The Trials of Brian Robison

How one little girl taught a good lawyer to be a great man

Published in 2010 Texas Rising Stars — April 2010

In April 2005, Brian Robison was in the middle of preparing a major witness for a deposition in a huge international arbitration for one of the world’s largest manufacturers when his secretary asked him to step outside the conference room. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic were on the phone to give him the results of the tests on his then 1-year-old daughter.

“The doctors feared that Amelia had an incurable and fatal metabolic disorder,” says Robison. “They said they had no idea what would happen or when. They told me that this was basically a death notice. I was speechless.” The doctors said they could not prove the disorder for sure because the tests for the known metabolic disorders came back negative, but based on their observations, they thought she had one.

Robison spent the next five minutes crying and praying, and trying to regain his composure and focus. Then he walked down the hall to finish with his witness.

“I felt like I didn’t have a choice,” Robison says. “I was the only partner on the case and it was the witness’s only visit to the country and the deposition was the next morning.”

Exactly three years later, on April 10, 2008, Amelia Robison died in her bed at home. Robison and his wife were with her.

The 40-year-old Vinson & Elkins partner has become one of the nation’s leading antitrust and commercial litigators. His courtroom successes have been many and significant.

Robison has successfully represented the nation’s largest video retailer in a major antitrust lawsuit and one of the world’s largest manufacturing companies in an international arbitration. He has successfully defended one of the nation’s largest commercial lease financing companies in two fraud and antitrust class action lawsuits and represented a private investment fund in a $250 million oil and gas arbitration.

“He is an excellent lawyer who commands the respect of all the lawyers and judges,” says Liberty Mutual assistant general counsel Sean McSweeney. “His expertise is his ability to analyze these very complex class action antitrust and RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act] cases and to cut through the clutter to identify the successful arguments.”

“Robison simply outworks and knows more than all the other lawyers on the case. And he has a tremendous credibility in the courtroom, so judges and jurors trust him,” says Rob Walters, general counsel of Texas-based Energy Future Holdings Corp. “But then, when you learn what Robison has been through the past several years, you realize what a truly special individual he is.”

In November 2003 he was named a partner at V&E, which is recognized as one of the world’s leading energy law firms. A month later, Robison and his wife, Madeline, had their first child, Amelia. And a few days after that, Robison was hired by one of the world’s largest manufacturers in a huge international arbitration.

“I was on top of the world,” says Robison. “Everything was going great.”

But soon after birth, Amelia had difficulty swallowing her food. What she did swallow, she violently vomited in projectile-fashion. When Amelia was 9 weeks old, doctors discovered that she was aspirating her food (drinking it into her lungs).

“For the first four months, we inserted a feeding tube down her nose and into her stomach to pump in the food,” says Robison. “You can imagine how awful it was to insert that tube.”

After four months, doctors inserted a feeding tube port into her stomach, which is how she would be fed for the next four years. “She gained almost no weight over the next several months,” says Robison. “Amelia’s projectile vomiting was so fierce, we had to re-cover our couch, replace our den rug, and tear out the carpet in her nursery.”

He and his wife took Amelia to “more doctors and specialists for more tests than we could count,” he says. During a 23-day hospital stay, according to one test result, the doctors concluded that Amelia’s body was not metabolizing fats—a big problem because most baby foods are full of fat.

The next stop was the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. A metabolic geneticist and several other specialists suspected she had a fatal metabolic disorder but could not prove it. They tested Amelia for every known metabolic disorder, but all the tests were negative. The doctors at the Mayo Clinic put Amelia on a special diet of vitamins, enzymes and simple fats. The treatment worked. Amelia added weight and the vomiting stopped.

Meanwhile, Robison worked on his cases whenever he could—on airplane trips to see specialists, in waiting rooms, and during nights and weekends at hotels when Madeline would take Amelia sightseeing.

A couple of months later, doctors told him that Amelia had infant asthma, requiring four long breathing treatments a day, plus suction treatments with a machine that would suck saliva and mucus from her mouth, nose and lungs.

“Our home looked like an infirmary, with meds and medical equipment everywhere,” he says.

Robison and his wife also started Amelia on physical, occupational and speech therapy to try to get her caught up on the developmental checklists. There were numerous visits to doctors across the country, including another trip to Mayo. Robison would work all day at Vinson & Elkins and then come home to help Madeline take care of Amelia.

“We never gave up, and neither did she,” he says. “Amelia eventually learned to say four words and nearly learned to walk. Her determination was amazing. Her strong will not only saved her life nearly a dozen times, but also allowed her to do more than she should have, given her condition.”

Then, starting in November 2007, Amelia started losing weight. At first, the doctors were not alarmed. Many 4-year-olds lose baby fat, and Amelia was more active than ever before. She was nearly walking on her own and was going to Sunday School and to her mother’s co-op class twice a week.

In March 2008, Amelia’s weight plummeted. Robison and his wife increased her calorie intake through the feeding tube, but it did not help. That month, her digestive system finally failed.

“Amelia was so stubborn and strong-willed that she held on for another 10 days with no food or water,” he says. “All through her ordeals, Amelia was a sweet, adorable child. She had every right to be angry and scream all day long, but she did not. She fought hard for basic things that the rest of us take for granted. She had a beautiful smile and infectious laugh. She loved to have people read her books and sing her songs. She loved to swing at the park and take long walks in the stroller. She taught all of us about the value of life, the importance of living every day to the fullest, and the need to rally around loved ones going through a traumatic situation.  And her amazing will to live and succeed were a sight to behold.” 

 

Mark Curriden is the author of the gripping true-life novel Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism.

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