Personal injury stalwart Randi McGinn forces corporate change
Published in 2008 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine
By Laura Paskus on June 13, 2008
At age 14, Randi McGinn, a transplant from Los Angeles, stood looking out the back door of her family’s new home in Alamogordo. The Chihuahuan Desert stretched as far as the eye could see. She thought her life was over.
Now, some 30 years later, she sees only opportunity here. “One person can make all kinds of changes because it’s such a small state,” says McGinn, senior partner at McGinn, Carpenter, Montoya & Love in Albuquerque. “All you have to do is get involved, be willing to work really hard, and you can accomplish amazing things.”
McGinn has tried more than 100 plaintiff’s personal injury and criminal law cases—and lost only four. Her wins have led to increased security for convenience store employees and protection for workers asked to work in dangerous conditions. She forced the Albuquerque Police Department to become more publicly accountable.
For Michelle Delgado, McGinn and her staff are “guardian angels.” Delgado’s 33-year-old husband, Reynaldo, was burned to death in 1998 when his supervisor at a Phelps Dodge-Chino copper smelter ordered him to drive a flammable vehicle into a pool of molten slag to retrieve a ladle. When Delgado came to Albuquerque to find an attorney with expertise in workers’ comp, she met with two: McGinn, and a second attorney who told her that if anyone could take on the mining giant, it was McGinn.
After nearly six years of litigation, the case settled for a confidential amount, with the agreement that Phelps Dodge-Chino would never again order an employee to perform a similar, unnecessary task that might cause injury or death. The New Mexico Supreme Court decision also granted workers rights beyond those outlined in the Workers’ Compensation Act.
“I don’t think I would have been able to go through it [alone],” says Delgado. “When you’re in a big lawsuit like that—and you can’t talk about it, you can’t talk about the details because there is a lot of confidentiality—her staff was a huge support for me. …They were very professional, and they stood their ground.”
“Randi’s trial skills are almost mythical,” says Clay Campbell, a former associate at McGinn Carpenter who is now the Bernalillo County district court judge for the Second Judicial District of New Mexico. “Every story that you’ve heard? She is that good. And every story you’ve heard, she’s got something left in reserve—you haven’t seen her best.”
After finishing law school at the University of New Mexico and taking the three-day bar exam, “pumped up on adrenaline” the day after giving birth to her daughter, Heather, in 1980 (with husband and recently appointed New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels), McGinn spent a year at a large firm. She moved from there to the district attorney’s office, where she stayed for three years.
“I admire prosecutors who can do it for their whole lives, because it was like eating pain every day,” she says. “Such horrible things happen to people, and you really can’t get them what they want—which is, of course, their loved one back if it’s a homicide. I guess my curse is that I’m an inveterate fixer; I always want to fix the problem, not just put someone in prison.”
In 1985, with a business plan in hand, McGinn decided to launch her own practice. The problem? Finding a bank willing to extend a loan to a woman. “It was a woman loan officer who said, ‘Look, honey, you need to go work for somebody else because we’re not going to give you’… I think I wanted a $10,000 line of credit,” she says. “So I changed banks, got a line of credit from someone else and went and did it anyway.”
Today, the women at McGinn Carpenter—yes, it is an all-female firm—practice “transformational law,” which McGinn says is guided by the belief that the law should do more than simply compensate people. Sitting in her sunny conference room in downtown Albuquerque, McGinn describes the moment when she understood that for many victims, payment is not what they are seeking.
After a client’s son had been killed in a motorcycle accident, the company settled the case for the policy limits. But the mother would not claim the check. Finally, after prodding from McGinn, she came to the office, but wouldn’t touch the check. “How can I take this from the death of my son?” the woman said.
“That’s when it first occurred to me: If all we were doing was getting people compensation, then the law wasn’t working correctly,” she says. “So I started looking for ways to ask for more than just the money.”
McGinn began asking clients to make a wish list. Most people, she says, wanted not only an apology but assurances that the same problems would not cause harm to other people. With a wish list in hand, McGinn would then approach the company and map out a strategy for negotiations. “You say to the company, ‘If you are unwilling to make any changes, we will start negotiations at $5 million. If you make the following 10 changes, we will start settlement negotiations at $2 million.’ And why I like it is, it instantly tells you what kind of company you are dealing with.” She slaps her palm on the conference table. “Instantly.”
About 40 percent of the companies agree to start with the lower settlement number, she says. The majority point out that insurance companies will cover the damages, while the company would have to foot the bill for internal changes. “Even though they know it’s going to keep other people from being killed, they say, ‘We’ll start at the higher number,'” she says. “And from my perspective, once I know that’s who I’m dealing with, I’m going to go to trial and try to kick their butts. I mean, that’s just it.”
She pushes back from the table and lets loose another laugh. “It’s basically, ‘I see who you are. OK, so it’s on. That’s how I feel about it, and now I’m going to have the jury make you do what’s right.'”
McGinn is not afraid to make a witness, particularly one who is lying, look foolish. She once cross-examined a witness until he threw up; she left another covered in Post-it notes and clutching a grapefruit to his chest. The witness was testifying that once visible in an X-ray, a tumor could not be treated. But in his own private practice, he treated breast cancer patients, many of whom had tumors diagnosed during X-rays. Once she established the witness as a hypocrite, she had some fun with him. She had the witness hold the grapefruit at approximately where the tumor was, then used the Post-its to show how the cancerous cells break off the tumor and migrate throughout the body.
“The point was, every time the jury thought of this guy, all they could think of was him standing up there with all these Post-its and holding this grapefruit,” she says. The other side, meanwhile, couldn’t come up with any objections to stop her. “It was really fun, and of course, it destroyed his credibility.”
Another target for McGinn has been the convenience store industry. In 2002, an Allsup’s cashier in Hobbs—working alone after dark on her second night on the job—was kidnapped, raped and stabbed 57 times. The mother of three was left for dead in a field. “We are suing as a result of that, and their practices over the last 20 or 30 years that have caused at least a dozen people to be killed in their stores,” she says, “and lots of people to be raped and robbed and beaten.” The case settled in April 2008 for an undisclosed amount, just minutes before a jury was set to award $51 million to the victim’s family.
Because of her work over the past two decades, most convenience store chains in New Mexico have changed their policies, keeping two clerks on staff, employing a security guard, installing bullet-proof glass or simply closing the store after dark. She championed the cause before the state’s Environmental Improvement Board, which sets regulations related to the environment and consumer protection. Allsup’s, which had resisted protecting its evening-shift employees in the past, promised to comply with the state’s safety regulations as part of the April 2008 settlement agreement.
Two cases she tried—one involving a student who died when his car was T-boned during a high-speed police chase, the other concerning a suicidal man chased and killed by a SWAT team—caused the Albuquerque Police Department to change its policies. The department now requires officers to tape-record high-speed chases, fingerprint all weapons at the scene when police encounter suicidal citizens and provide information and counseling to family members of citizens shot by the police.
“Whatever she does, she does it with complete, 100 percent passion,” says New Mexico Second District Judge Linda Vanzi. “When she takes on any case, she’s going to do it with the idea of making things better—it doesn’t matter how small it is or how big it is.”
Vanzi and McGinn teach together at the University of New Mexico School of Law and the National Institute for Trial Advocacy and serve on a state supreme court committee. “Her work isn’t just in the courts,” says Vanzi. “It’s also behind the scenes. It’s with legislators. It’s encouraging women to run for office. She does more than just sit in her office and practice law.”
McGinn also lectures on technology in the courtroom. Gone are the days, she says, when Clarence Darrow would spend days giving a closing argument; today’s jurors are used to getting their information visually. And fast. McGinn was the first attorney to use a PowerPoint presentation in a New Mexico courtroom. Her firm has pioneered its use, animating presentations, using photography from the scenes and creating mini-movies that help the jury understand what happened in the case.
Campbell says McGinn has inspired countless lawyers. “A lot of men are inspired by her, and if they are not inspired by her, the truth is, I think a lot are intimidated by her—which in turn inspires the younger generation of lawyers. Because it is an adversarial process, and I think a lot of people would like to be that intimidating.”
McGinn doesn’t mind the rap. Not if it helps get results for her clients. “I liken it to almost like being an alchemist. You take somebody’s story, and if you tell it truthfully and well, you turn it into justice.”
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