Delivered By Shanin Specter
Thank you for those very kind words. I would like to salute the 2001 recipient of the Michael Musmanno Award, the toughest man I know and a great Philadelphia trial lawyer, Arlen Specter. I also wish to salute my mother, who for the past 50 years has nurtured, clothed, fed, counseled and worried for me. I am blessed by two of the most wonderful partners anyone could want in the world, my beautiful wife Tracey of 22 years who has borne and raised four wonderful girls, and my law partner, Thomas R. Kline, and best friend of the past 26 years, who along with our outstanding colleagues at Kline & Specter are responsible for our success.
The first Musmanno dinner I attended was 1984 when the honoree was my mentor in the law, James E. Beasley. Jim Beasley offered three great pieces of wisdom. First, listen to your clients. Second, don’t take any baloney from anyone. He actually didn’t use the word baloney, but I think you get the drift, and third, there is no case more complicated than an intersectional collision. All words to live by.
And when he gave that speech in this very room 24 years ago, almost to this day, I thought to myself as a twenty-something, what is this thing called the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers’ Association? Why is it important? In the arc of my life that has been the past quarter century, I have come to know this organization as the greatest organization I have ever been a part of. Its meaning and purpose are critical to the success of our clients and their causes. Without this organization, we can be nothing professionally. Many Philadelphia trial lawyers have toiled and suffered and broken ground so that we could help badly injured people. This is the pen that was used to sign the minor’s tolling statute into law in 1984. This would not have happened without the leadership of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers’ Association. So many of the great cases on which we rely were advocated by Philadelphia trial lawyers - Hamil v. Bashline and Kaczkowski v. Bolubasz by Steve Feldman, Incollingo v. Ewing and Gradel v. Innouye by Jim Beasley; Thompson v. Nason, by Dave Shrager and Joanna Flum.
I recall in particular 2002 and 2003 when our backs were against the wall on caps and joint liability. Our backs were against the wall through no active fault of our own but because of stock market and insurance profit cycles that had forced health care providers to pay higher insurance premiums. And our backs were against the all because the public didn't know the rightness of our cause and neither did most of the state house and state senate. Our backs were against the wall in a room known only as S315 in Harrisburg where so called negotiations took place and in the Governor’s office, and in doctor's waiting rooms across the Commonwealth. And just as insurance rates are the product of 7 to 10 year cycles, you can be sure our backs will be against the wall again. But in those dark days 5 and 6 years ago a critical corps of our leaders had this attitude: that if at long last the right to recover in tort, a right enshrined in our Commonwealth's Constitution since the 19th century, was to end, it would better it would end, not through our surrender, but only after a call of the roll of the ayes and nays in both houses, the ink of the governor's pen on that warrant and a vigorous legal challenge in every court. That day came. We beat back the caps bill by one vote. We lost joint liability legislatively but won it in the courts. That day will come again.
But we need to do more than preserve the laws. We need to do more than play defense. We need a positive legislative agenda. It is appalling that a motorist need only carry $15,000 in insurance coverage. But that has been the law since 1984. Before that, it was $20,000. It is appalling that the required coverages for health care providers are less than they were in 1983. It is appalling that a boy who loses a foot in a defective SEPTA escalator is supposed to be satisfied with $250,000. It is appalling that a girl who loses a leg from a runaway school bus is supposed to be satisfied with $500,000. These caps have been the law since 1980. It is appalling that a parent may not obtain compensation for their grief when their child's life is taken. Yet that is the law. We need to change these laws.
I'd like to offer a few words about how to win these fights. Our fight to protect existing rights and our fight to reform the law.
First, please be assured that the leaders of our fight on that future day are in this room this day. They may be 20 somethings as I was when first I attended a Musmanno dinner. Or they may be veterans of fights of the past. But while there are superb trial lawyers across this Commonwealth, leadership on these fights has always come from this organization.
Second, to win, we must be strong within legislative councils. Who is your state house member? Who is your state senator? Who is going to run for Governor? For the Congress? For the US Senate? Get to know them. Teach them the facts of our issues. The facts are on our side. We are right. Tony Green of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice has produced terrific white papers on these issues. Learn the facts and educate the legislators. Support our friends. Oppose our foes. Do so with your pen, with your shoe leather, with your brain, your heart, your lungs and your mouth, do so with your fingertips and your keyboard.
Third, we must win the public's trust in what we do. When you pick a jury and the hands go up in support of tort deform that means we don’t have the public’s trust. When juries nullify undisputed evidence, that means we don’t have the public’s trust. No one out there thinks they will ever be the victim of another's wrong. That they will need to access the courts. That they will need the help of a trial lawyer. But, if they or someone close to them is horribly hurt and needs legal help, they will turn to us. We need our fellow citizens to believe in what we do in order that their legislators are convinced by popular will to protect these rights, in order that when our fellow citizens sit on a jury they are sensitive to these rights, in order that when someone from the chamber of commerce invades their living room television sets to argue against these rights, our fellow citizens are prepared to say "no, I know better."
That means we must explain to people what we do and why it's important. We need to put the facts on our web site. We need to write books and articles. We need to describe how we've improved motorist and patient and consumer safety for all Pennsylvanians and all Americans. We need to tell people that the trial bar is the best and often the only check on an unfettered fee enterprise system. We must tell everyone the importance of the right to trial by jury. And that right to trial by jury can't exist side by side with caps, with preemption, with the abrogation of joint liability, with sovereign immunity.
Fourth, we must narrow our differences wherever possible with the medical profession. I'm delighted that my close friend Todd Albert, the chairman of orthopedics at Jefferson, has joined us tonight. Health care providers are much more challenged economically by falling reimbursements than by the tort system. We need to keep our doctors close to us. We must advocate for them in our common causes. We hold them accountable when they are wrong. We need to help them when they are right.
Fifth, we need to reconnect with our community. Let's get out of the office and let's each of us find our own place to make a contribution.
We live and work in a city of 500 homicides a year. As attorneys we are supreme counselors -- but do we use our supreme skills as effectively as possible? It strikes me as odd that if a lady in West Philadelphia buys a television set on an installment sales basis and the set malfunctions and she stops paying monthly and is sued, we lawyers line up to defend her without charge. But if that same lady has 10 year old at risk son, neither she nor anyone else thinks of us as a place to turn for counseling, for mentoring, for a path to a productive life. But just last week Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Mike Pratt announced a partnership between the organized Bar and Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Philadelphia. There are many of Philadelphia's children, mostly boys, desperately in need of a mentors. There are no better candidates for mentors than Philadelphia trial lawyers. I'm thrilled that we are joined tonight by Marlene Olshan, the CEO of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Greater Philadelphia. These mentoring relationships, which take all of an hour a week, provide us with balance and perspective. They help us do our jobs better. And they prove to the rest of the world that the role of the lawyer as counselor and advocate is synonymous with the common good.
Tonight, as I proudly accept the Musmanno Award, I recall the paths blazed for the common good by the pioneers of this organization, many of whom received this bust. They made it possible for our clients’ causes to succeed. Today, like you, I’m just a soldier standing on their shoulders. I call on each of you to double your efforts, as I will double mine, to reform our laws, to improve our image, to educate our juries and in so doing, to win for our clients. We will only repay our debts to these great lawyers by making it possible for future lawyers to stand at this podium to accept this award in front of a group like this on a night like this and be able to say and mean these words, “I am proud to be a Philadelphia Trial Lawyer.” Thank you and good night.