King of the Long Shots
After Dennis Schoville survived a bullet to the head, anything was possible
Published in 2008 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine
on May 18, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
When navigating his car along the streets and highways of San Diego, Dennis Schoville likes to play it safe. “If I see older model Ford Explorers zipping down the road, I try to get as far away as possible,” he says. Schoville isn’t being superstitious; the attorney is as familiar with the popular SUV as the engineers who designed it.
In a landmark 2004 victory, he broke Ford’s winning streak of 13 consecutive defense verdicts in Explorer rollover cases. Schoville delivered the automaker a $368.6 million blow for plaintiff Benetta Buell-Wilson, a driver whose Explorer rolled over and left her paralyzed from the waist down. Unfazed by Ford’s impenetrable record on similar cases, Schoville says, “I knew the Explorer had stability issues, and when I learned how reasonably Benetta was driving, I just had to take the case.”
The founding partner of San Diego’s Schoville and Arnell admits that he isn’t easily deterred by unfavorable odds. Over the past three decades, Schoville has obtained more than 30 multimillion-dollar settlements and verdicts in a wide variety of civil cases, and earned the San Diego Trial Lawyers Association’s “Outstanding Trial Advocacy Award” on four separate occasions. In 2004, Schoville was voted one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Attorneys in California” by the Los Angeles Daily Journal.
His reputation within the San Diego legal community is perhaps best summarized by Judge Harrison Hollywood, a former defense attorney with 10 years on the bench. “I can honestly say that Schoville is the finest plaintiff’s attorney in San Diego County,” he says. “He’s prepared at all times and his presence in front of a jury is outstanding.”
William Low, senior partner at Higgs Fletcher & Mack and immediate past president of the San Diego chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, has opposed Schoville on many cases. “Dennis Schoville is the kind of attorney who can fight incredibly hard in the courtroom and still end the day with a gracious handshake and a genuine smile,” he says.
At 62, Schoville is a tall man with a formal demeanor. But the Wisconsin native’s Midwestern friendliness remains unchanged even after years of living on the West Coast. Maybe that’s what makes him seemingly powerless to turn down cases involving human tragedy.
In 1988, Schoville accepted the personal injury case of a man who, while inebriated, pulled out in front of a commercial truck and was paralyzed in the resulting collision. Considering that the plaintiff’s blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit at the time of the accident, even Schoville deemed the case against the trucker and the trucking company almost “unwinnable.” “But when I met with the man,” Schoville recalls, “his horrible situation really touched me.” The attorney bucked the odds and successfully argued that the truck should have been able to slow down in time to avoid the collision, which had rendered his client quadriplegic. Furthermore, the jury agreed with Schoville’s assertion that his client couldn’t have seen the truck approaching because the driver had failed to turn on his headlights. After a six-week trial, Schoville brought in a $3 million verdict for his client (later reduced to $1.8 million).
Schoville has challenged conventional wisdom on many tough cases, but his most extraordinary victory took place outside of the courtroom. The attorney holds up a souvenir from his time as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam—a flight helmet—and explains, “This is where the bullet entered just above my ear, after which it followed the curvature of the helmet and exited here at the top.” The path he describes, clearly delineated by two bullet holes that remain in the helmet, reveal Schoville’s shockingly close brush with death.
In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, Schoville was a 23-year-old helicopter flight section commander, leading his group of aircraft into an area known as the Black Forest. “It was an area where there was heavy confrontation with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese,” Schoville says. “I was the lead scout pilot on a mission dropping smoke grenades to mark landing zones so troop ships could deploy ground forces.” Schoville’s helicopter was shot down, but he managed to land his aircraft in the marshes under heavy gunfire. During the attack, a bullet tore through one of his legs, causing nerve damage that left him hospitalized for nine months. The bullet that perforated his helmet only grazed his skull. While the leg injury forced Schoville to take military retirement, the miracle of surviving a shot to the head was not lost on the young pilot. “Ever since the day I saw the bullet holes in that helmet, I’ve felt unbelievably lucky.”
When Schoville’s military career was cut short, he retired as a captain in the Army Reserve and took home a massive collection of honors. Over the course of his service, he received two Silver Stars, one Distinguished Flying Cross, one Bronze Star, several Air Medals (one with Valor) and three Purple Hearts.
Upon re-entry into civilian life, Schoville enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Five years earlier, as an undergraduate in the advanced ROTC flight program at the University of Wisconsin, Schoville took the LSATs and was ready to start law school. “But Uncle Sam had different plans for me,” Schoville says. “The day I graduated—June 5, 1967—I received my orders for Vietnam.” Because pilots were in great demand at the time and he had flight training, the new graduate’s petition for deferment had been denied.
Schoville earned his J.D. in 1973, and immediately went on to complete Northwestern University’s LL.M. program. Fresh out of school, Schoville began work at the powerhouse firm Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye (later Gray, Cary Ware & Freidenrich) and, within six months, was trying cases on his own.
Schoville’s experience as a pilot proved invaluable at Gray Cary as he quickly absorbed the complex engineering information of aviation cases, and his military background was an asset when dealing with the firm’s client roster, which included defense contractors like Sikorsky Aircraft, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Group. But in 1994, the attorney drew on his experience as a military pilot for an entirely different kind of case—a suit concerning the sexual assault of a fellow officer.
The highly controversial case pitted Schoville’s client Paula Coughlin, a Navy lieutenant, against the parties responsible for organizing the Tailhook Association’s 1991 convention at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. Coughlin claimed that Tailhook organizers and Hilton officials failed to provide adequate security at the notoriously raucous gathering of Marine and Naval aviators, leaving her vulnerable to an attack by a large group of drunken officers in the hotel hallway.
Schoville initially intended to refer Coughlin to another attorney, but as he began presenting her case to colleagues, he would get so impassioned that he decided to take the case himself. Impressed by her integrity and talent as a pilot, he took the case on contingency. “I would have been honored to have her as a co-pilot when I was flying in a combat situation,” Schoville says.
Schoville was determined to help Coughlin regain the sense of dignity that was stolen from her on the night of the Tailhook incident. While both attorney and client shared a dedication to the military, Coughlin found it necessary to resign from the Navy months before the trial, stating that attacks on her character made it impossible for her to continue to serve her country. “To this day, certain people I know from the military still question why I took the case,” Schoville says. “Some even consider it traitorous.”
Rather than get bogged down in the debate about military protocol in sexual assault cases and gender relations within the organization, Schoville focused his argument on the basic premise that Hilton’s three security guards were insufficient to patrol the 5,000 revelers. After a six-week trial against Hilton, the jury awarded Coughlin $1.7 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. The win was unexpected and helped to break open a culture of silence surrounding military sexual misconduct.
High-pressure trials like Tailhook have defined Schoville’s legal career. “I still think about the missions in Vietnam, and it makes me more willing to roll the dice and take the risks in the courtroom,” says Schoville. “I just look at that helmet, and everything else in my life is gravy.”