Nov. 20, 2023
Consumer attorneys hand out honors at annual convention
The Consumer Attorneys of the Year Award went to Deborah Chang, Randi McGinn, Zoe Littlepage with Athea Trial Lawyers LLP in El Segundo and Frank D. Penney and Joshua C. Boyce with Frank Penney Injury Lawyers PC in Roseville.
The Consumer Attorneys of California annual awards dinner had a bit of a different feel this year -- a moment summed up when incoming President Kathryn A. Stebner came to the stage while the disco classic "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" boomed through the ballroom.
"I stand here as your first gay president," said Stebner, who practices elder abuse law with Stebner Gertler Guadagni & Kawamoto in San Francisco. "I want you to know I take that responsibility, as Scott knows, very, very seriously. It's a responsibility that we have as the first of anything."
"Scott" is Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who accepted CAOC's Legislator of the Year Award minutes earlier. The former San Francisco Deputy City Attorney is also openly gay, and has known Stebner for years. Introducing Wiener at the beginning of the night, outgoing President Gregory G. Rizio spoke about the slurs and death threats Wiener has endured -- particularly after he was called out by a "wack job in D.C." This was a reference to Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who used her Twitter account last year to label Wiener a "communist groomer."
"I've never had to call my mother and say 'No mom,' I'm not going to wear a bulletproof vest to work today,'" Rizio said.
But rather than recounting his brief Twitter war with Green, Wiener spoke about the bill that helped win him the award. SB 365 ends the practice of automatically staying superior court cases when one party -- generally the defendant -- moves to compel arbitration. Wiener said the law was necessary to ensure protections for workers and consumers passed by lawmakers actually help people.
"Sometimes, government gives with one hand and takes with another," Wiener said. "We're going to give you this beautiful right, this right not to be screwed over by your employer, this right not to be screwed over by someone who is selling you something. We're going to give you this beautiful, majestic right and then we're going to take it away with the other hand by adopting extreme procedural rules, like extreme arbitration rules that make it absolutely impossible to ever enforce that right. That is what SB 365 is about."
Stebner said she has also received abuse for who she is. But she made it clear she would not hide her identity during a year that will be all about "inclusivity."
"I am also Buddhist, I am a tree hugger, I don't eat meat, and I'm politically progressive," she said. "I've also been spit on, called names, jeered at, I've hidden who I am out of shame and fear. The road to this podium has been gut wrenching sometimes."
She added, "I've arrived at this moment having seen life through a different prism than many people in this room."
The rest of the night honored the nominees for CAOC's two biggest awards. The Consumer Attorneys of the Year Award went to Deborah Chang, Randi McGinn, Zoe Littlepage with Athea Trial Lawyers LLP in El Segundo and Frank D. Penney and Joshua C. Boyce with Frank Penney Injury Lawyers PC in Roseville.
This team represented the family of Esther Nakajjigo. The 25-year-old was a television star, philanthropist and Uganda's first Ambassador for Women and Girls. She was killed by an unsecured swinging gate while visiting Arches National Park in Utah in 2020. In January, the team won a $10 million award from the United States Park Service, the largest wrongful death award ever from a federal court in Utah. The Service is now required to have a locking mechanism on all similar gates. Michaud v. United States of America, 2:21-cv-00722-BSJ (D. Utah, filed Dec. 10, 2021).
CAOC honored San Diego personal injury attorney Maria Kelly as its Street Fighter of the Year. Kelly represented former Navy SEAL Jonathan Fuller, who was forced to retire after being rear-ended in an automobile crash. The at-fault driver died. Kelly was able to overcome the insurers claim that the accident had been caused when the deceased driver suffered a sudden medical emergency prior to the crash. She was also able to show that Fuller's injuries were exacerbated by dozens of concussions he suffered while in combat in Iraq.