Road Warrior

Dick Bowman has made a habit out of winning products liability trials for automakers

Published in 2010 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 2010

The old federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis appears small and squat from Dick Bowman’s 30th floor office in the Fifth Street Towers. Peering down at the six-story building, now home to the Family Justice Center, the veteran trial lawyer recalls the day in 1968 when a crane hoisted the front end of a Chevrolet Corvair to the courthouse’s top floor, where workers had removed windows to guide the sawed-off car into a courtroom. The half-Corvair would serve as the centerpiece of Larsen v. General Motors Corp., a case that had already set legal precedent and the course of Bowman’s then-fledgling career.

He joined Gray Plant Mooty in 1965 after graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School. Days later, the Larsen file landed on his desk. “I had nothing to do, so they gave it to me,” he says, adding, “Talk about ‘It’s better to be lucky than good.’”

GM had hired the firm to represent it in a suit brought by a Minnesota man named David Larsen. He had suffered severe injuries in a head-on crash while driving a Corvair, the car made infamous by Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s 1965 book critical of auto design and safety standards.

The company won summary judgment in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, where Judge Gunnar Nordbye ruled that a carmaker “was under no duty” to build vehicles that protected passengers from injury in a collision. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. A four-judge panel, including future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, asserted that auto manufacturers bear responsibility for designing vehicles that prevent “unreasonable risk of injury,” establishing a common-law principle that still stands.

“I spent the rest of my career dealing with a case I lost,” the 69-year-old Bowman says. “Talk about getting your butt kicked up between your ears.”

But he smiles as he tells the story because, for him, it has a happy ending, albeit one overshadowed by the 8th Circuit’s historic decision. The case returned to Minneapolis for trial and he sat second chair to Franklin Gray. They introduced the half-Corvair into evidence to better explain and demonstrate its design, a strategy that paid off with a jury verdict in favor of General Motors. So began the rise of Bowman’s reputation as perhaps the nation’s pre-eminent trial attorney in auto products liability defense, first with Gray Plant Mooty and, since 1985, with Minneapolis-based Bowman and Brooke.

Through the decades he has successfully defended the likes of GM, Ford, Honda, Toyota and Nissan in scores of high-profile trials in more than 30 states. A good many of those cases occurred at the peak of public criticism and government scrutiny of a particular line of vehicle, ranging from Ford Explorers and Subaru Brats to Honda all-terrain cycles and VW Beetles. Following his lead, Bowman and Brooke, boasting seven offices and 425 employees nationwide, claims the largest automotive defense practice in the country, trying cases in all 50 states. It’s little wonder Toyota called on the firm earlier this year when hit by litigation and federal investigations related to acceleration problems in several of its vehicle models.

Bowman is also well-known for representing Ford in the Holidazzle trial in 2001. Three years earlier, during the annual holiday parade that runs down Nicollet Mall, a Ford Econoline van driven by a Minneapolis police officer plowed into a group of bystanders, killing two and injuring 11. The surviving victims and relatives of the two people killed sued the city of Minneapolis and Federal Signal Corp., the maker of a device that enabled the van’s police emergency lighting package. The suit alleged that city mechanics who installed the device unwittingly disabled the brake-shift interlock, a mechanism that prevents a vehicle from being shifted into gear unless the brake is depressed. Investigators concluded the officer shifted the car from park into drive while inadvertently stepping on the accelerator, causing the van to lurch into the crowd.

When Federal Signal Corp. pulled Ford into the case as a third-party defendant, alleging flaws existed in the van’s brake circuitry, the automaker turned to Bowman. Longtime Minneapolis attorney Jim Schwebel, who represented six plaintiffs in the suit, sensed it would be a tough case. “He’s Minnesota’s premier trial lawyer,” Schwebel says. “Any lawyer who’s ever opposed him will tell you that weakening the bond that he creates with a jury is a Herculean task.”

As it happened, after Bowman’s 90-minute opening statement methodically exposed mistakes made by the city and Federal Signal, the plaintiff’s attorneys decided they had seen and heard enough. Returning to his office an hour later, they had already phoned Ford’s in-house legal counsel to inquire whether the automaker’s pretrial settlement offer remained in play. Ford agreed to the “nuisance offer” despite Bowman’s objections.

The case counts as one of only three he has handled that settled after the start of trial, and in each instance, he wanted to press on, convinced he could win outright. In explaining his philosophy, he says, “We’re all done talking settlement just as soon as we pick a jury. After that, you’re going to have to talk settlement with my client because I’m here to kick your butt, not make peace.” Bowman and his wife Terri have competed in ballroom dancing contests across the country and he’s piloted his hot-air balloon in such faraway locales as the Austrian Alps—during the winter—and Russia. But few pursuits equal the thrill of courtroom combat. “Cross-examination,” he says, “is the most fun a person can have with their clothes on.”

A framed newspaper article from 1995, hanging in his office, details how Bowman humbled a former GM engineer who had testified against the automaker in a handful of previous cases. He cross-examined the man during a trial in Fulton County, Ga., that involved allegations of a defective driver’s side-door latch on a GM pickup; the driver had been tossed from the truck in a collision that caused the door to spring open. The engineer had identified himself as the “father” of the door latch model that preceded the one in question and contended that only this successor model was flawed. Approaching the stand holding three or four latches, Bowman asked him to point to the one he designed. The engineer struggled to keep his composure—“I don’t like to be embarrassed,” he snapped—before finally admitting he had designed the latch 25 years earlier and no longer recognized it. The plaintiff wound up dropping the case. “So that was good fun,” Bowman says.

Other objects in his office bear further evidence of an attorney who relishes the fight. Written on a small sticky note affixed to his flat-screen computer monitor is a Winston Churchill quote: “Never, never, never give up.” In a nearby corner, below a framed citation from Honda thanking him for his “fearless defense” of the company for 20 years, stands a replica of a samurai sword. Pulling the curved steel blade from its sheath, Bowman mentions that he keeps a large bronze samurai statue in his Shorewood home. He bought the sculpture some years ago after noticing the bags under the warrior’s eyes. “That means he’s an old samurai,” Bowman says, “and since samurai were sworn to fight to the death, that means this cat’s never lost.”

His go-for-the-throat ethos infuses the firm he cofounded with fellow Gray Plant Mooty expat Jeffrey Brooke, which earlier this year celebrated its 25th anniversary. The duo, who had forged a robust auto products liability practice before striking out on their own, believed that as more law firms embraced specialization in the mid-1980s, one that catered to carmakers would flourish. The move proved prescient. The firm has grown steadily in the ensuing quarter century, and last year The Legal 500 named Bowman and Brooke the nation’s top product liability automotive and transport defense firm. When a writer for the publication asked Bowman for his reaction, he replied, “It’s fun that people find out what we’ve known for some time.”

Some might find such a statement a bit vain, but recounting the conversation, Bowman, whose voice is a parched rasp, comes across as disarmingly plainspoken. He wears a black silk shirt with matching suit jacket and trousers, a silver Breitling watch and a gold wedding band inlaid with diamonds. With his lean, square-shouldered build, pale blue eyes and silver hair swept back from a high forehead, he bears a resemblance to Jon Voight. In court, he prefers quieter attire and accoutrements, donning bland blue suits, a Timex and a stone-free gold ring. Unchanged is his manner, a blend of homespun charm and undiluted candor.

Firm cofounder Brooke, who has worked with Bowman on dozens of cases, ascribes his business partner’s success to a grounded sense of self. “Dick has never tried to be anyone he wasn’t in front of a jury. Every jury learns that Dick is the son of a turkey farmer.”

Bowman and his twin brother, Robert, a banker who lives in Glenview, Ill., grew up near Mount Vernon, in eastern Iowa. Their father raised turkeys and chaired the school board; their mother shared his interest in civic service, devoting time to sundry local groups, but found little joy in farm work. Nor did young Dick. Recalling his turkey tending days, he says, “I shoveled corn in one end and the slightly altered substance that came out the other. It taught me that one day I would like not to be a turkey farmer.”

Bowman put himself through Cornell College in Mount Vernon by playing trumpet in a dance band called The Stylists, earning $25 a gig. He majored in dramatic arts for two years before switching to political science, yet considered a legal career only after discovering that the top graduate in his department could receive a free ride to the University of Minnesota Law School. He landed the scholarship and headed north. To his surprise, Bowman held his own against students from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other elite schools. “I was amazed that I could compete, and the lesson I learned is one that drove my entire career: come early, stay late and work like hell in between,” he says.

Choosing a practice area, however, posed a dilemma. “Almost every course in law school, I didn’t like: tax, corporate, real estate, trusts and estates, wills,” he says. “I just had an absolute conviction of what I didn’t want to do, and that left only one thing: the possibility that I might enjoy trial work.” Catching on with Gray Plant Mooty provided an opportunity as golden as a ’65 Corvair. “As it turns out,” he says, “products liability cases are the principal kind of case that will get you in front of a jury across the nation, and have been for 45 years.” He smiles. “As I said: better to be lucky than good.”

The firm dispatched Bowman to the GM engineering center and vehicle testing grounds outside Detroit. He spent much of the next three years in the company of GM engineers as he absorbed the intricacies of crash test data, movies and photography; studied the nuances of crash test instrumentation; and climbed behind the wheel to test-drive cars. In the process, and without realizing it, Bowman helped pioneer the niche of auto products liability.

Following the Larsen trial he traveled the country, acting as a consultant to defense attorneys handling Corvair suits in other states. As time passed, he tried cases across the country involving other vehicles, gaining national standing as a crashworthiness expert—along with an enduring disdain for Nader. The two men spoke at the same conferences on multiple occasions, offering disparate perspectives on the auto industry. Yet as Bowman points out with pride, “I never touched the man’s hand or talked to him.” Winning the Larsen trial and advising lawyers in other Corvair cases in which GM triumphed deepened his satisfaction. “It was so much fun to learn that what he said was such bad science, atrocious science, science that could be disproved to ordinary jurors with no science background.”

Bowman’s ability to break down abstruse engineering concepts impressed Harry Pearce, GM’s former vice chairman and general counsel, who likens him to Carl Sagan, the late astronomer adept at distilling the complexities of the cosmos. Bowman stocked his Gray Plant Mooty portfolio with more vehicle manufacturers as years passed, spending countless hours learning about and operating each product, whether passenger car, all-terrain vehicle, motorcycle, helicopter or plane. By the time he left the firm, Bowman had a long list of blue-chip clients. “I personally had more confidence in handing a product case over to [Bowman and Brooke] than virtually any other firm,” Pearce says.

Bowman has thrived in no small part by persuading juries to view his clients less as faceless corporations and more as a collection of individuals not so different from jurors themselves. Schwebel, who has known Bowman for 40 years, describes his occasional courtroom foe as possessed of an “aw, shucks, common guy, self-deprecating” trial persona. In his opening statement during the Holidazzle trial, before deftly chronicling the missteps of the city and the flash-device maker, Bowman launched into a kind of Everyman prologue, tinged with garbled syntax. “You’ve already learned something: One of my many flaws—I have too doggone many notes, I drop them from time to time, I can’t stand still and I talk too long. You’ll discover some more, but I thought I’d at least spot those to start with.”

His approach has the added effect of defusing the perception that major manufacturers treat consumer safety as an afterthought to profits. In his opening and closing statements, he spares no detail in reviewing the deaths or catastrophic injuries suffered by plaintiff’s parties, a signal to the jury that he understands “the godawful nature of the situation.” He also looks for the silver lining when emotional clouds settle over defense witnesses.

In the 1980s, Bowman represented Honda in several suits alleging that its all-terrain vehicles had chronic design defects that caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries. In one closely watched trial in San Diego in 1987, the company’s senior managing director broke down on the stand when a plaintiff’s attorney handed him a list of almost 800 names of people who had died in ATV accidents. Bowman asked for a brief recess, and when he and other members of the defense team entered a conference room to regroup, one said, “Case over.” Bowman thought otherwise. He felt the executive’s weeping revealed authentic concern for Honda’s customers that would resonate with jurors. He won the case.

The Churchillian instinct to never give up has spurred Bowman to expand his firm’s automotive practice. In a replay of the ’70s, when he sought to build ties with Japanese carmakers while much of the rest of the world scoffed at their “inferior” vehicles, he has started working with Chinese manufacturers, anticipating that they represent the next great automotive wave. Meanwhile, as the firm’s practice in medical devices and drugs continues to thrive, he serves as a mentor to young associates, imparting wisdom gleaned from more than four decades of practice and helping them calibrate equilibrium between humility and confidence.

“Being a trial lawyer is telling a story,” he says, “And if you want to be a good trial lawyer, you better tell a meticulously truthful story.” But there’s nothing wrong with a little self-assurance. “It’s like Cassius Clay said: ‘Don’t even think about beating me.’”

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