Mark P. Robinson Jr. is concerned about the corporate bankruptcies he’s seen the past few months.
It’s not that he has investments in the businesses, or that he sees a worrying trend in the health of the overall economy.
He’s suing those firms—and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy can end a trial.
Companies in his crosshairs include alleged wildfire starter PG&E, which filed in January, talc miner Imerys Talc America Inc., which declared bankruptcy earlier this month, and Purdue Pharma LP, which is considering the notorious restructuring route.
Robinson, an attorney for more than 40 years, has news for executives who think a bankruptcy is a way to avoid paying out on lawsuits.
“Unless they are financially crushed, I don’t think it’s such a great strategy,” the senior partner and sole shareholder said during an hour interview at his office in Newport Beach firm Robinson Calcagnie Inc.
“I don’t think that’s a way out. Your reputation is hurt as a company. You cannot conduct your business in the same way as before. I don’t think your stockholders want to see you go bankrupt.”
Robinson certainly doesn’t want to see it. He’s one of the nation’s lead plaintiff attorneys, first gaining recognition for winning the infamous 1978 Pinto gas tank fire case. A jury awarded his client $128 million verdict against Ford Motor Co.
The American Association for Justice have called the Pinto case one of the 10 most significant civil trials of the past millennium (see story, page 33).
His firm is often at the center of the nation’s most publicized cases. He’s won a $417 million lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson for its baby powder, a case that was later overturned and is now on appeal.
Currently, he’s representing more than 1,000 victims of 2017’s mass shooting incident at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas.
Robinson is well known in Orange County and nationally. A graduate of Stanford University and Loyola Law School, he’s been inducted into the California Bar’s Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame. Last year, he won the Civil Plaintiff Trial Lawyer of the Year from the National Trial Lawyers.
Nowadays, his firm reports 24 attorneys, ranking 45th on the Business Journal’s annual list (see list, page 35).
It’s not a high ranking because defense attorneys tend to employ far more lawyers, Robinson said.
Robinson prefers to keep his staff lean, at one point falling to five attorneys. It’s a family affair as well. His brother Jeoffrey and son Daniel are partners while his daughter Amanda is an associate.
Partner Kevin Calcagnie is also prominent among trial lawyers, having won a number of awards and verdicts, such as helping the county of Los Angeles win a $3.3 billion verdict against several tobacco manufacturers.
While Robinson represents some corporations, his bread and butter are plaintiffs in the most infamous consumer injury cases in the nation.
He intends to keep it that way, although he’s willing to give advice to corporations if they ask.
A day before this interview, his family, including wife, Melody, six children and nine grandchildren, celebrated his 74th birthday.
Robinson doesn’t keep the typical schedule of a man his age and said he has no intention of retiring. He wakes up daily at 4 a.m. for conference calls with lawyers and clients.
Earlier this month, he spent a week on the East Coast, including checking on a bankruptcy case in Delaware and then five days in Washington D.C., where he attended a variety of events, including networking at the Civil Bar Roundtable with lawyers from around the country.
“It’s a way to connect leaders with what’s going on in the country,” Robinson said.
Robinson grew up in Los Angeles and is the son of Mark P. Robinson Sr., a World War II bomber pilot who was shot down and taken prisoner in Germany, an episode that convinced the father to seek a safer career as an attorney. The younger Robinson recalled one day in 1958, when he was about 13, his father took him to a meeting of 50 attorneys. Afterwards, he learned his father was named the first president of an organization that is currently known as the American Board of Trial Advocates.
In 2014, Robinson himself became that group’s president, traveling to 78 chapters and meeting 8,000 members. One of his accomplishments was to reduce the membership requirement from 20 jury trials to 10 because of the trend toward arbitration.
Robinson doesn’t mind arbitration if his clients want it.
“What I don’t think is appropriate is forced arbitration,” he said, noting companies like Google are moving away from the practice.
Then he said something that might surprise executives—arbitration can be more expensive than trials because of their length.
Civil in the OC
Robinson arrived in Orange County in 1974, finding a pleasant surprise.
“I’ve been all over the country—we have the best bench and bar in the world that I’ve worked in. We have a very civic and civil bar and bench here.”
He’s active in the Orange County Bar Association and teaches a course at the University of California-Irvine law school. His goal is to promote civility in the legal profession.
“Just because you’re on the opposite side of the case, that doesn’t mean treating the other side improperly.”
Robinson, who is soft-spoken and looks very much like the grandfather he is, doesn’t think he puts the fear of God in companies when they find out he is suing them.
“Frankly, there’s always the new kid on the block,” Robinson said. “They realize there are lawyers all over the country. Every day, I see lawyers on both sides who are very good.”
Robinson’s not too worried if the defendant threatens bankruptcy, or even goes ahead and files, as have some firms he’s been up against of late.
“What I’ve learned from these bankruptcies is you can still push forward your client’s case. It will just take more time.”