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Litigator Profile – Going Long

Verdicts & Settlements
July 30, 1999
By Diane Taylor
Staff Writer

Like many other expectant fathers, Brian J. Panish looks and sounds tired. Panish is not a novice, however. He and wife Rosemary have already gained significant parenting experience raising 7-year-old Kathryn and 6-year-old Diana. But for the first time, Panish is anticipating the arrival of a son, due in approximately two weeks.

The baby boy is not the only first for Panish. On July 9, Panish and his trial team obtained a $4.9 billion verdict against General Motors, by all accounts the largest amount ever awarded in a personal injury action. Panish’s clients were burn victims whose 1979 Chevrolet Malibu erupted into flames after being rear-ended by a drunk driver.

Panish initially took on the case five years ago. Since then, he and partner Christine Spagnoli have spent an immeasurable number of house on the litigation, doggedly accumulating evidence to use against GM.

In the end their efforts, as well as those of two other law firms Panish brought in for the trial, have been amply rewarded. After 11 weeks of trial and two days of deliberation, a jury unanimously found GM liable for 95 percent of the plaintiffs’ injuries.

For Panish, the victory was gratifying. However, it was only the latest in a long string of legal triumphs he has achieved over the last 15 years. Since graduating from Southwestern University Law School in 1984, Panish, 41, has obtained more than 55 verdicts and settlements in excess of $1 million.

“Brian is probably one of the best lawyers in the country because of the confluence of talents he possesses,” says Harvey Levine of San Diego’s Levine, Steinberg & Miller. “There are very few lawyers who prepare for a case like he does or who have the same tenacity and commitment to their clients.”

Levine, a former law professor at the University of San Diego, has known Panish since his early days as a litigator. Unlike many accomplished attorneys, says Levine, Panish is always eager to learn and listen.

“Brian presents himself as a student during preparation for trial and is always willing to discuss any issues that may arise,” Levine continues. “He also possesses a wonderful sense of humor. When he tells a story, it’s always infused with drama and wit – you never fall asleep.”

An integral part of Panish’s success is his competitive spirit. During his college years, Panish played football for California State University, Fresno, excelling as a free safety for the Bulldog defense. In his junior and senior years, the Bulldogs captured the league championship, and Panish received both the scholar athlete award and athletic director’s award.

Although Panish aspired to play professional football, he went straight to law school after obtaining his bachelor’s degree in 1980. He believed he wasn’t good enough to make it as a professional football player, especially after sustaining an injury his senior year. So he followed the path his father, Howard Panish, had taken and enrolled in law school.

“When I was a kid, I went to see my father argue during his trials,” Panish says. “And I liked that a lot. Since I couldn’t play football, I thought, ‘Why not?'”

After earning his J.D., Panish spent his first three years of practice at Long Beach’s Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack. At Engstrom, Panish litigated product liability, personal injury, crop dusting and aviation cases.

“In my third or fourth month as an attorney, I participated in my first trial. It was a great experience for me,” says Panish. “I was doing a lot of defense trials at the firm. Lee Lipscomb and Walter Lack were instrumental in helping me develop as a young lawyer.”

In 1987, Panish moved to [a Santa Monica law firm]. He joined the firm because of its reputation as the premiere plaintiffs’ personal injury law firm in California. According to Panish, the 20-person firm had the distinction of obtaining the largest number of million-dollar verdicts in the state.

He also wanted to make the switch to plaintiffs work.

“I like dealing with people, especially the victims,” Panish says. “The clients that we represent come to us because they’ve got some wrongs that need to be made right, and there’s no one else that’s going to do it but us.”

Panish handled product liability, police misconduct, employment, business torts and insurance bad faith cases.

Success came fairly quickly. In 1988, he settled two big personal injury cases, one for $3.75 million, and another for $4.5 million. The following year, he litigated a wrongful death/police misconduct case against the city of Torrance, garnering an $8.1 million verdict. That same year, Panish obtained a $15.6 million verdict on behalf of a 24-year-old laborer who was shot and rendered paraplegic in a hotel.

Panish made partner six years after joining the firm, and after a couple of restructuring changes, the firm [added ‘Panish’ to the name of the law firm] in 1996.

Throughout the 1990s, Panish’s winning streak continued unabated. According to Spagnoli, Panish still acts as if he’s on the football field.

“Brian is someone who never quits,” she says. “He throws everything he has into a case – working on it day and night, non-stop.”

Spagnoli adds that Brian is especially skilled at cross-examination. “He definitely lives up to his college mascot – the bulldog,” she says.

Panish, who still keeps a stuffed bulldog in his office and whose “favorite trial moments” scrapbook contains clippings from his football victories, probably wouldn’t mind the analogy.

“There are only three aspects of life where there’s always a winner and loser,” he quips, “politics, sports and courtroom law.”

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