The Undefeated

In Roger Dreyer’s eyes, he’s never lost a case

Published in 2010 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2010

On the wall outside Roger Dreyer’s office door hang dozens of framed checks. Courtesy of Allstate, State Farm, Liberty Mutual and other of the nation’s leading insurance carriers, most of the checks vary in amount from seven to eight figures—before the decimal point. A collection of so many large verdict and settlement payments would presumably call for a lofty title: “Collage of Conquests,” “Mosaic of Millions,” “Tableau of Triumph.” Dreyer instead prefers a simpler, earthier description. “These,” he says, “are scalps.”

The 55-year-old plaintiff’s lawyer realizes how outsiders may interpret the display. “If someone’s a cynic,” he says, “this fits their cynical view of me: ‘See? It’s all about the money.’” A founding partner of the Sacramento firm Dreyer Babich Buccola & Wood, he insists he only wants to lay bare the array of insurers engaged in personal injury litigation. But for better or worse, the digits offer the purest measure of success in civil actions, or at least the easiest to grasp. In that respect, the checks reinforce Dreyer’s self-avowed status as “a guy who brings numbers up,” a reference to insurance companies tendering ample settlements as a hedge against him extracting heftier sums at trial.

“That used to be something I would say and people would be offended by it and say, ‘What an arrogant asshole,’” Dreyer recalls. “Now I say the same thing that I said 15 years ago and I’m not an impertinent, arrogant asshole. Now people say, ‘Well, yeah, he’s done that.’”

Dreyer can claim more than 100 verdicts and settlements of seven figures or higher, with most occurring in catastrophic injury and wrongful death suits. Last October, in a case that landed him on Larry King Live, he won a $16.5 million award on behalf of the survivors of a Sacramento woman who died of water intoxication after taking part in a radio station contest in which she drank just under two gallons of water in under three hours. A year earlier, he notched a $10.5 million verdict for a Fresno grandmother left severely brain injured after a dump truck operated by a drunk driver slammed into her car. Other eight-figure judgments Dreyer has posted include $17 million for a Pollock Pines husband and wife after the man was hit by a car while installing tire chains on another vehicle; and $34 million for Oakland Raiders principal owner Al Davis in a business fraud suit he brought against Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

Even with the sundry trophies he owns, Davis might feel a twinge of hardware envy at the panoply of awards Dreyer has amassed during a 30-year legal career. He was named Trial Lawyer of the Year from the Sacramento Valley chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, and has twice been named advocate of the year by the Capital City Trial Lawyers Association. In 2002, he and Carol Wieckowski—a trial attorney specializing in personal injury and public entity defense who also happens to be his wife—shared the Sacramento County Bar Association’s Distinguished Lawyer Award. His courtroom prowess has also earned him a less formal but arguably more coveted accolade: the respect of opposing counsel.

“In my 30 years of trying cases,” says San Francisco attorney Don Carlson, “he’s the best plaintiff’s lawyer I’ve been up against. By far. And I told him that after the case was done.”

The two dueled last fall in a suit that drew national coverage, owing to the bizarre circumstances of Jennifer Strange’s death in 2007. The 28-year-old Sacramento mother died hours after competing in a local radio station contest dubbed “Hold Your Wee for a Wii.” Twenty participants gathered at the studio to vie for a Nintendo Wii console by drinking as much water as possible without urinating. Strange complained on-air of feeling faint; meanwhile, the show’s announcers ignored warnings from callers about the perils of water intoxication. Unaware of the danger, she returned home after the contest and died later that day.

Dreyer represented her husband, Billy Strange, and the couple’s two young children. (He enlisted San Diego plaintiff’s lawyer Harvey Levine to represent her teenage son from a previous relationship and his father.) Carlson defended the radio station, a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based broadcast giant Entercom Communications Corp., and he noticed Dreyer’s intensity from the start.

“He wasn’t relying on a cadre of other people,” Carlson says. “He did almost all the preparation himself; he took and defended almost every deposition. The case was his.” Dreyer further impressed his rival during voir dire with a mnemonic skill that over the years has gained him a degree of renown in Northern California courtrooms. “He skipped around from juror to juror and knew all of their names—without looking at notes,” Carlson says. “That’s something you don’t see too often.”

Dreyer’s command of his case during the six-week trial netted a $16.5 million jury award, the largest of its kind in Sacramento history. Yet for Billy Strange the compensation paled next to the jury’s finding that his late wife bore no blame for her death. “I can tell my kids when they’re older, ‘Your mom didn’t do anything wrong, and a jury of our peers came to the same conclusion,’” he says of his 6-year-old son and daughter, 4. “By giving us that, [Dreyer] gave us more than we could have ever hoped for.”

The 30-year-old Strange acknowledges that, in a practical sense, the award signified “the best possible result for the worst possible scenario.” The money, apart from enabling him to quit his job and assume the role of full-time parent, will help send his children to college, a priority Jennifer had emphasized. Providing clients a semblance of stability explains in part why Dreyer remains unrepentant for the size of his verdicts and settlements. “They’re not counting on you to get the money so they’re rich. They’re counting on you to make sure justice is afforded to them,” he says. “The money allows them to have a quality of life better than what they otherwise would be stuck with.”

Much as he relishes wrangling a fair settlement, Dreyer prizes a favorable verdict more because of the added potential to benefit the public good. He contends that most attorneys would have sought to settle the Strange case for $7 million to $8 million, ceding an opportunity to, in effect, agitate for broader reform. “By going to trial,” he says, “we have an impact on an industry that, at least for awhile, won’t be doing stupid [contests] like that again. And that’s now also part of Jennifer Strange’s legacy.”

Then again, sometimes a trial simply makes for good theater. Davis and the Oakland Raiders sued the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum for $1 billion in 1998, alleging that stadium officials had inflated projected ticket sales to lure the franchise back from Los Angeles three years earlier. Recruited by the Raiders’ legal team two months before the trial opened in Sacramento in 2003, Dreyer moved into a downtown hotel room to immerse himself in a case that would involve almost 50 witnesses and 600 pieces of evidence. He routinely slept only two to three hours a night. “That’s the closest I’ve come to feeling like I was going to physically die.”

The longtime Raiders fan nonetheless thrilled at the chance to talk football with silver-and-black legends (and plaintiff’s witnesses) Daryle Lamonica and Jim Otto. Bill Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers coach and general manager hired by Oakland in 1966 for his first pro job, also testified on the Raiders’ behalf. “He was one of the classiest guys I’ve ever met,” Dreyer says. “He was precisely as presented, just as Al is. Their reputations are genuine.”

The remark  isn’t meant as a compliment with respect to Davis. The inscrutable “man in black” and the trial attorney endured a strained working relationship, as Dreyer tells it, with Davis prone to mentioning that he had never lost in court. “Well, I guarantee you,” Dreyer retorted on at least one occasion, “you’ve never had a case this bad.” The defense exposed the deepest flaws when Davis testified, illuminating manifold contradictions between his deposition statements and claims presented in the suit itself.

At the end of the four-month trial, the jury awarded $34 million to the Raiders, an amount generally portrayed in news accounts as a decisive victory for the defense. Dreyer publicly admitted the dollar figure “disappointed” the team, a word choice he counts as his one mistake related to the suit, with reporters seizing on it as an admission of defeat. (An appellate court later tossed the judgment; he did not handle the appeal.) In retrospect, Dreyer describes the verdict as “a huge victory” in “a completely unwinnable case” that he’s grateful he took on, notwithstanding the tensions with Davis. “I now know I can do anything,” he says. “There is no case that I cannot take and try successfully.”

Despite middle age frosting his hair and beard, Dreyer retains the build and mien of the state tournament-caliber wrestler he was in high school. Thick forearms sprout from the rolled-up sleeves of a white dress shirt that outlines his compact torso. Candid and affable, with a fondness for the occasional profanity, he conveys a coiled readiness even while seated, leaning forward with elbows on knees and arms extended outward. He looks primed to apply a clinch hold.

Dreyer occupies a biscuit-colored loveseat beneath a large flat-screen TV in his suburban Sacramento office. A vast glass desk anchors the opposite end of the oblong space, accented with a Raiders helmet signed by Hall of Fame wideout Jerry Rice and a photo of Dreyer and Wieckowski with President Bill Clinton. Plaques with photos of various youth baseball and soccer teams he has coached line the upper reaches of the walls; many of the squads included at least one of the couple’s four children, who now range in age from 16 to 22.

In one corner stands a display case devoted to family photos and artifacts, among them the Purple Heart conferred on his father, Arthur Dreyer. During World War II, he flew scores of missions as a bombardier with the Army Air Corps, the Air Force’s progenitor, and survived two years as a prisoner of war after Axis forces shot down his plane over Italy. He went on to work as an Air Force information officer, and his military career took him and his family to points around the globe. The youngest of Arthur and Marge Dreyer’s three sons, Roger, was born in Panama in 1954 and spent three years growing up in Germany.

The family returned to the U.S. in 1969 and drove from New York to Sacramento, where they would settle. Crossing the Great Plains, with Arthur at the wheel of his brand-new Mercury Montego and Roger in the passenger seat, the father asked his 15-year-old son what profession he hoped to pursue. He admitted he had no idea. “That’s interesting,” Arthur replied, “because I’ve always imagined you would become a trial lawyer.” Young Roger absorbed the comment without probing his father’s reasoning, and the conversation moved on. “But the fact that he felt that way stuck with me,” Dreyer says.

The remark failed to steer him toward the law, however, and as he prepared to graduate high school in 1973, he saw his future in the cavity business. “Truly, it was not a dream to be a dentist—it was strictly financial. I knew that my dentist didn’t work Wednesdays and he made a lot of money. At 18 years old ... that sounded like a good life to me.”

A chance encounter during his freshman year at the University of Pacific finally set him on the legal path. A high school wrestler, he had signed up to referee a high school tournament one weekend and bumped into Harry Jacobs, his old guidance counselor from Foothill High. When Dreyer said he intended to fill cavities for a living, Jacobs offered an uncanny echo of Arthur Dreyer’s words a few years earlier: “That’s funny—I always thought you would become a lawyer.” The would-be dentist insisted he wanted to study law but considered the field glutted. “You know what, Roger?” the older man said. “There’s always room at the top.”

The next week Dreyer began filing paperwork to transfer from Pacific to the University of California, Davis. After picking up a bachelor’s in political science in 1977, he moved to San Francisco to attend Hastings College of the Law, where he met Wieckowski, his future wife. They married in 1980, the same year he graduated and joined the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, eager to forge a career as a criminal prosecutor in the mold of F. Lee Bailey.

Then in his mid-20s, Dreyer had scant knowledge of and less interest in personal injury litigation, a bias that hardened after an insurance defense firm invited him for an interview. “They told me I’d be working for insurance companies and—this is no bullshit, it’s absolutely true—I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to work for insurance companies.’ I just had a visceral negative reaction to that.”

He had a different response to the overtures of Wade Thompson, then a partner in the personal injury firm of well-known Sacramento attorney Mort Friedman. Thompson detailed how, as a plaintiff’s lawyer, Dreyer would act as a prosecutor for his client—and that he typically would face off against insurance companies. He jumped to Friedman’s office in 1981. Two years later, he went into business with Thompson, and then in 1987 established the practice that today bears his name.

Dreyer has recorded north of 20 verdicts of seven figures and up, winning with a relentless style that, more often than not, persuades jurors as it alienates defense attorneys. “I don’t have a lot of handshakes at the end of trials,” he says. “It’s not because I’m mean. It’s just—I’m not interested in being friends.”

He alludes to case after case in which he obtained a jury award in excess of—or in the absence of—a defendant’s settlement offer. In 2004, in the wrongful death suit of a Sacramento man killed when a driver pulled out in front of his motorcycle, he secured a $6.7 million judgment; the insurance company had proposed settling for $2 million before trial. The next year, Dreyer represented a 73-year-old man who as an independent contractor with the state of California installed tire chains on vehicles traveling toward the Sierra along Highway 50. A car struck him in the installation zone, resulting in a brain injury that left him unable to care for himself. The state balked at settling; a jury awarded the man and his wife $17 million.

Dreyer’s father and former high school guidance counselor had both identified his healthy self-assurance as a portent of his future career, and  he cops to enjoying the performance aspect of the job. “You have to be a bit of a prima donna to be a plaintiff’s lawyer. You have to like attention—whether you admit it or not—otherwise you wouldn’t do it,” he says. At the same time, thriving in the courtroom’s public realm requires no small amount of unseen toil. Dreyer spends many of those hours in a file-laden, closetlike space tucked behind his main office. Blown-up photos of accident sites where clients were injured  adorn the plain white walls. Nestled in the crook of an L-shaped desk is the room’s lone chair. “I only have one because I have people come through here all day long who need input and advice, and if they have to stand up, they don’t stay as long,” he says.

His work ethic, aided by an ability to survive on little sleep, breeds a confidence that he has heard adversaries characterize as hubris. Far from apologizing for his approach, Dreyer says, “I absolutely can tell you, unequivocally, I’ve never been beaten at trial; I’ve never lost a trial. Clearly, the jury hasn’t [always] seen it that way—I have lost cases. But in terms of the competition of the courtroom, of being the better lawyer trying the better case—me, every time.”

On the infrequent occasions the jury disagrees, Dreyer’s single-minded focus turns to brooding. “He doesn’t just say, ‘Oh, well, it was a loser case anyway,’” Wieckowski says. She knows when her husband doesn’t call on a given day that a verdict or the size of the award he sought for a client has eluded him. “It’s not just one night where he’s kind of bummed. He’ll dwell on it because he looks at it as he let the person down.”

Dreyer recalls a recent case in which a one-car rollover accident left the driver a quadriplegic; he argued that the vehicle’s roof had been defective. After closing arguments, the defense upped a pretrial settlement offer of $500,000 to $3 million. He told his client he felt the case had gone well and that in his opinion she deserved more for her suffering. She rejected the settlement, a fateful decision when the jury deadlocked and she received nothing. Of losing, Dreyer says quietly, “There’s nothing worse.” (The exception may be when a client subsequently sues for malpractice, as happened in the rollover case, a matter he divulges unbidden and in which he prevailed.)

Experience and the passing of decades have taught Dreyer to maintain perspective on the outcome of cases, and he credits Wieckowski with prodding him to calibrate a better balance between the professional and the personal. He has dedicated himself to children, serving through the years as a coach for the sports teams of his four kids and sitting on the board of the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Sacramento. The activities have kept him rooted in the same down-to-earth milieu as most of the clients and jurors with whom he interacts. “You have to connect to the blue-collar guys because that’s who we represent to a large extent. Our clients are working people, not executives.” Staying grounded comes easily enough to a son of Marge Dreyer, who at age 90 remains self-sufficient, living alone in Sacramento and driving her own car. “My mom told me, ‘It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it,’” he says.

Dreyer’s demeanor reassured Aggie Lopez-Lorea when she first met him to discuss representing her mother. Maria Lopez had suffered acute brain trauma after a drunk driver operating a dump truck collided with her car in Fresno in 2007, an accident that had consigned her to an assisted-living facility. “He’s a big-shot lawyer,” says Lopez-Lorea, whose mother had worked a minimum-wage job at a 99 Cents store, “but to me, right away, he treated me like a person.”

To demonstrate Lopez-Lorea’s devotion to her mother, Dreyer asked her to sit next to him during the month-long trial. The jury returned a $10.5 million verdict, allowing Lopez-Lorea to move her mother home last year and hire nurses to help care for her. Maria passed away earlier this year, but that she could spend her final months in the same home as her daughter and grandchildren was “priceless,” Lopez-Lorea says. “Money was never the issue. My mom’s way of living, her life, had changed forever. That’s what I wanted to show to the court. And Roger did it.”

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