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The Law: Troika of Torts

4 minute read

After the jury delivered its verdict in San Jose Lawyer James Boccardo’s most recent big case, one of Boccardo’s colleagues gulped: “What was it, Jim, a class action?” The question was understandable. In the ever-soaring market of personal-injury verdicts, Boccardo and two associates had just captured the highest money award in legal history: $3,650,000.

Any jury would have sympathized with the plight of Boccardo’s client. A diesel mechanic from Ely, Nev., Keith Bush, now 30, suffered grave brain damage when a bolt snapped and 1,250 Ibs. of electrical equipment hurtled down to crush the left side of his skull.

Pulling out all the forensic stops, Lawyer Boccardo led the jury beyond mere sympathy into thoughts of multiple millions. In addition to a re-creation of the accident and a metallurgical analysis of the broken bolt, he presented what an associate later called a “real tearjerker” film of a day in the new life of Keith Bush. It showed him being dressed, fed, bathed, shaved, given therapy, and finally being shifted in his bed during the night to avoid bedsores. Bush himself appeared in court slumped in a wheelchair. To show he was tragically alert though helpless, he tried but failed to shake Boccardo’s hand when asked. The jury gave him everything that was requested: $3,000,000 for himself, half of which is for the projected cost of care for the 40 years he is expected to live; $500,000 for his wife; and $150,000 for his three children. The award to the children was thought to be the first of its kind in a non-death case.

Attorney Boccardo, 59, is a longtime standout in the flamboyant brotherhood of personal-injury lawyers. His first part-time office in 1934 was in a mortuary; now his San Jose firm boasts 30 attorneys, ten investigators and the services of a doctor. “We used skeletons long before Mel Belli ever heard of them,” he says. He claims to have won more $500,000-plus verdicts than anyone else. “I’ve got the record judgment in every county in California,” he adds. Good as Boccardo declares himself to be, it has taken a recent association with two Reno lawyers to really start nailing down the superverdicts. If Belli still claims to be King of Torts, this trio deserves a new title: Troika of Torts.

William O. (“Bud”) Bradley, 46, and John Squire Drendel, 47, think of themselves rather expansively as “storefront lawyers who make money.” They set up their partnership in 1958 in a converted Reno garage, carefully chosen to avoid intimidating the frequently poor and scruffy clients they wanted to represent. They further decided to take “only the cases where there is a serious injury and clear negligence.” Apparent translation: cases that promise large damage awards. In each of the past five years, the duo has grossed more than $2,000,000 in damages for relatively few clients. For the very biggest cases, Boccardo. a friend of Bradley’s, has been called in to handle the trial.

$1,000,000 Fee. Last year the trio’s work produced $500,000 for a man who water-skied into a submerged stump and was paralyzed from the neck down. In another case, a jackknifing truck had killed a father, mother and three children and left four more children seriously injured. Boccardo, Bradley and Drendel won a $1,432,500 verdict.

For the record-breaking Bush case, Bradley and Drendel ran up pretrial costs of $25,000 and spent endless time getting ready for the courtroom. “It was the best-prepared case I’ve ever seen,” recalls Boccardo, who as usual stepped in just before the trial. Attorneys for the defendant companies were impressed, too, but they still think the record damages are way out of line and have appealed. Boccardo, Bradley and Drendel have more at stake than the highest-ever status of the award. If the judgment stands, their usual contingency fee of 33⅓% will net them more than $1,000,000.

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