Powerful Presence

Bruce Pfaff sways juries without raising his voice

Published in 2012 Illinois Super Lawyers — February 2012

Photo by: Corey Hengen

In a courtroom in downstate Tazewell County, the 8-foot-tall face of a corporate executive looms over the jury, a projection of his video deposition. The same executive is sitting in the witness stand. Both versions are facing Bruce Pfaff, who is about to get to the heart of the matter for the jury.

“After the safety bar was redesigned in 2001 to include a collar and screws, was there any testing that you’re aware of?” Pfaff asks quietly.

“Not other than normal function testing,” the exec replies.

Pfaff, a personal injury attorney with Pfaff & Gill, motions his technician to play the exact question from the executive’s videotaped deposition. This time, the executive responds, “Not that I’m aware of.” The executive has been caught by video impeachment. Pfaff’s clear implication: that the company did no testing of this safety equipment.

The jury has heard, over the course of the previous week, about an industrial accident that cost a young factory worker half his leg. Dustin Stone’s job was to hammer metal plates onto roof trusses. When his job was done, he would move out of the way and another worker would activate a giant “roof glider” that would slide over the truss and press the plates into place. Dangerous work, but Stone could press a safety bar on the front of the glider to stop the machine if anything went wrong. On Nov. 10, 2008, things went horribly wrong. The glider started bearing down while Stone was still working. When he realized what was happening, Stone hit the safety cut-off, but nothing happened. He hit it again. Nothing. Seconds later, his leg was trapped in the glider mechanism and “exploded,” according to Pfaff. “He lost two liters of blood and nearly his life.”

Pfaff was contacted the next week by a Peoria attorney to see if he would take the case. “I jumped in my car and drove the three hours to Pekin to see the accident victim, then went over to take pictures at the factory,” remembers Pfaff, who speaks softly but with a sense of constant urgency. “Of course, you can wait for OSHA to process the accident, and it takes them three months to produce pictures through FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]. Why wait that long?”

Once he got there, Pfaff says it was fairly obvious what had happened: The screws holding the safety bar to the gantry had loosened, probably from the normal vibrations of the machine; the safety bar was totally useless. Over the course of the weeklong trial last August, Pfaff showed the jury exactly what happened to Stone and whom he held responsible. He asked the jury to award his client $13,544,172.71. They returned with exactly what Pfaff had asked. To the penny.

Despite his unassuming nature, Pfaff is “a tremendous presence in the courtroom,” according to Judge James P. Flannery in the Law Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County. “Bruce is among a handful of attorneys who have a gift,” Flannery says. “He knows the law, knows the facts. … He is also very honest and sincere, and that comes across to the jury. It seems they just believe him when he says something.”

Pfaff’s calm demeanor does not prevent him from indulging in celebratory victory. Every time a winning verdict comes in, a Jolly Roger flag goes up outside Pfaff’s office conference room. It’s a habit picked up from legendary trial lawyer Melvin Belli when Pfaff practiced in San Francisco early in his career. (Pfaff draws the line at shooting off a cannon, as Belli did.) 

But Pfaff says it’s painful when he has to turn down worthy but less winnable cases. “It weighs on me when we can’t take a case because we can’t prove it,” says Pfaff, who adds that he is one of three Illinois attorneys who have won five verdicts of more than $10 million. With partners Michael Gill and Matthew Ports, he is closing in on $200 million in verdicts and even more in settlements.

Bill Anderson, with the defense firm Anderson, Rasor & Partners, watched Pfaff in action recently when he was on the other side of a medical malpractice case. “Bruce is very good about digging out the particulars of a case,” says Anderson. “He is diligent and tenacious and does his homework, as many lawyers do not.”

Joe Power, a personal injury attorney with Power Rogers & Smith, says, “One of the reasons Bruce is so successful, and one of the reasons I admire him, is that he is never surprised.” Pfaff makes a religion of examining every document and piece of evidence in a case personally.

To that, Pfaff pleads guilty. “I investigate my own cases,” he says. “I need to do that in order to decide which cases have the most potential.” Since Pfaff & Gill is a three-attorney firm, taking on only a handful of cases per year, he has committed himself to choosing cases with care and getting them done quickly. He won a $9.3 million verdict in a 2004 case that went to the jury after less than three days.

Son of an executive at Mobil Oil Co., Pfaff, 57, grew up on Long Island surrounded by relatives in the business world who had, he says, “a healthy distrust of lawyers.” They moved in 1972 to the California coast, where Pfaff, the youngest of three boys, attended Palos Verdes High School. He became a champion golfer and remains a seriously dedicated one-handicapper.

Rejecting the expectation to follow family tradition and pursue a business career, Pfaff majored in history at Dartmouth. “If you study history, you know that empires don’t last, and that if you don’t take care of people, you are going to have a [bad] society,” he says. His “great love” in college was European literature, which taught him that you can “step out of yourself to achieve something brilliant.” He credits his mother, Florence, with teaching him to be concerned, above all, about people.

His favorite class at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in 1977 was torts, the righting of wrongs—or at least the arguing about wrongs. In moot court, he had to defend a law he thought was unjust, and he was convincing enough that his judge offered him a job as law clerk. Soon afterward, he was hired by San Francisco plaintiff’s attorney Jim Bostwick, senior partner at Bostwick & Peterson, which—along with its predecessor firm—was one of the first to sue for medical malpractice for children with cerebral palsy. “I learned a lot about medicine and birth delays that cause cerebral palsy,” Pfaff says. “You realize you have the tools to make people’s lives better. How can you not do it?”

Fetal monitoring soon became a mainstay of a more technically sophisticated type of demonstrative evidence. “When I started,” notes Bostwick, “there were no fetal monitors, and hospital records were often sloppy. Once the monitoring started, you had a real concrete indication of a child’s status [throughout the birth process]. Bruce was just starting in the early days of fetal monitoring, and he was a natural for trial work in this area.”

While in law school, Pfaff married a fashion designer named Deborah Leydig, who became a stage actress for 20 years. “We were very sorry when his wife informed him that she missed her family and wanted to move back to Chicago,” says Bostwick. “Bruce was an extraordinary lawyer from the start.” Pfaff soon established himself as an innovative trial lawyer at Corboy & Demetrio, and was among the first to pursue cerebral palsy cases with fetal monitoring evidence in Chicago. He was also one of the lead attorneys in the Tylenol products liability cases, which were settled in the plaintiffs’ favor though the products were tampered with by a still-unknown third party, and led to a new standard of pharmaceutical packaging.

While at Corboy, Pfaff says, attorneys were often responsible for working on 100 cases per year. And Philip Corboy insisted that employees clear their desks at the end of the day, no exceptions. Pfaff learned to keep his space neat, a habit he follows to this day, significantly aided by the technology he uses to prepare and try cases.

Unlike many litigators’ offices, piled high with paper and bulging binders, Pfaff’s corner office contains little evidence of ongoing cases. All documents and other evidence, he says, are on the firm’s computers, accessible immediately on two large monitors behind his desk.

Pfaff was an early adopter of both case-management software and trial technology such as video impeachment. When he started his own firm, he immediately began creating what he has sometimes called “fun and games” for juries. “Juries are the most important people in the room, and I want to give them the tools to decide the case in my client’s favor,” says Pfaff. “Once a jury sees something, they learn from you. You need to explain the basics: [For example], how could this machine have been designed differently to not hurt Dustin? Doing as much visually as possible is key.”

In the case of the roof glider accident, Pfaff passed around a replica of Stone’s prosthetic leg so that jurors could feel its full weight and get a sense of how cumbersome it would be for a young man in his 20s.

Using technology, Pfaff makes dull documents and truth-challenged executives come alive in the jurors’ minds.

“Complex cases can have thousands of documents. Most lawyers will go to trial with 20 to 30 key documents blown up on an easel. We make all the documents in the case, sometimes 60 bankers’ boxes or more, accessible to the attorney, instantly, during trial,” notes Steven Grant, president of Video Instanter, based in Chicago, which has been providing trial technology to Pfaff since 1992.

Using bar codes, for instance, Pfaff can have a technician call up an image of any document he needs to reference, enlarge parts of it, and highlight any fact he wishes the jury to see. The same goes for video depositions, used to challenge witness testimony, often to devastating effect. Projected up to 10 feet high, these images often create indelible memories of the evidence that jurors take into deliberations and, he hopes, witnesses take to heart.

Changing the ways of the world is one of the reasons Pfaff gets up in the morning. Early on, he took inspiration from maverick attorney Gerry Spence, who believes in no-holds-barred fighting. He also took inspiration from Corboy and Thomas Demetrio, with their very different styles: the former extroverted and the latter on the quiet side. Watching two very different but highly successful personalities, Pfaff says, “taught me to be novel, because it taught me that I could be myself.”

Outcomes are especially satisfying to Pfaff when they result in permanent changes to products or business practices of defendants.

“If there is a wrong, he wants to right it. He gets a glint in his eye and wants to go to trial,” says Mark Boyle, partner at Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth in Chicago, who sat across the aisle from Pfaff in two Ford Motor Co. products liability cases. Pfaff demonstrated that the drivers’ seats on two Ford vehicles were faulty, resulting in compensation for the families who sued. But the outcome went beyond monetary reward. “The case highlighted the dangers that exist in front seats of cars and light trucks that are weak,” he wrote in his blog in 2009. The cases resulted in changes to the design of drivers’ seats at Ford and other auto manufacturers, though Pfaff would like to see more adjustments.

Pfaff has also been president of, among other professional groups, the Illinois Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, whose mission is to encourage integrity, honor and courtesy in the legal profession, and to preserve the right to trial by jury in civil cases.

“Corporate America no longer wants to be in the courtroom where everyone is treated equally,” says plaintiff’s attorney Power. “They are pushing for more arbitration, trying to put it into more contracts. Bruce is trying to fight that because he thinks trials are so important.”

 

In what he laughingly calls his spare time, Pfaff helps his wife with Norton’s U.S.A., their Barrington shop and online presence that carries merchandise manufactured in the United States. Sometimes he relaxes with a book in the tower of his Barrington Hills home (“the previous owner’s folly, but it’s worked out OK for me,” he says) or plays golf. Their kids, Sam and Liza, are both scientists in their 30s.

Pfaff, though, likes nothing better than a trial. “I absolutely love my job,” he says. “It can be painful but very satisfying to track down all the facts and present the story to the jury. It is really too much fun to go to trial.”

Photo by: Corey Hengen

Photo by: Corey Hengen

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