Defending the Product
Cincinnati litigator Carolyn Taggart takes the sting out of facts that might trip up a jury
Published in 2015 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
on December 3, 2014
Updated on December 4, 2014
Nicholson’s in downtown Cincinnati at noon, with its tiled floors and high ceilings, is lively and noisy, the kind of tavern where a group of old law-school friends could meet and not worry about laughing too loudly or being overheard.
“I have a group of attorneys from the class of 1978, and this is one of the places where we’ve met just to get a beer and get caught up,” says Carolyn Taggart—Candi to those who know her. It’s also where her University of Cincinnati College of Law class made plans last year for its 35th reunion. “We had to have several planning meetings leading up to that,” she says with a laugh.
From a booth, Taggart’s voice cuts through the din. It’s the same clear voice that cuts through the opposing arguments, emotion and potential confusion in a juror’s mind.
It has served Taggart well in state and federal court, earning her a long list of honors, major board memberships, and a partnership at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur. She has served for more than 20 years on the Cincinnati Bar Association’s grievance committee, and she helps administer the foundation her younger son founded before his death four years ago at the age of 24.
Taggart is an easy lunch companion—and a good storyteller. She says she enjoys being on her feet in a courtroom, addressing a jury. And yet, over a plate of grilled salmon and greens, Taggart explains that when it comes to her performance in court, she doesn’t like the idea that what she presents to a jury is a story per se.
“I know that there is a prevailing thought that you have to weave a story in order to get the jurors interested,” she says. “And I can understand that you have to present your position in a way that’s interesting, because if it’s not interesting, they’re going to tune out.
“But to me, ‘a story’ implies some kind of embellishment, and that’s where I don’t know that it’s my job to embellish the facts. My job is to present the facts and the law that accompanies those facts in an interesting way, and then, if all goes well, the jury will decide that your position is the correct position.”
Over the years, Taggart has tried any number of cases in which the overarching narrative plays so highly to emotions that it becomes her job to take it apart—and call attention to the pieces. Her commercial clients have included a silicone manufacturer blamed when breast implants were called into question; insurance companies; the makers of cranes and other heavy equipment; and attorneys accused of malpractice. She has handled injury/death cases involving automobiles, swimming pool slides and ladders; and, early in her career, she was part of a team representing a defendant in the notorious The Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, where 11 people were trampled to death in a mad dash for general-admission seating.
Taggart started out as a junior attorney at Rendigs, Fry, Kiely & Dennis, becoming the first female partner there in 1985. In 2005, she moved to Porter Wright’s Cincinnati office. She represents both sides in commercial litigation, in addition to her products liability defense work.
“I have good friends [plaintiff’s attorneys] who will give me some good-natured grief, asking me, ‘Why don’t you come over to our side? Why don’t you wear the white hat for a change?’ My logic is that accidents happen and people do get injured, and a lot of the times that’s not the fault of the product. So I feel comfortable defending the product or the company, making sure that the compensation to the injured person is fair.”
After the 1979 The Who concert, Taggart was on the team representing one of the security companies that worked the day of the event. In her opinion, her client was not given adequate information to properly assess the crowd.
“[There were] months and months of investigations and depositions,” she recalls, “and the litigation that ensues. It’s a spirited litigation, and you don’t want to lose sight of the fact that it was a tragedy.”
But in the wake of a tragedy, there’s usually the question of who’s going to pay for it.
Sometimes, scientific research hasn’t caught up to the issue. Breast implants, for example. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the public started hearing there was something wrong with them.
“Silicone,” she says, “was one of the first cases that really got me involved in litigation that was going on nationwide. There was a multidistrict litigation that started in Cincinnati, and I represented a small silicone manufacturer [Bioplasty] out of Minnesota. … There were two very different camps of science, experts on both side of the case—all kinds of scientists who were expressing differing opinions on whether leaking silicone could lead to harmful effects for women.”
The plaintiffs won the day. But later studies failed to find links between silicone and various diseases.
“It’s generally accepted [today] in the medical community that silicone was not the reason for the health problems that some of the people who’d had breast implants suffered,” Taggart says. “That’s pretty much put to bed. At first there was a ban on silicone, and now silicone can be used.”
David Winchester Peck, with Rendigs Fry, where Taggart started out as a trial attorney, says she was always a natural. “She was really good in the courtroom,” he recalls. “She had a wonderful rapport with the jury; she got along with all of the judges. I never had concerns or issues with Candi getting upset with some of the antics of the opposing counsel. She was a good person to have sitting next to you.
“One of the first cases she had, she was defending an employer against claims of discrimination. It was a very difficult case and took several weeks. She ended up getting a defense verdict, and the media interviewed her right after the jury announced the verdict. She came out and said, ‘I am just pleased as punch.’ We teased her for a long time after that. ‘Candi is just pleased as punch.’ When she left our firm and went to Porter Wright, it was our loss and their gain.”
Fred Erny, with Ulmer & Berne, chairs the steering committee for the Cincinnati Bar Association’s Trial Advocacy Institute, where Taggart has volunteered for 15 years as a faculty member, helping young attorneys. He has been both a student and a colleague of Taggart’s at the institute.
“I remember getting stylistic advice from her and encouragement,” Erny says. “I was probably a fourth- or fifth-year lawyer. There were two or three people in that year’s Trial Advocacy Institute who really had an impact on me at [that] time, and Candi was one of them.”
In one demo trial in 2014, he recalls Taggart examining a defendant who had filed an insurance claim after his family business burned down. The man was being accused, essentially, of arson. Adding to the burden of defending his character was the fact that he had an extramarital affair. “She was very delicate and almost motherly when she brought [the affair] out,” he recalls. “She demonstrated very well to the students the skill of taking the sting out of bad facts.”
Taggart was raised in Springfield, Ohio. Her father was a lawyer who wore a variety of hats—civil litigation, probate and estate, “the whole gamut,” Taggart says. He brought his daughter to his office and sometimes to court, where she watched hearings and occasionally an entire trial.
She enjoyed observing her father practice, but by the time she was admitted to Miami University, Taggart had plans that didn’t involve law.
“I started out in journalism in college, that’s what I wanted to do. I started in the fall of ’69, and that was a period of a lot of unrest in the country with the Vietnamese war. In the spring of that year, the Kent State shootings took place. … They closed campus for a portion of the spring semester.
“So I was trying to write for the student newspaper during that period, and I really got disillusioned. I’d get my assignment. I’d go out and cover something. I’d write my article, and the editors would slant it [against the administration]. … I think if I’d stayed with it, I could have gotten to the point where I could have objected, but I was just a freshman.”
For two summers, Taggart worked as a clerk in the Springfield probate and juvenile courts, where her father knew the judge. But she ended up majoring in education, then taught French at a junior high school and coached high school girls’ softball. After a couple of years, she decided to pursue a career in law.
“I think in the back of my head I’d always thought about being an attorney,” she says. “It just took me a couple of years to realize that that’s what I really wanted to do.”
Starting at Rendigs Fry in 1981, Taggart hoped that working at a then-smaller firm would put her into the courtroom more quickly. It did. She tried at least 10 cases in her first year, including one just a few weeks after passing the bar exam.
“Back in those days we tried tons of cases,” she says. “A lot of cases were tried in municipal court, with a ceiling on damages of $10,000, so I think kind of the prevailing thought was I couldn’t really screw up that badly. There wasn’t as much money at risk, so the younger lawyers were allowed to go in and try some of the smaller cases, so I just jumped right on that.”
She was making a difference in ways she hadn’t planned.
“There just were not a lot of women litigators when I started 35 years ago. I was the first woman in my firm. I was the first woman partner at Rendigs Fry. I was the first woman on their management board.”
Not that there weren’t challenges. “I have a good sense of humor, and I think I have a relatively thick skin, and so those two things helped me get through the early years with a group of men who did a lot of kidding and joking around. I really tried to maintain my good humor and not be thrown off by that, but yeah, there were some hurdles,” she says. “They hazed everybody who was a clerk or an associate—had they not done a little bit of joking, I would have felt left out in a way, because all younger clerks and associates had to go through the learning process. And Rendigs Fry was an extremely collegial firm.”
During this time, Taggart married Bob Caress, her husband of 33 years, who over the years has owned golf shops in Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky, and is now a tennis coach. The couple settled in Glendale, a historic village north of Cincinnati, where they raised their children.
In 2010, their younger son, Andy, died of malignant melanoma that had been diagnosed two years earlier. He was an athlete and, like his mother and father, had played tennis since he was 4 years old, Taggart says. Before he died, Andy founded a nonprofit organization that raises money for melanoma research.
“My son’s foundation has a booth at the Western & Southern tennis tournament,” Taggart says. “We have a schedule of 80 or so volunteers who are there. Our volunteers hand out sunscreen—we’ll distribute about 50,000 packets of sunscreen.”
The death of her son affected Taggart not only personally but in the way she practices litigation. “I’ve gotten more experienced, and then going through losing a close loved one,” she reflects, “has led me to understand that I need to view things in the big picture and not concentrate on the small problems that arise in litigation. I know that it’s an adversarial process, but my personal philosophy is that you can accomplish a lot by seeing what you have in common with the other side.
“An attorney can be extremely effective and a very good advocate for his or her client without being unnecessarily antagonistic or being adversarial,” she says. “When I was a younger lawyer, I felt I had to contest everything. Over the years, you realize there’s a lot of common ground.”