In February of 2004 I had the distinct honor, privilege and pleasure of introducing Steven Sharp at the Association of Trial Lawyers of America ( ATLA ) Winter Convention in Orlando, Florida. Steven and I were on the same podium with Senator Joe Biden. Senator Biden was the keynote speaker. I spoke for 4 minutes introducing Steven and he spoke for 1 minute. These are reproduced below. Sen. Biden spoke for 1 hour and 15 minutes – not reproduced below. The Trial Lawyers loved Joe Biden and he loved them back. The room was filled to overflow capacity with 2,000 plus lawyers. Joe was amongst friends and he spoke candidly.
I had represented Steven Sharp in a 5 week trial in Racine, Wisc. We won a 6.5 million jury award and the case went on appeal to the Court of appeals and eventually to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. They wrote a unanimous decision/opinion upholding the verdict (Sharp ex rel. Gordon v. Case Corp., 595 N.W.2d 380 (Wis. 1999)).
After the trial Steven and I testified in the US Senate in front of the Commerce Committee. I will post about that experience in the next post. But following our testimony ATLA created an annual award to be given to the lawyer and the client who came forward to make a legislative policy impact. It was named appropriately the Steven J. Sharp Award. Also, a book has been written about the case that I will speak about in post number 10. Click here to see the book on Amazon.
At the Orlando gathering Steven was signing books following Joe Biden’s talk. ATLA was promoting the Steven J. Sharp award to encourage lawyers and clients to come forward.
Bill’s Introduction of Steven
Author and Poet, and our past Inaugural Poet, Maya Angelou, created a new and important phrase. She said it is important for us not only to have heroes but sheroes. It is always wonderful when a poet creates a new word and by doing so brings into our vernacular a new concept. In this instance, it is the concept of sheroes and in so doing elevates the idea of heroes and sheroes.
It is very important for all of us to have heroes and sheroes. People that we can look up to, admire, and assist us in forming our ideals. One of my many heroes is Nelson Mandela. In my view, he is the greatest lawyer who has ever lived. This is exemplified so well in his autobiography, “The Long Walk to Freedom.”
What’s most important is not the identity of our heroes and sheroes, but that we have them. When we look to find them, we find the qualities of sacrifice, thinking of others, giving more than they take. Some heroes and sheroes on an international stage who have taught us various qualities are: Nelson Mandela, who has taught us about forgiveness and love, Princess Diana, who taught us what it is to be vulnerable and human, Mother Theresa who taught us the importance of an inner-life and being able to look to outward misery with compassion, the Dalai Lama who teaches us so much about compassion but truly teaches us about the importance of an inner-life, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, the Berrigan Brothers, Dorothy Day, and the list goes on and on and on. Heroes and sheroes come to us from the political arena, the world of literature, the world of civil disobedience, the worlds of science and industry.
We, as plaintiff’s lawyers, have a very special opportunity. We have the privilege to stand in the shoes of those who are injured or who have lost a loved one and attempt to articulate their suffering. It is through that process of attempting to stand in the shoes and to walk a few steps on the path of the individuals we are representing that we discover a little about who they are. It is so often that we discover courage and an extraordinary ability to overcome that arises from people who seemingly live ordinary lives. It is these people who we represent and interact with that become, over a period of time, our heroes and sheroes.
It was my distinct privilege, with my partner, David McKenna, with the incredible support of my partners such as Kathleen Flynn Peterson, to represent Steven Sharp. I will not tell you the details of Steven’s story because it was told so beautifully by Bill Mishler in “A Measure of Endurance: The Unlikely Triumph of Steven Sharp.” Bill, a Scandinavian studies professor at the University of Minnesota, decided to write a book about a seemingly ordinary person, and in the course of doing so discovered an extraordinary hero.
It was Bill’s first book and his ability was recognized by the most distinguished Knopf Publishing Co. His very experienced editor said, “Bill writes like a poet.”
It is Bill’s words that describe Steven so well: “Ten minutes after we had begun our conversation, I knew I wanted to write his story, not primarily because of the dreadful ordeal he had undergone or the remarkable recovery he had accomplished, but rather because of the qualities of courage, humor, and resilience he presently manifested.”
It was my privilege for five years as a result of an act of generosity from my partner, Leo Feeney, who asked me to represent Steven Sharp, that I had the privilege to come to know Steven. It is with great joy that I introduce to you my friend, and most of all my hero, Steven Sharp.
Steven’s comments paraphrased below:
“I got hurt real bad. I had to self-amputate both my arms. They were stuck in hot moving rollers in a hay baler behind my tractor that self-started when I was removing – not unclogging – some hay. It took me about an hour. A half hour on each arm to free myself from the hot burning rollers. Cutting off your own arms to try to live is a terrible experience. I will not describe it in any more detail here. I described it in detail to the jury in response to Bill’s questions and it is described in the book.
All I wanted was my day in court. Bill and Dave were my voice. I needed a voice. I could not speak in Court for myself with all the complication involved. All I could do was tell my story in response to Bill’s questions. When the other lawyer tried to put words in my mouth the Judge helped me out.
Please keep being the voices for people like me. And please Senator Biden please never let anyone take away a day in Court for anyone like me.”
Steve received a standing ovation that was longer and filled with more passion than anything I have ever witnessed.
I had brought my 13 year-old daughter Sonja with me to that convention. She sat in the front row. When Steven and I were done talking we went and sat with my daughter. She was the only young person in the room. When Joe was done talking people crowded around him. But he pressed forward immediately in order to first talk to my daughter. He shook her hand and said how delighted he was that she was in attendance. He asked her about herself. He listened.