Never Lose Heart
A stroke forced Margaret Moses Branch to walk in the shoes of her med-mal clients
Published in 2021 Southwest Super Lawyers Magazine on April 6, 2021
In 2007, Margaret Moses Branch was researching the best way to treat her dystonia, a muscle disorder that causes Parkinson’s-like symptoms. Botox treatments wouldn’t last long, and doing nothing wasn’t an option for Branch. Eventually, she decided on deep brain stimulation, a surgical procedure to implant electrodes into her brain and stop the tremors. Using the meticulous fact-gathering skills she’d developed over a quarter-century of advocating for women injured by negligent doctors, she found a group of Ohio surgeons with an excellent reputation, met with them, and read their medical articles on the subject. There was nothing to worry about, they assured her.
But when Branch woke up after the 2007 surgery, she couldn’t talk, walk or use her arms. The surgeons had inadvertently snipped an artery, causing her to suffer a stroke. “It was humbling and traumatic,” she recalls. “It’s one of those situations where you don’t know if you were better off dying or living.”
It would take her a year to walk again, longer to speak. For a while, her husband, Turner, used a harness to hold her up and get her into the car. Today, Branch, 68, is still partially paralyzed on her left side. Those who know her well detect a slightly different cadence in her voice, and a light slur. She is also legally blind—a result of inherited macular degeneration, not the stroke—and reads with microscopic glasses. A driver gets her where she needs to go.
Nothing, however, stops her from fighting for justice for the women and children she represents as the head of the Branch Law Firm in Albuquerque.
“She’s my hero,” says Deborah Seligman, an Albuquerque collections attorney who’s known Branch since their first year of law school in 1975. “It’s been amazing how she’s fought back. After she came home from the hospital, I didn’t even know if she was going to make it. … She was so courageous because she could have lost heart, and she didn’t. I really admire her for that.”
Branch does mostly medical malpractice cases involving misdiagnosis, surgical negligence and other issues. Due to the shift to Zoom and Google hearings, meetings and depositions during the COVID-19 lockdown, says Branch, “I’m doing more work than ever.” Of the life-altering surgical error—for which she pursued an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Cleveland Clinic—that echoes those faced by some of her clients, Branch says quietly, “Yeah, it is somewhat ironic.”
In 1955, when she was 2, Branch, her parents and two siblings immigrated to Kentucky from Salzburg, Austria. She doesn’t remember coming to the U.S., but does recall the nonstop cross-country moves as the family followed her dad from one military post to another. Her mom Penny, a former Army nurse who was forced to drop her career because the government wouldn’t assign spouses to the same unit, proudly shrugged off the term “housewife.” “She made that very clear,” Branch says. “She instilled in me the need to always be able to take care of myself, be financially independent and not depend on others for my success in life.”
During a work-study program at an Alaska high school, Branch applied for a job at a local Safeway supermarket.
“We only hire boys,” the manager told her.
“There’s no reason for that,” she responded. “Give me a chance.”
Branch quickly proved herself as a “bag girl”—the first in any of Safeway’s stores. “I was fast, I was organized, and I was good with people,” she says. She was soon promoted to bakery manager. But it wasn’t until college that she decided to emulate her uncle Donald “Fuzzy” Moses, a beloved small-town attorney in New Mexico. Suddenly, it occurred to her: “I’d like to have his life.”
She was thinking she’d settle into corporate human resources or real estate law. That perspective changed when, after earning her J.D. in 1978, she went to work for a Gallup attorney in “the big firm in town” of six lawyers and watched her mentor in action. “I learned that I really wanted to be a personal injury lawyer,” she says, “because you help the downtrodden.”
A one-year stint as general counsel for the Carbon Coal Company only strengthened that goal. “I was having to go up against people with employment claims, and I would tend to side with the employee, not the employer, who was my client,” she says. So in 1983, she took a break from law and pursued another passion: opening a Native American art store in Old Town. Her grandmother, a Harvey Girl who worked as a train tour guide for hospitality magnate Fred Harvey in the early 1900s, had collected Indian weavings, jewelry and pottery, piquing Branch’s interest at an early age.
It was love that enticed Branch back into law. She’d briefly met Turner Branch in the 1970s while waiting tables at the officers’ club. A “big dog” in the state legislature and the Republican party, he was 15 years older than she. “I knew when I met him that he was going to be an important factor in my life,” she says. “But he didn’t call for 11 years.”
Their paths crossed again in 1984, when a friend campaigning for a judgeship told her, “Turner Branch says he will give me a contribution if you’ll go out with him for dinner tonight.” Six weeks later, the two married. “He was very driven,” Branch says. “He makes up his mind he wants something and he goes after it.”
After assisting Turner on a couple of car accident cases, Branch joined his personal injury firm. She looked to him as a seasoned legal expert with a photographic memory; he relied on her methodical, detail-oriented personality to make sure nothing fell through the cracks. In the early days, she says, “We went back-to-back trials. It was hard to remember the clients’ names, it was going so fast. So I would prepare my opening statement, not for the jury but for Turner, and I would practice it around the house so he knew what the case was about, who the clients were, what had happened to them, what their injuries were, and how it devastated their lives. He’d hear about that through dinner, breakfast, throughout the day.”
They were a formidable team, no matter who took the lead. In 1988, a client urged the duo to attend a Santa Fe support group meeting for women who had taken the amino acid L-Tryptophan for premenstrual syndrome, insomnia and other health problems. Turner wasn’t interested, but Branch was, so he agreed to go.
One by one, the women shared their stories. The symptoms of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome, an autoimmune disease, were all there: shortness of breath on exertion, muscle fatigue, odd aches and pains. A few had required lung transplants. Says Branch: “Like COVID, some people had mild cases, other people had extremely serious cases.”
Leaving the meeting, Branch told her spouse, “I want to take this on.”
She soon discovered that the Japanese maker of L-Tryptophan, Showa Denko, had stopped cleaning the drugs to save time during the manufacturing process, creating a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. Not long after she filed the first lawsuit against the company, word spread through the U.S. and Canada; she and Turner ultimately litigated confidential mass tort settlements for approximately 100 women. “We had prepared the case in such a way that punitive damages were almost a sure thing,” she says.
The following year, she served on the national Multidistrict Litigation Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee on behalf of women whose silicone breast implants had leaked toxins into their bodies, triggering painful autoimmune responses. At one point during the negotiations, she was one of only two female attorneys in a room full of men representing Bristol Myers, Dow Corning and the other companies. “It was a little intimidating, because these guys that were negotiating for the defendants were big hitters,” she admits. “Their focus was the money, and my focus was more on the women’s injuries and the passion I felt for basically undoing the wrong.”
That passion paid off. In 1992, she negotiated a $25.8 million class settlement and, a year later, served on the team that settled a $4.75 billion multidistrict litigation matter for thousands of plaintiffs. “I felt that it was a fair resolution for the injuries,” Branch says. “I felt very honored by it.”
Over the years, she represented more women and children in individual and mass tort cases ranging from botched hysterectomies and birth injuries to missed diagnoses and defective medications. In 1989, she co-founded the New Mexico Women’s Bar Association to fight unfair practices against female attorneys and a few months later moved the group’s meeting place from the “male bastion” of the Albuquerque Country Club to protest less-than-ideal tee times that discriminated against women.
The case she’s most proud of involved a little boy who lapsed into a weeklong coma and suffered neurological complications in the mid-1990s after a Walgreens pharmacist prescribed the opioid methadone instead of methylphenidate, better known by the brand name Ritalin. Untangling the mystery of how the druggist changed the records to cover his mistake was tricky, Branch says.
But her big break came in court, when, after listening to the evidence against him, the pharmacist turned to the judge and dropped a bomb. “I talked to my priest last night, and I have to confess that those people over there,” he said, pointing to the defense table, “told me to alter the records. And I did.” “It was a Perry Mason moment,” Branch says.
The judge ordered a mistrial, but Branch later settled the case for “very big dollars” after the Walgreens CEO flew to New Mexico to meet the injured boy.
Branch’s stroke has stopped the former athlete from running marathons, although she has mastered swinging a golf club with one arm. Years after playing for a junior college in Panama, she is still enamored with the history of the sport, the equipment, the friendships formed on the course. Determined to fulfill other lifelong dreams, she and a junior legal partner opened Bourbon & Boots, a country-western bar in downtown Albuquerque, just before the pandemic hit.
What hasn’t changed about her friend, says Seligman, is Branch’s sharp intellect. “She just has an amazing grasp of a situation and how to maximize the potential and possibilities of the case.”
Five years after Turner’s death, he still is prominently featured on the firm’s website. “The loss has been devastating,” Branch says. “It took me three years to go into his office. That was traumatic in itself, but it had to be done. Every day you remember what it’s like to have him here in the office. But life happens and life goes on. Life is for the living.”
The stroke has taught her some other tough, but valuable, lessons. “It’s made me more patient,” she says. “And I’m more appreciative of life.”
Walking Through Fire
Margaret Moses Branch may be best known for litigating cases related to women’s health, but she has also forced tobacco companies to reimburse the state for associated medical expenses and represented New Mexico in major consolidated oil-and-gas royalty litigation. And then there was the water contamination suit against a large gas firm whose methane byproduct polluted area aquifers in the mid-1990s—a case that exemplifies her willingness to stand up for her clients, sometimes to a fault. “You can get too carried away with your passion and not look at the dollar signs and what realistically should happen,” she says.
The toxins were so flammable that the homeowners “could light their [faucet] water,” she says. Nevertheless, the presiding judge disqualified Branch’s experts, including her field hydrologist, whom she knew to be a reputable source. “So I decided there’s more to this than meets the eye.”
Trusting her instincts, Branch acquired the judge’s federal tax returns, which revealed that he owned oil and gas leases on the same northwestern New Mexico land named in a related class action. Her conflict-of-interest claim and motion to have him removed from the case made the front page of the local newspaper. “It was a very stupid move on the part of an attorney to try to recuse a federal judge, but I did,” she says. “Of course, he was beyond upset.”
After threatening to hold Branch and her law partner spouse in contempt and have their licenses revoked, the judge stepped down. But relief gave way to dismay when she learned that his replacement hailed from Midland, Texas, deep in oil and gas country. Branch was convinced her case was over.
To her surprise, the new judge reversed the previous orders on the Daubert motions, reinstated the experts, and paved the way for a new trial. Branch secured a favorable verdict for more than 50 clients. “My passion kind of exceeded what most lawyers would have done,” she says. “It overruled my common sense. But the [original] judge was wrong.”