On the Wall for Justice
For Bruce Plaxen, it’s about the law, his clients, and what’s right
Published in 2022 Maryland Super Lawyers Magazine on December 17, 2021
Greed, Bruce Plaxen discovered early in his career, lurks in all industries. Even on the grounds of a small-town carnival, which is one of the first places the Plaxen Adler Muncy founder encountered it.
Plaxen’s client, a teenage boy, hopped on a ride equipped with just a lap bar, and was spun around and around before being tossed out. The attendant wasn’t paying attention. “So while my client was on the ground, the ride kept going thwack, thwack, thwack, and hitting him in the head,” Plaxen recalls. People screamed until, eventually, the ride was shut off.
In discovery, Plaxen found that soon after the ride was distributed, the manufacturer had sent shoulder straps to prevent precisely the kind of injuries his client had suffered. “So not only would you sit in the ride with a lap bar, but you’d also have a shoulder harness,” Plaxen says. “But with my ride, my kid didn’t have the shoulder harness. When I asked the vice president why they didn’t have the shoulder harness in place, he said, ‘We tried, but it slowed down the number of rides we could do per hour because it takes extra time to make sure everyone is strapped in properly.’”
Plaxen lets that sink in.
“I can’t imagine any world where I would make that business decision,” he says.
Yet those decisions continue to get made. Which is when Plaxen steps in.
The eldest of three boys, Plaxen grew up in Long Island. While his friends aspired to be astronauts or race car drivers, Plaxen saw a future in the courtroom. His father worked in New York’s garment district and his grandfather was an electrician. But Plaxen knew he wanted to practice law.
“People tell kids who argue a lot, ‘You should be a lawyer,’” he says. “But I don’t think it’s arguing. It’s reasoning. It’s logic. It’s the ability to spot a cogent argument.”
Having skipped fourth grade, Plaxen started high school when he was just 12. He had three jobs. He’d spend his mornings unloading produce at a local grocer before biking to school. After classes, he delivered the afternoon newspaper, and at night, he worked as a busboy at a catering company.
The money helped pay his way through college, where he majored in political science, knowing that he would eventually attend law school. “There was no Plan B,” he says.
One wasn’t needed. By age 23, he’d gotten his J.D. from American University’s Washington College of Law. By age 26, he’d hung a shingle in Columbia. “I answered the phones, I licked the stamps,” he says. “I don’t think my success grew because I was the best writer or smartest lawyer. It grew because I took care of my clients.”
He met them at night, on weekends. He answered the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He saw people before they went to work in the mornings, and late at night.
“I don’t know if anybody goes to law school and says, ‘I want to represent car-accident victims and slip-and-fall cases’ or ‘I want to be a tort lawyer,’” Plaxen says. “You have bigger goals. You want to be in politics or change the world or seek criminal justice for people with lesser means. But who else but someone injured—someone who can’t possibly afford to pay hourly—could seek out the best lawyer possible on a contingency-fee basis? It’s the best way to achieve justice.”
It’s a system Plaxen has spent a good deal of time protecting in association with such organizations as the American Association for Justice, and its local counterpart, the Maryland Association for Justice.
He mentions a line from A Few Good Men that strikes him as an apt metaphor for the work.
“You want me on that wall,” an irate Col. Nathan Jessup says of the nation’s need for brave sentinels. “You need me on that wall.”
“I feel like that’s what AAJ does,” Plaxen says. “They’re on the wall for us. America doesn’t know that they’re making the world safe—from lousy cars that will explode or [from] drugs that will harm you. So much good gets done that trial lawyers don’t get credit for, and that’s OK.”
Linda Lipsen, the AAJ’s CEO, remembers when Plaxen lost a race to be on the leadership ladder for eventual AAJ presidency. “He regrouped, ran again and won,” Lipsen says. “It shows incredible character and commitment to the mission. Other people have taken the loss and walked away. Not Bruce. He wants to have a role in fixing shattered lives. He’s very committed to assuring that Marylanders have their rights and remedies intact, and he extends that concern to the nation at large.”
Plaxen achieves this through service on a number of AAJ committees, from national finance to mentorship to PAC task forces; through his extensive fundraising efforts; and perhaps most prominently, through his lobbying efforts.
At the state level, where he’s served as a past chairman of the MAJ legislative committee and as a longtime participant in the legislative process, ideas often germinate in Plaxen’s office. Once they’re developed, he often meets with a legislator willing to sponsor the legislation and then works with the full lobbying team to get the bill passed and signed into law.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’ Malley, a “recovering trial lawyer” who says he was “never as successful as Bruce,” credits Plaxen and his MAJ leadership with bringing the stories of real people to the halls of legislative change.
“As human beings, we always learn the most from stories—stories of real people, real lives; sons and daughters, husbands and wives; people who were harmed and looking for justice. That’s persuasive,” O’Malley says. “You can talk statistics all you like, but as humans, we learn from stories. MAJ is a group [that] legislators listen to, and they sit up straight when Bruce testifies on a bill and lets them know where the trial lawyers stand. He helps them understand what a bill does, what its impact is on real people. His presence on issues of justice and social justice is what gave him credibility in the halls of Annapolis.”
And that passion goes beyond tort law, O’Malley is quick to add.
“He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us when we repealed the death penalty or advocated for marriage equality or passed comprehensive gun safety legislation,” he says. “Solidarity is not a matter of always being in lock-step. It’s about being present for the dignity of real people, working people; for the dignity of work, for their homes. These are issues where he brought his judicial training to the table of democracy, but he also brought his heart and his compassion for his neighbors.”
Plaxen can point to several laws that have been changed because of his lobbying work, such as removing the immunity clause that once prevented family members from collecting full compensation in accidents caused by a fellow family member.
“If you cause an accident and, God forbid, your kids got hurt, you’d want them to be covered,” he says. “At the time, the laws said the insurance company only had to cover the state minimum. That doesn’t seem right if the person next to you is your wife, so she can’t collect insurance; but if it’s your girlfriend, she can. Or if the kids in the backseat are yours, they can’t make a claim; but if they’re your stepchildren, they can. So we fixed that.”
Changes come as a result of his legal work, too, like the case he handled for a Montgomery County high school football team, whose uniforms were disinfected in acid, leaving the players with a range of injuries and burns once they donned the clothes. The law at the time capped their damages per individual incident, not per individual injury (of which there were many), and so, again, Plaxen helped increase the cap on behalf of future victims.
“My cases are one of thousands or one of millions that an insurance company has,” Plaxen says. “An adjuster is handling hundreds at a time; I’m handling dozens. But to the client, that’s their only case. If State Farm loses a case, it doesn’t affect their bottom line. If my client loses a case, it could devastate them. Some of my clients have been out of work for months and rely on this case to put them right. Or we have clients with unpaid bills; clients without health insurance or with large deductibles; people who can’t get certain medical care unless we win their case.”
In 2009, Plaxen was named MAJ’s Maryland Trial Lawyer of the Year, an award he shared with his litigation team for their work on behalf of HMO plan members who recovered millions of dollars that had been wrongfully taken from them. He secured two precedent-setting decisions in the process, including a decision from Maryland’s highest court limiting the power of the General Assembly to enact retroactive laws. The yearslong case stemmed from a small-auto case that struck Plaxen as both unfair and illegal.
“I see injustice, so we fix it,” Plaxen says. “It’s satisfying to see the governor sign a bill and know that the idea came in this office. I [have] actually looked around Maryland over the past 30 years and said, ‘I had a part in changing the law.’”
George Tolley with Dugan Babij Tolley & Kohler—MAJ’s current PAC chair—says Plaxen stands out for what he doesn’t do. “It’s never about Bruce,” Tolley says. “Lawyers are highly educated people with often strongly held opinions. Also, many make their living convincing other people that their opinions are correct. I think it takes a special kind of person to lead lawyers, and Bruce has the reputation of someone who gains the trust of a wide variety of highly intelligent and strongly opinionated lawyers. I think it’s because he never puts his ego first. It’s about the law, his clients, and what’s right.”
He’s passing on the mantle, too. His firm now includes three young lawyers, including his son, Josh.
“Whether it’s going to Annapolis to seek justice for Marylanders or Washington, D.C., to seek justice for Americans, lobbying for fair bills for victims is an important part in leveling the playing field,” Plaxen says. “When you look at the tens of millions spent by the Chamber of Commerce and the corporate PACs and see that the trial lawyers are the only ones fighting back against the tsunami of greed, it feels really great to be on the side of the good guys.”