The "Aw, Shucks" Lawyer

David Christensen, a knight of the Order of the Dannebrog, hasn’t lost the common touch

Published in 2007 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2007

David Christensen is not one to brag, but even he has to admit one of the most gratifying moments of his career was winning a verdict against General Motors in 1999. 

At the time, Christensen, a formidable personal injury lawyer with Charfoos & Christensen in Detroit, had his doubts. Given the automotive giant’s unlimited resources, he says, “I had no confidence I could win. The odds were against me.” Moreover, adds Mary Pat Rosen, his associate of 20 years who worked with him on the case, nobody but their own experts thought they could win. It was an uphill battle. 

Nevertheless, Christensen was determined to represent Rodney Jones, an auto-body shop worker from Niles, Mich., who in 1995 was seriously brain-damaged after the driver of a minivan ran a red light and broadsided his 1985 GM van. The van flipped over three times, ejecting Jones in the process because of a defective seat belt.

After a five-week trial in which Christensen put in 18- to 20-hour days, a Berrien County Circuit Court jury awarded $5 million in damages to Jones and his family—the fifth-highest jury verdict award in Michigan that year. And when the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the verdict in 2003, it was the only appellate-sustained verdict against General Motors alleging a defect in how its seat belts released. 

For the normally self-effacing Christensen, 62, who says he has never celebrated a verdict, the win was “exhilarating.” 

A lawyer’s lawyer
Christensen has held verdict records in Michigan and South Dakota and was one of the lead attorneys in the historic late-1970s case against the Christian Science Church, in which the church encouraged the parents of a child with bacterial meningitis not to seek treatment. The child died. He also represented the family of a fan crushed at a 1979 Who rock concert and settled one of the early Pinto cases against Ford Motor Company. Christensen’s numerous professional honors include being named Trial Lawyer of the Year in 2003 by the Michigan Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

What was perhaps more surprising than the verdict in the Jones trial was how Christensen beat GM. “They went high-tech, so I went low-tech,” he says. 

While GM’s lawyers came in with “all the bells and whistles” Christensen expected—from a PowerPoint presentation and a fold-out model of the collision scene to a full-size half-van they brought in later—“I just told what happened,” he says. His best prop was one he made in his hotel room the night before his opening statement: a Kleenex box he cut up and taped together to show the jury how the van flipped and tossed Jones out. 

“He made it understandable without offending anyone,” says Rosen. At one point, she recalls with a laugh, the defense claimed he was purposely fumbling with a piece of equipment as a tactic to relate to the jury; she says it wasn’t an act. “He’s kind of like the ‘Aw, shucks’ lawyer,” Rosen says.

Judge Scott Schofield of Berrien County talks of the stark contrast between the two sides’ opening statements. “I thought that was a good way to demonstrate to the jury that GM has wealth and power and ‘my guy’ doesn’t have any resources. I have to use a Kleenex box to pretend it’s a car.”

Even one of his opponents, Thomas Branigan, who has defended seatbelt-release cases for GM since 1993 and says he’s probably tried more of those cases than any defense lawyer in the country (and hasn’t lost many), applauds Christensen. While he jokes, “He took the Matlock approach in that trial,” Branigan, of Bowman and Brooke in Troy, says, “He’s one of the finest trial lawyers in the state. He certainly knows what he’s doing in the courtroom.”

Christensen commands respect. Says longtime friend Judge Michael Talbot of the Michigan Court of Appeals, “He’s the lawyer’s lawyer. He’s who lawyers turn to for counsel and advice.” 

Adds Rosen, “His word means something in a business where now you have to put everything down in writing. He’s a brilliant lawyer, but he’s a really nice guy. In our profession today, that’s rare.” 

Value judgments
It’s the nice-guy aspect, rather than the legal aspect, that Christensen cares most about. “The law isn’t going to remember me much,” he says. “I’d like to be remembered as an honest man and a good dad.”

He has three sons—Samuel, 22, Benjamin, 21, and Matthew, 18—and photos of them line his office mantel, while their childhood art shares wall space with a Marc Chagall. Dozens of framed photos, which include his extended family—he has eight siblings—top a console and other surfaces. 

Family gatherings are frequent and no small affair. Last Easter, Christensen hosted about 50 people at his Bloomfield Hills home. Christensen—who describes himself as “a great cook”—cooked four dozen Scotch eggs, sweet rolls from his mother’s recipe, and about 15 pounds of potatoes. 

Christensen credits his values to his idyllic childhood growing up in a large, tight-knit family. “We all like each other,” says his brother Tim, of Birmingham, Mich. “If I don’t talk to David for a week, it’s unusual.” 

Born in the Mississippi River town of La Crosse, Wis., Christensen was the fourth of nine children of Cecil, a postal inspector of Danish descent who turns 90 in August, and Marjorie, an Irish Catholic registered nurse who died in 2001. When Christensen was 5, his family moved to the tiny village of Stoddard, population 300, where their home was two city blocks from the river. “I loved it,” says Christensen of life on their three acres, where he and his siblings helped grow tobacco and strawberries. 

His sister, Martha Demerly of Bloomfield Township, the oldest sibling, recalls him as “almost a Huck Finn. He was always running around barefoot. … He’d make up songs and sing to the family. He was always eager to please.” At one time, Demerly even thought he might become president of the United States. “He had such a passionate interest in what was right.”

Says Christensen, “I was raised with remarkable values.” 

By 1958, the family moved to Livonia, Mich., where Christensen attended the eighth grade with Michael Talbot, who today says of Christensen, “His country bumpkin thing is half him and half conscious.” Christensen says he always knew he wanted to be a lawyer. Each of his three brothers became lawyers, too, but Christensen is the only one practicing today. 

While attending Wayne State University, and the Detroit College of Law, where he graduated in 1972, he began a stint teaching elementary school in Detroit. “It was a wonderful job,” he says. “I believe [that] was the best preparation for trial work. To keep the attention of children.” 

It was working as a bailiff at the Federal District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan during law school that set his course. There he met Larry Charfoos, whom he saw in action.

Charfoos told Christensen he should interview with his firm. “I recognized his skill. I just liked him.” But Christensen didn’t believe him at the time. “I thought he was just buttering up the bailiff.” 

After law school, Christensen went to Denmark, where he has relatives. He met a Danish woman, with whom he had a brief marriage (they divorced in 1976) and a daughter, Amy, who was born severely mentally handicapped. She died at age 19 in 1994. “She never spoke a word,” he says of the girl whose photo is on his mantel beside his sons. It’s a painful subject for Christensen, who regularly returned to Denmark to visit her until her death. “She was a very important part of my life.”

According to Demerly, her brother’s experience with Amy “inspired his zeal to care for people who are really marginal in our society.” 
   
Renaissance man
These days, Christensen, who dresses in casual attire when he’s not in trial, conducts business from his second-floor office in the historic Hecker-Smiley mansion on Woodward Avenue. Bought and renovated by the firm in 1991, the roughly 20,000-square-foot 19th-century house was built in the French Renaissance Chateauesque style. 

It’s fitting that Christensen works in such stately surroundings. He speaks fluent Danish, has been active with the Danish community for years, and has served as Honorary Danish Consul for the state of Michigan since 1995. He issues passports to Danish nationals from the mansion’s former dining room. “I do it for the fun of it,” Christensen says. “Dad says I’m his only Dane.” Then in 2004, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark appointed him a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog, an honor that recognizes Danes and foreign citizens for meritorious civil or military service, for particular contribution to the arts, science or business life or for working for Danish interests. 

“He doesn’t carry off being royal too well,” says Demerly. “There’s no pomp.” 

This is particularly true when it comes to his clients. Says Christensen, “I marvel at the fact that people will sit [across from me] and discuss some real tender stories and they trust me enough to have that information. It’s a wonderful thing that happens. I’m awed by it.”  

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