An Attorney and a Gentleman
David Casey’s cool and composed approach to law has earned him some of the largest settlements and awards in San Diego history
Published in 2007 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine
on May 18, 2007
Updated on October 21, 2016
You notice the tone of David Casey’s voice immediately. Even when he’s talking about an emotional topic, such as the American prisoners of war used as slave laborers during World War II, the words come out in a calm and even manner.
This serene 57-year-old is a partner in Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt & Penfield, the same San Diego firm his late father, David Casey Sr., founded in 1947.
“My dad was the best friend in my life,” Casey says. “I remember, at a very young age, listening to his stories about the law during Sunday dinner. When I got older, he’d take me to the courthouse with him and then I’d realize that what he was actually telling us was about the cases he’d be trying. He was using us as a sounding board for his opening statements.”
Casey earned his bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in 1971 and received his law degree from the University of San Diego School of Law three years later. “When it was time for me to take the exam, my dad was president of the state bar,” Casey says with a laugh. “I figured if I didn’t pass, I’d just leave the country.”
Fleeing the country proved unnecessary, but it would be some time before Casey would feel comfortable standing on the same footing as his father. “So I went into other areas,” he says. “I must have done some 50 jury trials before I felt I could stand up with him.”
When the time came to specialize, Casey says, his father influenced him once again.
“Personal injury and wrongful death are not easy areas in which to practice,” he says. “You have to be a lawyer, and an expert in orthopedics, in neurosurgery, in chemistry and physics and a dozen other fields, as well as being counselor and therapist. But this is one of the areas that gives you a real chance to make a quantitative and qualitative difference in someone’s life. My father really emphasized the satisfaction of helping people get derailed lives back on track.”
Casey’s career as a plaintiffs’ lawyer has led him into confrontations with some of the giants of the political and economic world. Several years ago, Casey represented eight aging former POWs in a class action lawsuit against Mitsubishi Corp., Nippon Steel Corp. and several other large Japanese firms that, the plaintiffs argued, had forced them to work as slave laborers while being held as prisoners during World War II. Many died, and while survivors of similar situations in Nazi Germany had won reparations, Japanese POWs were all but forgotten because of the 1951 peace treaty that, some argued, precluded reparations.
“These were heavyweights, with heavyweight law firms behind them,” says Casey. It didn’t help that the U.S. government supported the Japanese companies. “We fought this case for years, all the way to the Supreme Court, where we eventually lost. But as much of my life as that took up, I’d do it again in a moment. These men were heroes in the truest sense, and it was a noble and righteous cause.”
“That comes as no surprise to those of us who know David,” says San Diego attorney Ed Chapin of Chapin Wheeler. Chapin, who has known Casey since he was admitted to practice in the San Diego City Attorney’s office (and knew Casey Sr. before that), says his single descriptor for Casey would be “gentleman.”
“Don’t misunderstand,” Chapin says. “He’s a fierce competitor, but he also knows how to be appropriately aggressive without crossing over the line, and I think that and his absolute sincerity in what he says and what he believes are key components of his success. Shortcomings? Sure—his golf swing still needs work.”
Asked to name his own shortcomings, Casey laughs at the golf comment, but then gets serious.
“I think I have had a tendency to spread myself too thin,” he says. “As trial lawyers, we’ve faced a number of attacks on the civil justice system, in California and elsewhere, and I’ve been too involved in defending against those and perhaps not paid as much attention to other things as I should have.”
As president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America in 2004, Casey had a forum to confront both public misapprehensions about what trial lawyers actually do, and a failure on the part of the profession to communicate effectively. Interactions with political leaders taught him, as he recalls Sen. Orrin Hatch summing up, that “the trial bar has lost the argument.”
“So we met with trial lawyers’ associations across the country,” he says. “And we pointed out that we could no longer focus our attention on Washington. Because if we lost the public, we’d lose the juries, and we’d lose the votes that could end up restricting people’s rights. Now I think the profession takes a much more proactive approach.”
Casey has served as president of the Western Trial Lawyers Association and a member of two invitation-only groups, the International Society of Barristers and International Academy of Trial Lawyers. People like Ed Chapin lavish him with accolades, and San Diego attorney Virginia Nelson, who has known him since the early 1980s, says, “David is such a success because he takes his causes very seriously, but never himself.”
Ask Casey what he’s proudest of, and he answers without hesitation.
“When I die, the one thing I’ll be the most proud of is the part I played in setting up the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund,” he says. “We were in shock, as was the rest of the country, and all I could think was, ‘What could we, as a profession, do?’ I thought the best thing we could do was be a part of the healing process, and I thought the best way to do that was to ask our membership not to bring legal actions, but to let things settle first. It’s intriguing, if you think about it, that an organization which stands for the right to bring action in court should ask its membership to honor a trial moratorium, but the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I was also an early advocate of setting up a compensation fund, and I wanted it to be pro bono—I felt strongly, and still do, that no attorney should benefit from this event.”
“The minute I heard about the proposed ATLA moratorium,” says Chapin, “my first thought was that Casey was leading that charge. That’s just him.”
Casey is equally devoted to his family. He knows a number of people who have put career first and paid a steep price.
“Being a successful trial lawyer and a successful family man are at cross purposes,” he says. “My father tried hundreds of cases and was very good at what he did, but it cost him my mother, and that had a tremendous impact on me. I think, if you reach the end and have had success in the law but have failed at marriage and family, your success is without depth.”
Here’s Casey’s real successes: His 17-year-old son, Dave, is, as Casey puts it, “in love with the written word,” and has just been accepted at the University of Chicago, while 16-year-old Shannon displays a passion for acting.
Casey and his firm continue to fight the battles for the little guys against the big, taking on American Honda in a landmark case regarding inappropriate allocation of Hondas to area dealerships, and continues to fight the battle against Exxon over the infamous Valdez spill in Alaska. He admits he originally wanted to skip college and become a tennis pro, but knew the law was where his destiny lay. Although, he admits, politics has always held an appeal.
“I like the idea of statesmen dealing with policy on proper issues,” he says. “But I’ve never liked the politicization of issues. I served under Gray Davis on the Judicial Appointments Committee, and experiences like that gave me a tremendous respect for senators and others who are working hard to deal with difficult issues, even if I didn’t agree with their position. But I think politics is something for another lifetime. Anyway, [my wife] Lisa would put her foot down on that in a hurry. And she’d be right. Time away from family, which politics demands to an extreme, is time you can’t ever get back again.”
Before heading off to another appointment, Casey again hearkens back to his father. “He was a giant,” he says a bit wistfully. “My best friend and my most important audience, and he always believed in taking the high road. I’ve tried very hard to have a career he’d be proud of.”
“Every father wants their child to exceed the accomplishments of their lifetime,” says Chapin. “And—meaning nothing but the greatest respect for David’s father—I think David has done that. If his father were here today, I think he’d admit it as well.”