground. But when he climbed a pole that had rotted underground, the 800-pound beam snapped below the earth's surface and collapsed, paralyzing Blood from the waist down.
Several months later, Blood was having trouble getting his workers' compensation and sought legal help. "We almost went with another law firm," Blood says today. "But on the day of signing the contract I didn't feel right. My wife and I talked about it and went to a couple more and ended up meeting [Keating]. He's got a real presence about him. You just know he's going to do what's right. He's going to work hard for you."
Blood first sat down with one of Keating's colleagues about the workers' compensation issue. He asked Blood if he'd talked to anyone about a possible claim against the owner of the utility pole and suggested he meet Keating. If Xcel owned the pole, Blood couldn't claim anything other than workers' compensation because he was employed by Xcel. But Keating did some investigating and found this pole was actually owned by Qwest. After checking the rotten pole for himself, retaining a wood scientist from Mississippi and learning that Qwest had never inspected the pole, Keating filed a lawsuit. In discovery, Qwest disclosed that it had entered into a contract with Xcel in 1960 that said both companies had a responsibility to periodically inspect their own poles—but Qwest had never complied.
The Keatings tried the case together. "We just complemented each other," Mike says. "I did most of the medical side of the case and he did a lot of the liability. Before the trial, we used focus groups to determine how we were going to put the case together. I played Qwest, and it allowed him to think about how we would get around those strategical choices that Qwest was going to make. ... He's a pretty damn good trial lawyer. And I don't say that simply because he's my father. He has a very keen sense of issues and how to address certain evidentiary points. From a training perspective, it's very educational to watch him because there are things he does that I think are fabulous."
Wagner, Keating's partner of 35 years, says Keating's performance in this and every trial is the result of impeccable preparation. "You just can't do this from the seat of your pants," Wagner says. "He really knows where he's going with his questioning. It's very hard to ask questions, digest the answer and then modify what was going to be your next question in order to incorporate what you just heard and he's really very good at that. But the groundwork that goes into a trial—the planning and taking a deposition—that's really important and the guy's sensational at it.
"He has a great intellectual curiosity and he really is able to keep up with experts in a range of fields. I think that's where lawyers can get hurt because these guys can run circles around you. If he doesn't know what he needs to know he figures out a way to learn it before he gets in a deposition."
Throughout his trial, Blood says he felt like he was watching an episode of Law & Order. "Jack McCoy [Sam Waterston's character on the show], that's what I always tease him about," Blood says. "He blew me away."
The jury awarded Blood nearly $39 million—$18 million in punitive damages and $21 million in compensatory damages.
But Keating thought he could do even better.
"In Colorado, we have a strict punitive damage law," he explains. "It allows the trial court, after the jury rules, to either reduce or eliminate punitive damages if the defendant has stopped the bad conduct. Or, in two very narrow circumstances, the judge can increase the punitive damages up to three times compensatory damages. For our case, the very limited circumstance was that the defendant was not only willful and wanton in its conduct before the plaintiff was injured, but even after seeing the consequences of its conduct, the defendant continued the conduct all through the course of the litigation.
"Qwest had not for 44 years engaged in a periodic inspection program of any of its 157,000 poles in Colorado," Keating says. "As of the day the jury walked in with a verdict [three years after Blood's fall], Qwest still did not have a periodic inspection program."
Keating filed a motion, and the judge tripled punitive damages, bringing Blood's total award to $84 million. The case is on appeal. Asked about the significance of the case, he mentions a ripple effect he hopes it has on corporate decisions, but talks mostly about how he hopes it impacts his client.
"They'd only been married two years when this happened," he says of Blood and his wife, Carrie. "They were 24 years old, practically newlyweds. ... Andy was a young man who liked nothing more than climbing a utility pole, being 30 or 40 feet in the air, working. To him, that was heaven. He just loved that job and loved the people. I think losing that has been a devastating loss for him, but he's a good, upbeat young guy. You can't help but like him." Though he's yet to receive a penny, Blood says the case's outcome was far better than he ever expected. "It's been personal," he says of his relationship with Keating. "He's got my back beyond the courtroom."
Like anyone who tries cases, Keating says, he has known losses as well as victories. One in particular still haunts him. He represented a man named Don Anderson who became a quadriplegic after skiing off of a mound of artificial snow due to foggy visibility at Keystone Resort. The jury decided the resort had been negligent, but that negligence was not the cause of Anderson's injuries. Remembering that day, Keating's eyes fill with tears.
"I could hardly talk to him afterwards," he says. "I remember being in the courtroom and Don's comforting me. I said, ‘Don, this is crazy. I'm going to leave the courthouse, go back to my office, back to my family. I don't have the limitations you have. How is it you're comforting me?' He had such a positive view of life. I don't know that Don ever felt devastated by the loss. I remember coming back to my office, shutting the door. I wouldn't talk to anybody. That one loss was the hardest to take because he really needed help."
That philosophy of dedication to clients is the biggest thing Mike Keating says he's learned from his father about the law. "He finds it very important to give a voice to those people that have very little voice in a time when they're hurt by products, hurt by somebody else's negligence. ... He's helped me appreciate the importance of law and what it can do."