The Surf King of the Hudson River

Trial lawyer Mike Kessler rides giants in Maui when he’s not winning giant verdicts at home

Published in 2007 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine

By Tom Callahan on August 22, 2007

Albany is a city that has more snow shovels per capita than surfboards, and the Hudson has never been known for its gnarly curls. But Albany is home to one surfer who’s made some pretty big waves. 

“I may be the Surf King of the Hudson River,” says Mike Kessler, a proud member of the Association of Surfing Lawyers. 
Nobody calls this 59-year-old “dude,” though. Since 1990, Kessler has won nine personal injury and malpractice cases with recoveries over $5 million, five of which were more than $8.5 million. He has had a total of 14 cases with recoveries over $2 million, enough success that even he has trouble keeping them all straight.
“If you pressed me to figure out the 14 of them, I’d have trouble,” he says. “The five over $8.5 million I could probably list.”
One of those cases was Auer v. State of New York in which Kessler won a $19.1 million verdict in 2000 for a young woman catastrophically injured in a car crash on a state road. The New York Law Journal described Auer as “at least $7 million” larger than any verdict ever rendered in the Court of Claims. The Appellate Division not only upheld the decision, but increased the damages by $750,000 in 2001, making it one of the largest personal injury judgments in New York state history.
Since 1991, Kessler has been a partner in Rosenblum, Ronan, Kessler & Sarachan, focusing exclusively on representing catastrophically injured plaintiffs. 
“I don’t operate the way most lawyers operate,” Kessler says. He estimates that he has been in charge of only four cases in recent years. “I admire, frankly, the people who have 100 files and can go from one case to the next. I can’t do that.”
Instead, Kessler has the freedom to spend all the time and resources he needs to get the best results for his client. “It’s a lot easier to make a million-dollar case into a $5 million case than it is to find another four million-dollar cases floating around,” he says.  “I’d rather spend the money to make a case from a 90-percent winner to a 99-percent winner.”
And that means he won’t let himself be stretched thin. “When a case comes to the top of my pile, I devote 98 percent of my time to it until it is finished,” he says.
L. Michael Mackey of Feeney, Centi and Mackey has known Kessler for more than 20 years. He says, “Most impressive to me is his trial preparation, which is incredible,” says Mackey. “Many of these cases are complicated medical malpractice cases that have been turned down by other highly esteemed lawyers. Mike is relentless in investigating every aspect of a case and uses only the most respected professionals as experts.”
He may not take on many clients, but when he talks about them, Kessler’s voice wells up with emotion.
“I can almost never talk to my clients because they are all severely brain injured in some fashion,” he says. “This is their one shot and if I screw it up, they are cooked. Their quality of life and longevity is dependent upon me, and that is very stressful. I am not going to leave anything on the table when preparing a case.”
Kessler gets close to the families of his clients during cases that sometimes take years to adjudicate, and the grateful families often send birthday cards and photos for years afterward. 
In 1990, Kessler reached a settlement with Albany Medical Center Hospital and Albany Medical College after a month of trial. They agreed to pay reportedly between $6 million and $7.5 million in damages to a paralyzed child, Jamia Holt, for failing to promptly diagnose a rare form of meningitis. It was the largest award ever in a medical malpractice suit in Albany County.
“I just spoke to Jamia Holt’s guardian the other day,” Kessler says. “Jamia is now 23 years old. She was 7 or 8 at the time of the settlement. And now, because she has the resources and great care, she is able to walk with a walker. Nobody said she would ever be able to walk. That is something nobody predicted.” 
Because of his clients’ long-term medical needs, Kessler is vehemently opposed to capping damages in liability cases. “Care can make a difference in longevity and it makes a difference what the damages are,” he says.
“Look, I am not looking for sympathy for these people,” he continues. “They can get all the sympathy they want somewhere else. I am looking to empower a jury to say that, by what we are doing, we can make a difference for these people. They have tough lives.”
He describes his strength as a lawyer as “crystallizing what the issue is in lay terms and simplifying that issue.” He also says that he is “not afraid to think out of the box.” But the work can sometimes hit close to home.
“I’d go home after seeing these families when my two kids were younger and give them a big hug,” he says. “You appreciate what you have and it has a profound effect on you.”
Kessler bought a place in Wailea on the south side of Maui a few years back. He tries to go there for a few months each winter with his wife of 39 years, Barbara. But when Kessler escapes to Hawaii, it is not just to flee Albany’s infamous snow or work on a tan. He’s there for those waves.
Kessler avoids the really big 70-footers that Maui is famous for, aiming instead for waves that are just a little over his head. But it’s still dangerous. A surfer needs to know his skills and find the magical place on the wave that Kessler calls “the surf spot.” 
That spot can be hard to find. Once, he needed 25 stitches in his shin after hitting a rock. Another time a doctor had to remove 50 to 60 sea urchin spines from his foot. 
Kessler began surfing relatively late in life at 50. “We had been going to Hawaii on vacation for five, six years,” he says. “I kept seeing all these fliers that said, ‘We can teach anybody to surf—non-swimmers, cowards, beginners.’ And I was all three.”
Not that surfing was a new idea for him. He first got the desire after seeing the movie The Endless Summer in the 1960s. Like many kids of that time, surfing posters adorned the walls of his room. He decided to give it a try while taking a break from Albany Law School in the early 1970s. He took his wife on a vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There, armed only with a paperback instruction manual and an old board he bought for $100, he ventured out to meet the ocean.
The ocean won.
“It was a disaster,” he recalls. “I didn’t know where the wave broke. I tried for like an hour and had no clue what I was doing. I am ever grateful to my wife because I wouldn’t have the nerve to do it, but she went back and claimed we couldn’t afford the surfboard because we were newly married. And she got them to give us our money back.”
Today, Kessler fares a little better when he meets the ocean, but the law still comes first. Even while Kessler is in Hawaii, he’s on the clock. On a typical day in paradise, he gets up early and has to make all his business calls to the mainland by eight or nine o’clock. Then he surfs until lunch, comes home and works on depositions and exhibits for the rest of the day.
The next morning, though, you can be sure to find the Surf King of the Hudson River back out on the waves.
“It’s hard to explain,” he says. “My wife doesn’t understand how I can go out every day and spend three to four hours at it, but there is a fascination to it. You get that ride. And afterwards, as you are paddling back out, you can’t wait to catch another wave.”  

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