A Tale Worth Telling
To Nashville litigator Gail Ashworth, every case is a page-turner
Published in 2015 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 9, 2015
Updated on November 24, 2015
Q: What case really stands out for you?
A: I don’t generally do a lot of domestic work, but [this] involved numerous courts, numerous lawsuits [around a woman’s] tragic murder. When her husband was expelled from Mexico, where he had spirited the children away for several years, he tried to hide them. The FBI helped us locate them. The maternal grandparents had seen them every day of their lives up until this horrible event when the children were young, 2 and 6. We were able to get custody for the grandparents. Subsequent to that, the father was convicted of killing their mother. One of the proudest moments in my career was being able to obtain custody of those grandchildren for those grandparents, and reunite that family. That was in 2005.
Q: Quite a departure from your usual personal injury cases.
A: That wasn’t personal injury work, but it was very personal work.
Q: How did you end up in the PI arena?
A: For the first 10 years, it was pretty strictly just insurance defense. But the firm I was with took select PI cases. They are pretty intoxicating, once you have a case like that. They’re usually catastrophically injured. Those clients have really needed an advocate.
I’ve done many different things. Construction, [insurance] coverage, commercial, contract. I think you should be able to get your brother-in-law out of jail. You should be able to get somebody divorced. You should be able to write a will or get somebody to probate in estate planning. But the personal injury practice is very gratifying.
Q: Any other particularly memorable cases in that area?
A: I was local counsel here in Tennessee in state court for a wrongful death case of an 8-month-old child who was killed when a seatback collapsed in a minor rear-end collision of a Daimler Chrysler minivan. There was a products liability wrongful-death case filed on behalf of the mother and father. That was a monthlong trial. It was the largest personal injury recovery for the death of a child at that time in the state. That was in 2004. [Though later reduced on appeal, the jury award totaled $105 million.]
Q: So you handle both plaintiff’s and defense work, right?
A: I think, in general, you’re better at what you do as a lawyer, particularly a trial lawyer, if you have experience on both sides. I enjoy all of the trial work that I do. The defense clients that I represent, they need a lawyer, too. It’s not just the plaintiff—the injured or people who’ve lost loved ones—that need representation.
It’s just tremendously helpful to me as a lawyer to have been on both sides. There are certain areas where you can’t do it. My firm does a lot of health-care practice; we do not ever take plaintiff’s medical negligence cases, because we defend hospitals and physicians. But if there’s not a conflict in other areas, then it’s not a problem.
Q: Are you from Tennessee originally?
A: I was born in Alabama; I was raised in Alabama. I went to undergraduate school at Tennessee Tech. So I’ve been in Tennessee since I was 18 years old. I graduated [from Vanderbilt University School of Law] in 1983. I was very fortunate to obtain a position with a trial lawyer firm here while I was in my third year at Vanderbilt. That was a little unusual for women—to get litigation jobs at that time. I’ve practiced law in Nashville my entire professional career.
Q: And not long ago, you co-founded your own firm.
A: Five years ago, with my partner, Tom Wiseman. I do a lot of medical work now: medical defense work, medical ethics. I serve on a medical ethics committee at a local hospital and do a lot of work with psychiatric hospitals. I have a very special place in my heart for the elderly and people who can’t speak for themselves.
We [also] do personal representation for people in front of licensing boards. Most of those are health care people. They’re very grateful to have a lawyer who can help them in that time, because it’s a niche area. You need someone who has experience doing that.
I even like—they call it animal law now—we call it dog-bite law. I’ve had a fair number of animal cases, all of which are fascinating, if you ask me. One of the first ones I had was a cow. Someone sued someone, and I was defending because they were loading or unloading this cow and disaster ensued. The cow died and the trailer broke. Just all kinds of things happened. Dog cases are the same way. People get really, really upset about cases involving their dogs. I’ve been involved in some really awful dog-bite cases involving people and children on the plaintiff’s side.
I think the vast majority [of cases] that get tried are the cases that are important to people’s lives. That’s their remedy: the justice system.
Nowadays, a lot of them do get worked out in mediation, and that’s another whole story. I go to mediation all the time as an advocate or as a mediator. I think it’s great that we have alternative dispute resolution as another tool. It’s great for the justice system, and many clients and many parties are appreciative of it, but it doesn’t work for everything, just like a trial doesn’t work for everyone. But it’s a tool that we didn’t have when I first started practicing 32 years ago.
Q: So what happened with the cow?
A: This was when there was contributory negligence in our state. Now we have comparative law. So I was defending, and it was a defense verdict because the plaintiff was at fault to some degree. Under the contributory negligence theory, if the plaintiff was at fault at all, they couldn’t recover.
We’re in the middle of Tennessee. We have a lot of animals getting out, causing wrecks. There are farms. There are horses. There are cows. There are dogs.
Q: How did your mediation practice get started?
A: You do a little bit of it, and then they refer you or come back. The word kind of spreads. Any mediator, I think, will tell you the beauty of that.
Number one, I think, is the reconciliation that can be brought about through mediation. But also, the mediator gets to hear the story in every room. You deal with people. You talk to people. You touch people’s lives and they touch your life. So it’s very personal.
Q: What do you love about your job?
A: I’ve always liked to read, since I was a little child. I spent a lot of summers just reading, reading, reading. Cases are like that: disputes, conflicts, stories—really, they’re stories. Everyone has a story. They need for you to listen and to hear their story, whether they’re a plaintiff, defendant or not even a party—a witness.
I’m talking a lot to you now, and I can talk really fast and for a long time. [But] I think a critical skill for what I do is to, first, listen; and second, to realize how important it is to hear what the person is telling you. So what I really enjoy the most is: Really, every single call I get about a case or a conflict or a matter, it’s like opening up a new book. They’re great stories. They’re really great stories.
Q: Over the years, have you experienced any special challenges as a woman attorney?
A: I would have to say no. I had really good mentors, male and female, when I started practicing law. It was not an issue. I obtained a job as a trial lawyer in a law firm in Nashville, Tennessee in 1983. I became president of the Nashville Bar at a fairly young age in 1997. I went on to become president of the Tennessee Bar Association in 2009.
[So] I have to say no. But that does not mean that those who went before me did not. I really admire them for what they did and what they had to put up with. One of my friends, Abby Rubenfeld, she’s in The Tennessean today on the marriage-equality case because Tennessee was one of the cases that the Supreme Court heard on marriage equality. Abby Rubenfeld’s worked her entire career for gay rights, lesbian and gay rights, and she experienced criticism for her work. I’m really happy to see that she’s now receiving accolades.
Q: Talk to us about your Bar association work.
A: I was president of the Nashville Bar in 1997 and president of the Tennessee Bar in 2009.
I always felt like that was part of my professional duty to be a member of the Bar association. The firm I started with, they encouraged it. There’s a lot of substantive work that goes on in the Bar association and a lot of service work as well.
One of the things you get to do when you’re Bar president—you have a little bit of name recognition—you can chair annual campaigns for justice for legal aid organizations and foundations that do good for our profession and for our community and our citizens.
I’m really passionate about access to justice and legal aid. The Supreme Court here appoints commissioners to the Access to Justice Commission. The state of Tennessee was the first state in the country to have an Access to Justice Commission. I currently serve as a commissioner.
I also serve on a board of a Tennessee Justice Center, which is basically a poverty law firm that advocates for folks outside the legal aid realm. They don’t take funding from the government, so TJC does a lot of health care cases.
As president of the local Bar and the state Bar, I had initiatives that came before me and survived my term. I appointed a commission that did a complete rewrite of the Code of Judicial Conduct when I was state Bar president. I cannot tell you how many really great lawyers throughout the state stepped up and said yes when I asked them to serve on a special task force to do that. A very good product came out of that.
Then, at the ABA level—really all three levels—I’m very heavily involved in lawyer leadership programs. So the state Bar, the ABA and the section I work with there—the TIPS section—and now the national Bar, all have leadership programs.
The judiciary is really behind those as well, because they know that in the changing environment, lawyers don’t get to go to court; they don’t see each other like they used to. They’re chained to their computers at their desks. The opportunity to get out and go and meet and hear from these folks who really care about teaching, educating, mentoring lawyers, young lawyers particularly, has been very positive. It’s helped a lot to keep the Bar cordial.
So I’m a huge Bar groupie. I think what these traditional Bars do is critically important to the profession.
This interview has been edited and condensed.