The Advocate

Jim Schwebel is in the business of rebuilding lives

Published in 2012 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 2012

Photo by: Rich Fleischman

There’s no observation deck on the top of the IDS tower in downtown Minneapolis, so these days the best God’s eye view of these prairie towns is the one from the offices of Schwebel Goetz & Sieben on the IDS’s 51st floor. From here, the naked eye can spy a flat-earth panorama of the Twin Cities that spans Target Field, the State Fair Space needle, the Guthrie Theater, the Gold Medal Flour and Grain Belt Beer signs, the Mississippi River, and, perhaps most significantly, the rebuilt Interstate 35W bridge.

Significant, because rebuilding lives is what Jim Schwebel has spent much of his 69 years doing.

On Aug. 1, 2007, Schwebel was in his office when the eight-lane I-35W bridge collapsed under rush hour traffic. In all, 13 people lost their lives and 145 more were injured. The National Transportation Board came to the conclusion that a design flaw was one of the causes to blame for the disaster, but as the sun set that hot August night, and rescue crews raced to tend to the dead and injured, Schwebel suspected something other than horrific luck was to blame.

“I saw the dust rising up from the bridge from here,” he says, sitting at the head of a long oak table in the firm’s conference room. “I watched, and I knew the phone would start ringing. And it did.”

The retired Navy man’s vision on this day, as it has been so many days, was as sharp as the mammoth white telescope that sits in the corner of the conference room, perched and ever-ready to scope out the comings and goings of humanity in all its gore and glory.

“Some of the first press accounts were talking to lawyers who said things like, ‘Oh, you can’t do anything. This is immunity, this is the state of Minnesota, there’s nothing that can be done for these people.’ I knew that’s not how it was going to play out,” says Schwebel, whose measured demeanor suggests the élan of a man who knows the answer to a question before it’s asked. “Ultimately, we found a very substantial party with a lot of culpability: URS Corp. [out of San Francisco], which was responsible for the [bridge] inspections.”

In the end, Schwebel and his firm fought for the victims and victims’ families and secured millions of dollars in compensation–from the state of Minnesota, the PCI Corp. (the company that was resurfacing the bridge at the time of the collapse), and URS, which agreed to pay $52.4 million in settlement; from that more than $48.6 million was paid to the victims. At times like that, Schwebel likes to repeat the reworked quote by Adlai Stevenson describing Eleanor Roosevelt: “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

“As we go through life, there are very few people who can change the status of the world. But I think that we are all capable of finding a few instances where we can make someone else’s life better. And personal injury trial lawyers do this,” he says.

“When you step into that fight for an injured party, it is David and Goliath to the extent that [the other parties] control the wealth, and you are trying to get them to honor their obligation to pay. And you can ask any seasoned plaintiff lawyer, it’s no walk in the park. You don’t have anyone coming back saying, ‘Oh, I got lucky. The lawyers from the insurance company I was set up against didn’t know what they were doing.’ No. They are very formidable adversaries, and they work very hard at it.”

While Schwebel relishes his role as an advocate for all sorts of victims and predicaments, it’s cases like the 35W bridge collapse that have put him in the spotlight as one of the area’s main go-to good guys. For more than 25 years, Schwebel’s name has been synonymous with healing hearts and families broken by medical malpractice, motor vehicle and boat accidents, dog bites, plane crashes and most any other tale of woe you can name.

His latest mission is representing the family of Anousone Phanthavong, 38, who was killed Aug. 23, in a hit-and-run accident on the Riverside Avenue ramp to Interstate 94 in Minneapolis. Phanthavong worked his way up from dishwasher to head chef at True Thai restaurant, and Schwebel aims to make sure that the surviving members of his family get a fair shake.

“This is a case that involves a first-generation immigrant family,” he says. “Anousone came out of a refugee camp. His parents don’t speak English. He was really the cornerstone of the family. They depended on him. In many ways, he represented the American dream. He became a chef in the Twin Cities, winning many awards, and was responsible for the success of the best Thai restaurant in the Twin Cities.”

The main suspect in the case was Amy Senser, wife of former Minnesota Viking Joe Senser. Senser was charged with two felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide, and the Phanthavong family decided to sue immediately.

Enter Schwebel. “I might say it’s the perfect kind of case that I enjoy getting involved in, because I know the dependence that his whole family had upon him. I know if we do our job right we’ll be able to provide at least some of the financial security that he would have provided for them,” he says.

“I think that we all want to try and help those who have the greatest need. When you put someone in front of a jury who looks like they can take care of themselves, the jury is inclined to think that. If you take somebody who suffers a significant injury, in a case like this when a family lost a stable dependable person in the family, you know you’ll make a big difference if you do your job right.” (In May, Senser was found guilty of two felony counts of criminal vehicular homicide and settled the civil lawsuit with by the family of Phanthavong. Terms were not disclosed.)

Schwebel has been doing his job right for decades—as his colleagues, opponents, and fast-growing legion of admirers can attest.

“He’s always gone the extra mile for his clients,” says attorney Michael McNee. “Over the course of 35 years, I’ve seen that he always spends what he must in time and resources in order to get a favorable resolution. He will do everything he possibly can to improve the lives of his clients.”

“I’ve known Jim professionally for at least 45 years, both while I was in the law practice and later as a judge,” says Andrew Danielson. “The highest praise I can give him is that if I or any member of my family or a friend needed the services of an injury attorney, Jim would be the one.”

It all started in a working class neighborhood of St. Paul, where Schwebel was one of four children born to his father, a mail carrier and truck driver, and his mother, a secretary. His parents stressed the value of education, which carried him to Cretin High School and the University of Minnesota.

“I’m so indebted to the fact that I had parents who were uneducated, but they realized that the American dream was dependent upon all their children getting a good education. That was just an enormous value, and this was in a neighborhood where some parents considered it a success if your kid graduated from high school, didn’t get arrested, and joined the Army. So I’m very grateful for that.”

Schwebel, who these days augments his professional duties with motorcycling, running, cold water swimming, and traveling the world with his wife, Mary, was obviously born with a love of people, a curious mind, and a great sense of adventure—which took root the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Cretin. Inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road when he was 15, Schwebel hitchhiked across America, then joined the Naval Reserves on his 17th birthday, between his junior and senior years of high school.

“It was instant manhood,” he says. “The minute you put on the uniform of our country, you’re a man.”

He graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1968, and worked under the tutelage of Bill DeParcq, whom Schwebel considers the finest personal injury lawyer in state history. In 1974, he formed James R. Schwebel & Associates, and was joined by shareholders John Goetz and William Sieben in 1979. Since then, Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben has become the largest personal injury law firm in the state, with a team of 18 attorneys and 75 employees. Not bad for someone who admits he didn’t have much self-confidence for graduating high school or college.

“When I got my law degree, I did handstands,” he says. “I was absolutely thrilled and honored to be a lawyer. And I demonstrated that in many ways: I was on more committees and more boards than anyone I knew. I wanted to absorb the law and this profession in every possible way I could. I kept that law license in the front of my wallet, not the back. And to date, I am humbled by what an honor it is to be a lawyer. I see cases where people go to law school and after graduating they say, ‘I think I’ll go into owning a chain of bakeries.’ They take it as if it’s just some other incidental achievement.

“I really had a concept of total immersion in my profession. I wanted to try lawsuits, I wanted to serve on whatever committees the Supreme Court would appoint me to, I wanted to write books, I wanted to give lectures, and I did all those things as part of a typical 70- or 80-hour work week. And I can’t say it was ever really work. It truly, truly was my passion.”

These days, Schwebel says he works about 60 hours a week—all of which are driven by the same passion: people and their problems.

“Facetiously, we sometimes say we’re high-paid social workers,” he says. “The fact is, you really do care about people and you really do see that in these circumstances. So I think it’s a combination of empathy and curiosity. You really care about them, and you want to know more about them. You instinctively become their champion.

“You know that the best you can do for them, given what they’ve gone through, is going to be less than adequate compensation. But you do your best. I don’t know any [personal injury attorneys] who don’t feel passionately about helping other people. They usually keep doing it long after they no longer need the money. At the end of the day, you’ve made someone’s life a little more tolerable. That’s enormously gratifying.”

That same streak of empathy extends to Mexico, where Schwebel and his wife, Mary, have helped get stray dogs off the street and helped set up foundations that have helped hundreds of thousands of animals over the past 20 years.

“I met Jim and Mary Schwebel 11 years ago when I became involved with the plight of the abused and abandoned animals in Rocky Point [aka Puerto Penasco], Mexico,” says Nancy Phelan, founder of Animal Adoption Center of Rocky Point. “Jim was very instrumental in getting us our 501 (c) 3 non-profit corporation [status] in Arizona. He has been very supportive over the years. He is a true animal advocate and an angel to the many abused animals in this sometimes cold and cruel world.”

Those sorts of testimonials roll in to the 51st floor offices every day. Clients from 30 years ago write Schwebel to tell him how their lives turned out. Clients’ grandchildren call, thanking and re-thanking him. Widows who lost their husbands, but found a hero. A child in a wheelchair who is now playing basketball, who owes his wheelchair basketball career to Schwebel. Dog lovers who recount with humor and amazement at Schwebel’s heart in always taking stray dogs to get rabies vaccinations, so he can save them and bring them across the Mexican border.

Show me a person who cannot walk by a sick and abandoned dog, and I will show you a good plaintiffs’ trial lawyer,” says Schwebel. “To be able to help someone out who has had their life turned upside down, or their heart torn by the loss of a family member, is an extremely rewarding occupation. The world will always overwhelm us with more problems and suffering than we could ever deal with. Yet it feels so good to light that one candle than to curse the darkness.”

Photo by: Rich Fleischman

Photo by: Rich Fleischman

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