The Road Less Traveled
Mark Kamitomo’s circuitous path to law
Published in 2017 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
By Bob Geballe on June 9, 2017
It was 4 a.m., deep in the winter of 1985. At a road-construction camp in far northern Alberta, Mark Kamitomo, 28, pulled himself out of a deep sleep and got ready for another day driving a crew cab up and down the job site to make sure the machine operators had everything they needed.
“We slept in trailers with propane heaters,” Kamitomo recalls. “Sometimes they would run out of fuel during the night. … It was 20 below. The pay was good and the food was good, but it was cold and miserable and isolated. That’s when I decided to go back to school.”
Kamitomo’s path to law had been about as rocky as the roadbed under that crew cab. After finishing his undergraduate degree in political science, he worked in real estate, retail clothing sales, at his father’s Ford dealership, and then at the construction job, before switching gears and heading to Gonzaga University School of Law. “According to my parents, I have been talking about being a lawyer since I was 8,” he says.
“I think both of my parents wondered what I was going to do with my life, because I was trying a lot of different things,” he adds. “Like most parents, they wanted their kids to be successful and thought I had a lot more ability than I was showing.”
Now, he’s one of the state’s leading medical malpractice lawyers and founding member of Spokane’s Markam Group. He was the first Japanese-American president of the Washington State Association for Justice in 2011, and was recently named to the International Academy of Trial Lawyers. He’s brokered a number of multimillion-dollar settlements for clients.
“He is very competitive, and he hates to lose,” says Spokane lawyer Kent Mumma, a friend since law school. “When he takes on a case, it becomes almost a part of him—he’s a hard, hard worker, like his family.”
“My family was aware of their immigrant status,” Kamitomo says. “My dad and his family were quarantined in a Canadian internment camp during World War II. Because of the experience, my parents, as well as many of their Japanese friends, decided that one of the better ways to keep internment from happening again was to assimilate their kids as best they could in Western culture. So they didn’t teach us Japanese and tried to mainstream us as best they could. On top of that, a good education toward becoming [something] like a doctor or a lawyer would present us with the best chance to make a good living and, potentially, insulate us from this happening again.”
The internment was almost never talked about at home, and Kamitomo never felt racial tension in Raymond, the small Alberta town where he grew up. “It was a Latter Day Saints town, and the Mormons were very tolerant,” he recalls. However, Lethbridge, the nearest city, was a different matter. “I remember going there to the local bars with friends, and racist things said directly at me. They call us derogatory things like ‘Japs’ or ‘Nips.’”
Not that long ago—on Pearl Harbor Day about a decade ago—Kamitomo got another taste of bias during a Spokane jury trial. After losing the case, he was informed by a juror that others on the panel had used racist language during the deliberations, even referring to him as “Mr. Kamikaze.”
“Mark wasn’t really upset about what they said about him,” Mumma says. “He was more upset about his clients losing a verdict [when] they should have won.” Kamitomo appealed for a retrial, which was granted. He landed a nearly $1 million verdict for his clients.
Before founding his own firm, Kamitomo clerked for former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Guy, and joined the Attorney General’s Office in Spokane for a few years. When his wife told him they were expecting twins, “I realized I needed a better income,” he says.
Kamitomo joined an insurance defense group, but found that he identified more with the plaintiffs than the insurance companies he was generally representing. Also, he says, “I didn’t like the pressure to generate billable hours. I was working so many hours … and I remember thinking, ‘This is not me, I want a life.’” He left the firm, tried partnering at a firm with a few other lawyers, then struck out on his own.
His first case was against that very firm. Kamitomo won a $7.5 million verdict, and never looked back.
“We represent a lot of children who’ve been hurt,” he says. “The settlements we get make their lives easier, or allow their parents to provide care for them.” An example is a Brownsville, Texas, family whose son he represented more than 20 years ago. He had suffered devastating brain trauma while on his high school football team. “He was the one child in the family who was going to go to college,” Kamitomo says. “His mom was Hispanic and spoke no English. They had built a little room in their house to take care of him.” Kamitomo won a $16 million verdict against the football helmet maker, Riddell.
“They were able to build a new house,” Kamitomo says. “They were told that Jose [their son] would only live a year or so, but he’s still alive. I go down and visit them from time to time.”
The outcome made a huge difference for the family and had an even broader impact. “As part of the trial in Texas, we had to come up with an alternative helmet design,” he says. “It performed much better, even though Riddell said it would never work.” However, Kamitomo believes Riddell’s next generation of helmets was very similar to the firm’s trial prototype.
“He is impressive as a lawyer and a person,” says Guy. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him.”
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