Larry R. Rogers Sr. on Personal (and Corporate) Responsibility
The Chicago attorney says everyone makes mistakes—but there’s a time for accountability
Published in 2014 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine
on January 13, 2014
Updated on January 28, 2014
Q: So why law?
A: I’m the type of person who likes to see things done the right way, and I believe very much in our judicial system. I had taken a leave of absence [from law school] for health reasons. One of my current law partners [had] just finished law school. I met him at a gas station, we became friends and he encouraged me to go back. He [later] contacted me and said they had a position for a law clerk in the firm where he worked, so he suggested that I take the job. We’ve been together ever since.
Q: And this was …?
A: Joe Power. He’s been a mentor throughout my entire legal career.
Q: Did you plan to go into personal injury law?
A: It happened organically because of my friendship with Joe. That was the type of work the firm did, and it just kind of fell into place for me because of my medical background. Before going to law school, I had worked in hospitals as a respiratory therapist. I started at the hospital in 1968, and I was there for about 10 years. I went to college during the day and worked in the evenings at the hospital. So this is a second career for me.
Q: What was different about the legal field than you expected?
A: The hard work and the thoroughness involved in practicing the kind of law that we practice. I was fortunate enough to learn from some lawyers, Mr. Power and the late John Hayes, who had a history of being successful and working hard to get the results that they wanted. But it was also very enjoyable, because you’re always learning something new.
Q: What was your childhood like growing up on Chicago’s South Side?
A: I was one of seven children. I’m the second oldest. My father was a doctor, and when he passed away, I was 14. The seven children were [then] raised by my mother; [and] my grandparents—her parents—lived with us, so they helped to raise us.
Q: As the second oldest, you probably had lots of responsibility.
A: We all pitched in and got through it. It was a happy childhood. I went to a Catholic high school that would change from a majority white to later become a majority African-American. The graduation class I was in [had] 460 students, and there were only 10 African-Americans.
Q: What was that like?
A: I was kind of used to it. The grammar school I went to was mixed, too, but it was in a neighborhood that had gotten further in the transition from white to African-American. We had the struggles that a changing racial atmosphere would foster, but we all got through it.
Q: Any mentors early in your life?
A: My mother. She was a very hardworking woman, and she did everything she could to educate her seven children in Catholic schools and private education. She worked two and three jobs at a time. Mainly working in a hospital. She worked as a medical records transcriptionist.
She was very encouraging about getting an education. I can remember her getting up at four or five in the morning to type a term paper for me when I was in undergrad school.
Q: She must have been proud when you graduated from law school.
A: She was just ecstatic. Everything paid off. And I was awarded an honorary [doctorate in public service] by my undergrad school. This was in 2010. She came to that ceremony. There were actually two honorary degrees. The other one was [an] honorary doctorate of humane letters from DePaul University College of Law.
Q: You won a record personal injury verdict at your first trial.
A: After I became a lawyer in ‘83, there [was] a case here in the office that had been here a while, and Joe Power suggested that I ask Mr. Hayes, who was the senior partner at the time, [if I] could work on the case. So I worked on that case for over a year during discovery, depositions … then tried the case with Mr. Hayes and got a $27 million verdict.
Q: Not bad for …
A: … your first trial.
Q: More recently, in 2000, you won a $55 million verdict in a med-mal case.
A: That was Mederos. Joe and I tried that case. It was a woman in her 50s who suffered bleeding after a bronchoscopy procedure. As a result of the bleeding, she became asphyxiated and wasn’t getting enough oxygen and suffered brain damage. She was left a quadriplegic.
We’re working on cases where the people are seriously injured and they’re looking for, number one, an explanation about what happened to them—because many times they don’t know. And then they need to be compensated so that they can live out the remainder of their lives in a way that’s as comfortable as possible. They usually require extensive medical care, and they’ll require it for the rest of their lives.
Q: Is there one case that stands out for you?
A: The first one was a case involving an infant formula that was deficient in chloride. It was a formula that was manufactured for babies that were allergic to cow’s milk, and it was based on a soybean formula. The company that manufactured it decided to change the formulation and reduced the amount of salt. They reduced not just the sodium but also the chloride. Chloride is a required nutrient for infants and newborns. The problem came to light when infants all around the country began being admitted to hospitals. The common denominator among all of them was that they were all on the same formula.
They were failing to thrive, and their brains were not growing as well. In newborns, they measure the head circumference on a regular basis and that’s an indication that the brain inside the skull is growing at the proper rate. These children … ended up suffering some permanent brain damage.
As a result of the incident, Congress passed the Infant Formula Act … to make sure that babies get the proper nutrition. So it was a very rewarding case to work on, and very exciting.
The company said they were reducing the salt in the formula to help prevent babies from developing hypertension. But during discovery, we found some documentation that indicated they were trying to save money in the manufacturing process, and that was why they were reducing the salt.
We asked for all of the documents on how they manufactured the product, and they said, “Well, we’ve got a warehouse full of the documents out in Elgin, Illinois,” and they said, “You can go look.” So we spent months and months in a warehouse in Elgin, in the winter with no heat.
We stumbled across one [document] that was a calculation of how much money they could save in the manufacturing process.
Q: You couldn’t just sit at your computer and go through their emails back then.
A: That’s right. It was thumbing through boxes and boxes of physical documents.
Q: How do you respond to those who complain that personal injury attorneys are driving up insurance costs with so much litigation?
A: We represent seriously injured individuals, injured as a result of the negligence of practitioners. They’re entitled to fair and complete compensation for those injuries. It’s unbelievably costly to care for a person who can no longer do anything for themselves, around the clock, 24 hours a day. We’re not causing that. We understand that physicians and health-care providers make mistakes. They’re human, just like everyone else is, but when they do make those mistakes and it causes those catastrophic injuries, the people who are injured deserve to be compensated for those injuries.
If the insurance company doesn’t pay for it, then the cost of care for that person is tossed on society. The person who should bear the responsibility for causing the injury is the person who negligently caused it, and that’s why they carry insurance to cover them when they make mistakes. That’s why people carry automobile insurance. When you make a mistake, you’re held responsible for it, so you buy the insurance to cover you.
You really need to look at the insurance companies and their price structures. Many times what you will see is that they are raising the premiums for their insureds and at the same time, they are making millions and millions of dollars. And the question becomes: Are they justified in the premiums they charge their insureds? That’s what needs to be looked at.
The insurance companies, they’ve sold a bill of goods to the legislators and voters, convincing them that it’s the lawyers that are driving it. It really isn’t.
Q: Tell me about serving as the first African-American president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association in 2000.
A: It was a pleasure for me to be in a leadership role in that organization. You get motivated to do a good job when you’re working with other people who are just as motivated and just as interested in representing these people who are severely injured.
Q: Has the legal industry moved beyond racial bias?
A: I think it still exists. I think it’s probably more from the standpoint of the opportunities that [African-American lawyers] have, to get the kinds of cases that will allow them to be successful in their careers. We have some African-American lawyers who have done well in the criminal area, and some have done well in the civil area, but not as well as they should be able to. It’s a problem because, when I started, there were few African-Americans who served on juries in civil trials, and I’ve seen that change over the years. I’ve seen more African-American lawyers get the type of cases that I was fortunate enough to be able to get early in my career, so it’s changing. But I just don’t believe it’s where it should be.
Q: Your son, Larry Rogers Jr., is following in your footsteps.
A: He works here as a lawyer. He also is a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review, the board that does property tax appeals.
Q: How about yourself? Any interest in politics?
A: No. I just want to be a good lawyer.
This interview has been condensed.