When Lawrence Wobbrock shows up in court, he comes to win. The personal injury attorney’s jury award against Philip Morris was the largest in state history.
Published in 2006 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine
on November 10, 2006
Updated on March 17, 2011
Arleen Waddill of Richland, Wash., had just cleaned and filled a bowl for the two goldfish her son had won in his fifth-grade math class. As she carried it back to his bedroom, the fishbowl exploded. Shards of glass damaged her hands and wrists so badly that blood spattered on the wall 5 feet away. Waddill could not even call 911. It took more than a year for the mother of four to recover rudimentary use of her hands. Twelve years and several microsurgeries later, she still has only half the feeling in her left hand.
The fishbowl was made by one of the biggest glass manufacturers in the United States. Waddill made what she thought was a reasonable request: She asked Anchor Hocking to put a warning label on its fishbowls. The company declined.
That’s when she met Lawrence Wobbrock, a Portland-based lawyer whom a friend recommended as a man of integrity and one of the state’s most successful medical malpractice lawyers. Wobbrock was moved by Waddill’s story and agreed to represent her. The idea that her 18-month-old son, who was home at the time, could have been hurt by the exploding glass still riles Wobbrock. During discovery and a subsequent investigation, Wobbrock says he found at least three other cases involving exploding fishbowls, at least one of which Anchor Hocking had settled with a confidentiality agreement. Although he knew suing the manufacturer would be difficult, Wobbrock decided it was time to hold the company accountable.
“He has the moral character of somebody you trust,” says Waddill, who was struck by Wobbrock’s professional, honest and caring demeanor. “He listens, he’s supportive, he knows the law backward and forward. He’s always there for you, and he’s a wonderful attorney.”
A commanding presence in court, and a man who likes nothing better than to present a case of injustice to a jury, Wobbrock won the suit in 1995. The jury awarded his client $1 million in punitive damages and $100,854 in compensatory damages.
Wobbrock, a self-effacing man of 58 with a salt-and-pepper beard and an affable smile, has a formidable reputation as a trial lawyer who holds big businesses, insurance companies and others responsible for negligent behavior. His major wins include a landmark 2002 case against the tobacco industry, in Schwarz v. Philip Morris. Wobbrock, along with associate Richard Lane and private practitioner Chuck Tauman, represented the estate of Michelle Schwarz, a woman who smoked light cigarettes, believing they were better for her. After Schwarz died of lung cancer in 1999, at age 53, her husband sued. The jury verdict—$150 million in punitive damages (later reduced to a $100 million judgment) and $168,000 in compensatory damages—remains the largest in the state’s history.
Wobbrock and his colleagues set out to prove that Philip Morris knew more than 25 years ago that light cigarettes deliver as much nicotine and tar as regular cigarettes because smokers inhale them more deeply, hold the smoke in their lungs longer, and smoke more to get enough nicotine to satisfy their addictions. “The tobacco companies defrauded people by making them believe that light cigarettes were better. Really, all it did was keep people smoking and smoking more,” says Wobbrock.
The issue of tobacco was a personal one for Wobbrock. The son of a car salesman and a nurse, Wobbrock watched his father—a determined self-made man—try unsuccessfully his entire life to quit smoking. “He must have tried to quit 40 times and he couldn’t,” says Wobbrock, whose father died at age 60 of complications related to smoking. “I knew my father was a man of strong will; really, he could accomplish almost anything he wanted to in life. He only had a high school education, but he went very far in business. But he couldn’t stop smoking, and it just tore him up. I knew from personal experience that it wasn’t lack of will. So I was trying to figure out why. The why is that … the pharmaco-kinetic power of addiction takes over.”
The likelihood of winning such a case was slim. “After all, the tobacco companies win most of these cases outright,” says Tauman. “Seventy-four percent of the cases that have gone to trial since 1996 have been decided in favor of the tobacco companies. Keep in mind that they won every case before 1996.”
Wobbrock and team could not afford to make any mistakes. “He went over the records, transcripts, documents and pleadings [of previous cases] with a fine-tooth comb,” Tauman remembers. “[Suing a tobacco company] is really complex, because it involves complex areas of law and science and public policy. When you have to do all three at the same time, it’s quite a bite to chew on.” Indeed, anyone who has seen Wobbrock in the courtroom observes how well prepared he is. “He’s so incredibly detail-oriented,” says Waddill. “If he takes something to trial, he knows everything about it.”
He also brings a cheering committee. Peggy, his wife of 37 years, has attended nearly all of Wobbrock’s trials over the past 30 years. He practices his opening arguments on her; she takes trial notes for him and coaches him on closing arguments and jury reactions. After working as an industrial engineer for 15 years—and putting her husband through law school—she now keeps the books for his firm.
Schwarz v. Philip Morris turned Wobbrock into a hero among consumer advocates. In 2003, on the heels of that victory, Wobbrock was given the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association’s Distinguished Trial Lawyer Award.
What is less well known about Schwarz v. Philip Morris is that the judge on the case, Roosevelt Robinson, died of congestive heart failure a couple of years later. Robinson, who had attended the same law school as Wobbrock and Tauman, was one of very few black judges in the state. He had spoken of his desire to establish a scholarship to help other African Americans go to law school. After Robinson’s death, Wobbrock helped found the Roosevelt Robinson Minority Scholarship Fund at Lewis & Clark College’s law school.
A product of the 1960s, Wobbrock considers himself a social activist with a lifelong interest in civil rights. In 1969, the year before he graduated from college, he married his wife, whom he had met in math class his freshman year. “I was going up to work on the Alaska pipeline as a dump-truck driver, and I thought I’d better marry her before I left or somebody else would grab her,” says Wobbrock. In 1970, the newlyweds went to teach in the tiny town of Jessup, Ga. Wobbrock had majored in sociology; his wife, in education and sociology. Wobbrock made $5,500 a year teaching high school history, civics and debate. Enforcement of the Brown v. Board of Education 1954 desegregation ruling was late coming to Jessup, and 1970 was the first year the schools were integrated. Many local teachers refused to teach in integrated classrooms, which is one reason the Wobbrocks were recruited from Oregon.
They quickly found out how foreign the South could be. The couple once decided to host a taco party and invited all their colleagues, black and white. Nobody came. Wobbrock says he was socially shunned by the white teachers for playing golf with black colleagues. “I’ve had a guilty pleasure much of my life: I like to play golf,” Wobbrock explains. “So I played golf with the black teachers down there. It was not considered a good thing for me to consort with them.”
But the worst thing that happened during that time of extreme racial tension was even more disturbing. “They burned a cross outside my classroom,” Wobbrock remembers. “They didn’t think I was such a good influence.”
After a year in Georgia, the Wobbrocks joined the Peace Corps. In a village in Senegal, they helped local inhabitants build medical-aid stations and a maternity center. Twenty-two years later, Wobbrock, his wife and their two young sons went back to the town. The village chief’s wife threw her arms around Peggy, and the family was welcomed. The birthing center? “It was thriving,” Wobbrock says with pride.
One of the Wobbrocks’ sons, Nick, 24, who has a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Stanford University, plans to follow his parents’ footsteps into the Peace Corps this fall. Their other child, Jake, 30, starts teaching at the University of Washington this year.
Wobbrock credits his two-year stint in the Peace Corps, along with the year he spent in Georgia, with giving him a wider vision of the world. “It was a life-changing experience in Africa, to see how people can be very happy and involved in their lives and live on about twelve bucks a year,” Wobbrock marvels.
When the Wobbrocks came back from the Peace Corps, Wobbrock started a home-framing construction company, using skills he learned from his father. When the occasional client would not pay and Wobbrock had to consult a lawyer, an interest in law was born.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I’m on the wrong end of this deal!’ ” Wobbrock says with a laugh. The legal arena also seemed to mesh with his concern over assuring access to justice for those who had suffered a wrong.
From his first day at law school—which he attended at night the first year, while working full time during the day as a carpenter and helping care for his newborn son—Wobbrock knew he wanted to represent the underdog. “I thought the law should be available to everybody, not just big corporations or insurance companies that can afford a phalanx of lawyers.”
After he graduated from law school, Wobbrock worked for Portland lawyer Richard Noble for three years; then he and some colleagues opened a firm of their own. Wobbrock hung out his own shingle in 1985. “One of the biggest luxuries I have is, I only have to represent people I want to, because I’m the boss,” he says. “I can choose my own cases. When you work for somebody else, you have to do what they ask you.”
The winning edge
That sense of conviction about the importance of law, and trial by jury, drives everything Wobbrock does. He estimates 60 percent of his cases involve medical malpractice, and 40 percent are automobile-accident and product-liability cases. He says he wins those that end up in court about 90 percent of the time, and sometimes puts as much as $250,000 of his own money into a case. At a time when most cases are settled out of court, Wobbrock often insists on going to trial.
In one memorable case, 20-year-old Mark Sanzone went to a doctor for elective surgery in 1988, and the anesthesiologist mistakenly put the breathing tube in his stomach. Sanzone suffered a heart attack and became severely brain damaged. The defendant offered to settle for $850,000, but Wobbrock realized Sanzone would need daily medical care for the rest of his life. Three days into the trial (Sanzone v. Peters), a new settlement of $3 million was offered. Believing this a fair sum, Wobbrock agreed.
“I like the chance to stand up and fight for somebody, to try and expose the truth,” says Wobbrock. “It really is an opportunity to speak truth to power, and there are very few circumstances in our society in which people can take on the most powerful and prove their case with the truth.”
Wobbrock takes on hospitals and drug companies, automobile manufacturers and other major corporations in multimillion-dollar cases. “Those of us who do this work think we do a major good for society by trying to keep those powerful institutions accountable and responsible to their clients,” he says.
Although they don’t always agree on the issues, lawyers who face off against Wobbrock respect him. “He’s one of the best plaintiff’s lawyers in the malpractice field,” says Thomas E. Cooney Sr., a defense lawyer in private practice in Lake Oswego. “We’re usually on the opposite side of the issues, but we explore common ground. We may not always agree, but he’s willing to sit down and discuss the issue, and he tends to be fair-minded.”
Wobbrock has upset a few other bar members by criticizing lawyers who advertise on flashy billboards and send letters advertising their services to victims. Wobbrock heard of one case in which a couple received a copy of an accident report detailing their son’s death—along with a letter from an attorney offering to represent them—even before the funeral had taken place. When he was president of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, Wobbrock pushed for legislation to prohibit lawyers from using accident reports to solicit new clients.
As for Cooney Sr., there is only one thing that bugs him about Wobbrock. “He hits the golf ball farther than I do,” Cooney quips, “and I hate him.”