An Attorney and a Gentleman
Rob Adams represents big auto clients ... nicely
Published in 2008 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
By Allie Johnson on October 21, 2008
When Rob Adams walks into a courtroom, he’s not always Mr. Popular: he’s asked to go up against plaintiffs whose lives have been shaken by major tragedies. Some have lost children, others have suffered life-threatening injuries or have been paralyzed in vehicle accidents. And Adams usually represents the big companies accused of being at fault.
It’s not easy. But his reputation for handling these types of cases with skill, tact and compassion has companies such as Ford, Kia and Mitsubishi running to Adams when they’re hit with big lawsuits from plaintiffs seeking high-dollar damages.
“What I try to do, and I think it’s worked, is if you can get the jury to look at a case almost like a [crime scene] investigator who’s examining all the evidence and trying to come up with the right result, as opposed to somebody who’s thinking with their heart, then you can do it,” says Adams, a partner at the international firm Shook Hardy & Bacon.
But that doesn’t mean Adams avoids emotion in the courtroom. He acknowledges a sad situation in his opening statements. “I always believe that when you have these types of tragic situations, you have to explain to the jury that it’s OK that you feel these emotions, that, in fact, I feel bad for [the plaintiff] too, and that we’re all human,” Adams says. “But at the same time, I stress that they need to follow the law.”
Take the toxic tort case Adams tried in Arkansas in the fall of 2006. A college student, Michael “Blu” Green, and his parents sued Alpharma Inc., a global pharmaceutical company that makes the arsenic-based chicken feed additive Roxarsone, used by Tyson Foods and other meat producers to control parasites and prevent disease in poultry. The Greens claimed that chicken litter, tainted with arsenic from the feed, released harmful dust when it was spread as a fertilizer on fields near the town of Prairie Grove. That dust, carried by the wind, the Greens’ lawyers argued, caused the son to develop a rare form of leukemia when he was just 15. The boy had to undergo treatment—chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant—that helped him beat the cancer, but had harsh side effects that possibly prevented him from ever fathering children.
Adams acknowledged that it was a devastating illness—but told the jury that the plaintiffs did not show that Alpharma’s product had caused the cancer. Adams argued that Roxarsone had been used safely across the United States for 40 years, and he pointed out that the plaintiffs’ attorneys presented no proof the young man had ever been tested for arsenic exposure. And Adams’ trump card was this fact: The Arkansas Department of Health had investigated and found that the incidence of leukemia in Prairie Grove was no higher than what would be expected (according to statewide data). After a three-week trial, it took the jury just 21 minutes to return a verdict—in favor of Alpharma.
Adams’ father, Richard F. Adams—a trial lawyer who’s still practicing at age 76 at The Law Firm of Slagle, Bernard & Gorman—points to the Alpharma case as one of his son’s most impressive. “It’s was a high-pressure case because you have the potential of having to try 150 cases,” the elder Adams says, noting that other plaintiffs had lined up to sue Alpharma. “If you have a win first on the defendant’s side, it becomes more difficult for the other side to dump half a million dollars in expenses into it. I thought the claims were a little farfetched, and it looks like maybe the jury thought so, too.”
Larry Ward, a senior partner at the firm Shughart Thompson & Kilroy, recently worked on a case with Adams and admires his courtroom demeanor. “He’s got it all,” Ward says. “He’s bright, he’s articulate, he’s quick, and he’s got a personality that juries love.”
But if you listen to Adams, it’s what happens outside of the courtroom that’s key. As a lawyer just out of the University of Missouri-Columbia Law School 20 years ago, he joined Shook Hardy and discovered the value of hard work. “I learned that there’s no replacement for preparation,” Adams says, “that in order to succeed in a case or a hearing or a trial, you have to be prepared—and sometimes overly prepared.”
His Boy Scout philosophy paid off in the trial Ward worked on with Adams, which involved a tractor-trailer that had smashed into a car carrying a family on the way to a family reunion and 50th anniversary celebration. Adams represented Pro Logistics Inc. “He was defending three death cases in one courtroom appearance with exceptionally difficult net liability,” Ward says. “It was really a question of doing the best you can under the most adverse of circumstances. He knew the rules and the case very well, and he worked exceptionally hard at night getting ready for the next day. The jury returned a verdict against the defendants for a total of $15 million, which, under the circumstances, I thought was really quite excellent.”
In addition to product liability, Adams, who Missouri Lawyers Weekly named the 2006 Lawyer of the Year, also tries insurance cases for companies such as Lloyd’s of London and intellectual property cases for companies such as Microsoft. If there’s one common thread across his cases, Adams says, it’s this: “They’re all complex cases that could potentially involve a lot of money.”
But Adams isn’t all work. When he’s not traveling around the country trying cases, he sticks close to home—a 1920s Tudor in Kansas City’s homey, urban Brookside neighborhood—and spends time with his wife, Sue, a landscape artist, and their four children. While on a vacation this past summer, Adams took his sons, 10-year-old Walter and 13-year-old Henry, camping at Glacier National Park in Montana. And he took his daughters, 16-year-old Avery, a high school junior, and Charlotte, a student at the University of Kansas, to Vienna to sightsee and attend an opera. Adams also likes to do yard work and hang out with his two dogs, a Labradoodle and a Standard poodle, who are failures at keeping the squirrels and rabbits out of Adams’ vegetable gardens.
Adams’ parents live nearby, too, and he often talks shop with his dad. Adams says meeting his father’s lawyer and judge friends when he was a child—and even watching his father conduct depositions—influenced his career choice. His father never pushed him to become a lawyer, but when Adams changed his mind about going to medical school and decided to attend law school instead, his father had a hunch it would be a good fit. “He’s the consummate trial lawyer—he’s persuasive, but not intimidating,” Richard Adams says. “He’s better than I am.”
But despite all of his successes representing some of the largest corporations in the world, Adams insists he’s just a hard worker—not a hotshot. “It’s one thing if you’re a hired gun from New York or Chicago,” he says, laughing. “But a hired gun from Kansas City? I don’t think so.”
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