Unnatural Disaster Artist

John “Mickey” McGuire walks the talk after fires and earthquakes

Published in 2018 San Diego Super Lawyers Magazine — April 2018

Shortly after the October 2017 wildfires, which devastated an estimated 250,000 acres and killed 44 people in Napa and Sonoma counties, John “Mickey” McGuire spent three days traversing service and access roads, searching for clues to determine what caused—or spread—the infernos. Along with his experts, he looked at burn patterns on trees, fuel markings on the ground, vegetation around utility poles and charred electrical wiring. In conjunction with studying aerial photographs and topographic maps, he was intent on determining whether the fires could be classified as an “unnatural disaster,” and thus open to liability. 

“I like to get a ‘boots on the ground’ feel for what transpired,” McGuire says. “It gives me information into what juries will understand when they see these maps.“

For McGuire, 71, a senior partner at Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire, representing plaintiffs in unnatural disasters is a growing part of a decades-long practice that includes personal injury, unfair business practices and products liability. 

While natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes are typically characterized as “acts of God,” McGuire notes, “Legally, an act of God can only be declared if it’s the only cause of the damage.”

Heavy rains may result in flooding, for example, but if the flooding occurred—at least in part—because the community’s flood control or drainage systems weren’t adequately built or maintained, then it becomes an “unnatural” disaster.

Earthquakes seem to be a quintessential natural disaster. Who’s liable for that? McGuire says, “If homes are damaged in one development but not the next, built around the same time, I suspect something in the construction made one not able to withstand the shaking, whereas their neighbors’ homes were.” 

Driving amidst the carnage is sobering, but McGuire knows how some of the victims feel. In 2007, over 1,000 San Diego homes were razed by the Witch and Guejito fires, and 500,000 people were evacuated. “I was one of them,” he says.

In the aftermath of those wildfires, McGuire’s firm helped form the Plaintiffs Consolidated Group, recovering more than $100 million in damages for more than 12,000 fire victims. 

When the 2017 Northern California fires hit, members of that consortium regrouped to represent the homeowners, businesses and wineries destroyed by the blazes. 

California is a particularly friendly environment for such cases, McGuire says, because of one word added to the state constitution: “No public entity can take or damage your property without providing just compensation for it.”

But in what might be called an imperfect storm, natural disasters are compounded in several ways. In McGuire’s 1994 essay, “The Sky Above, The Mud Below,” he writes of the building boom in the 1990s: “A combination of understaffed and unscrupulous contractors … has created a construction-defect crisis. The Los Angeles Business Journal reports that almost 40 percent of all new construction in Southern California suffers from significant construction defects.” 

Exacerbating it even further, he says, is the explosion in wealth, which prompts developers and property owners to intrude onto wilderness areas without taking sufficient precautions to prevent foreseeable calamities.

Then there’s climate change, which seems to be increasing the number and severity of floods and wildfires, and which, McGuire says, “the whole world recognizes—except for our current president and some members of his Cabinet.” 

McGuire conducts business from a spacious office in the Bankers Hill section of San Diego. He has three desks: one for his computer, a work/conference desk and a smaller adjunct for documents. Military medals and memorabilia are mounted on one wall, legal degrees/awards adorn another, and photos of family and pets sit atop a cabinet. The 11th-floor balcony adjoining the office offers a panoramic view that includes San Diego Bay. 

McGuire spent his youth in New York’s Rockaway Beach and Howard Beach—the latter in a house so close to Kennedy International Airport, “you could almost see the people in the airplanes as they came over the house,” he says. 

That house was so overrun with Johns—his father “Johnny,” his grandfather “Big John” and a priest named “Father Jack”—that to reduce confusion, his Aunt Katherine nicknamed McGuire “Mickey” after a street-tough character played in a series of movie shorts by Mickey Rooney. 

Following in the athletic tradition of two uncles, basketball legends Al and Dick McGuire, Mickey received a presidential appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy because of his athletic ability. In the Navy, he served a year in Vietnam and was wounded in Neak Leung, Cambodia. As part of the River Patrol Force, McGuire escorted others into the field, to “see some action and interview people,” says McGuire.

“Reporter Steve Bell wanted to take pictures of the last U.S. boat leaving Cambodia,” he recalls. “He did a stand-up piece, we packed up our stuff, and started heading down the river. When we turned a corner, we ran into an ambush. They sprayed shrapnel all over the place.” McGuire was punctured in his face, arms and hands. His naval service continued at the Pentagon, where for three years he was a press officer for Secretaries of Defense Laird, Richardson and Schlesinger. 

 

After graduating from Marquette University Law School in 1975, McGuire spent several years working as a defense lawyer, until he and two other defense attorneys, Michael T. Thorsnes and Vincent J. Bartolotta Jr., opted to “go to the other side.” McGuire adds, “I felt like I could do more for people as a plaintiff’s lawyer.”

Just a few years into his new practice, McGuire received an Outstanding Trial Lawyer award and Trial Lawyer of the Year Award from the San Diego Trial Lawyers Association for his work on Baldwin et al. v. Carlton Santee Corp. et al. The case resulted in three verdicts in excess of $20 million against developers whose construction of a single-family development at the toe of an ancient landslide caused it to become unstable.

The firm eventually grew to employ 20 attorneys but has since pared down to half that size. “We decided to stay as ‘boutique-y’ as possible,” McGuire explains. “There are very good law firms with 700 lawyers. What we found out is that, in the world of litigation, only one lawyer can speak at a time, so it doesn’t help so much to have 700 lawyers wanting to speak.” 

McGuire, who has six grown children and dabbles in regional theater, lives in North County with his wife, Jodie. In December, widespread wildfires again caused the destruction of homes in California. It is a scenario that McGuire sees playing out more and more, and with increased ferocity, but he holds out hope that successful lawsuits with huge verdicts against the entities inflaming unnatural disasters will have a positive impact.

“If enough of them get banged hard by a jury,” he says, “they stop this behavior.”

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