The 1980s: Building Buildings & Building Backlogs

In 1980, the members of the Orange County Bar Association left the '70s and their bellbottoms and paisley behind and tuned-in to see who shot J.R.

  The rapid growth of Orange County continued in the 1980s. The people of the county witnessed notable milestones as a result of this growth, and at the same time were forced to deal with many growing pains. The county saw its population exceed 2 million, its median family income increase 73% from $28,705 to $49,916, and the number of businesses rise to more than 50,000. Disneyland greeted its 300 millionth guest, and the county's first car pool lanes were built on the Costa Mesa freeway.

  New buildings defined the growth in the '80s. The $18 million Crystal Cathedral, boasting 10,661 panels of glass, was dedicated on September 14, 1980. The $73 million dollar Orange County Performing Arts Center opened September 9, 1986. The list of new hotels in the '80s included the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, the Dana Point Resort Hotel, along with the Four Seasons in Newport Beach. The cities of Mission Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, and Lake Forest were incorporated at the same time that the communities of Rancho Santa Margarita and Aliso Viejo were established.

  The rapid growth of the 1980s also brought evidence of growing pains to the legal community. The soporific pace at which the 10 attorneys who formed OCBA back in 1901 practiced law was long gone. In 1972, it was F. Lee Bailey, the noted criminal attorney (who later was to become co-counsel in the O.J. Simpson trial), who stated to the Los Angeles Times, that he "would never try a case in California because they were too long and too expensive."

  A decade-long challenge began by the legal community to try and ease court over-crowding and the backlog of cases. This thrust of energy resulted in "building buildings" for the Court of Appeals, the Federal Court and for the OCBA.

  According to an annual report of the Judicial Council of California, by June 30, 1979, there were 13,305 cases ready to go to trial without available courtroom space. Civil cases often got bumped by criminal cases, causing delays of up to five years to get into court. In 1987, Orange County had the second highest number of civil and criminal cases awaiting trial of the 21 superior courts in California with six or more judges.

  From January 1983 through December 1988, 21 judgeships became vacant in the county superior court. It took 7 years to fill the positions, despite the growing backlog of cases.

  Oddly, it wasn't until 1983 that Orange County had sufficient cases at the appellate level to warrant a Court of Appeal. Governor Brown appointed the first four justices in the Third Division: John K. Trotter, a past OCBA President who was already sitting as a justice in San Bernardino, and Sheila Prell Sonenshine, Thomas F. Crosby and Edward J. Wallin, all present or past OCBA members. The Bar Association held a dinner dance on May 20, 1983 to commemorate this landmark event.

  Unfortunately, what was lacking was a "home" for the Court. They claimed a temporary spot in rented offices in Santa Ana. October 1982 found the passage of AB 3763 authorizing the state to lease space in the "Old" Courthouse for the Court of Appeal. Work began on renovation and complete restoration of the Courthouse, including a state-of-the art approach to seismic safety. Inappropriate additions put in over the years were removed, including drop ceilings, carpet, and linoleum, and plywood partitions. Suddenly the original Basket-weave skylights appeared in the old courtrooms. Original 12-foot-high window and doorframes were refinished and re-installed. The "Old" Courthouse, while meeting the Historical Building Code, was once again beginning to look like it did in November of 1901 when our 10 attorneys sat in Department One and contemplated the future of our Bar.

  But, unfortunately again, in September 1987, Statute No. 666 vacated any claim by the state of the Old Courthouse, when the lease with the appellate court was rescinded by mutual agreement of the county and the state legislature. It was clear that the Old Courthouse would not meet the needs of the appellate court.

  At last, in 1988, the Court of Appeal found a home in the building on Spurgeon Street in Santa Ana, where it resides today. A beautiful symmetry in life was played out in that the very land upon which the "Old" Courthouse had been built almost 90 years before had been purchased from William H. Spurgeon.

  According to the Judicial Council studies in 1988, the Fourth District Court of Appeal had 165 pending appeals per justice, which meant Orange County was handling more appeals per justice than every other appellate division in California. The Appellate Court ended the decade just as did the Superior Court?backlogged and begging for more judges.

  The building of a Federal Courthouse was of high priority for the legal community, as well, in the 1980s. President Carter signed a bill creating a new federal court "place of holding" for Orange County on October 16, 1980, after an eight-year, hard-fought legislative battle. Congress approved the bill on October 1, after an unusual night session just prior to adjournment until after the November elections. According to then Representative Jerry M. Patterson who authored the bill, the idea of a federal court in Santa Ana was first proposed in 1973 when the OCBA approached him when he was Mayor of Santa Ana.

  Finally, January of 1988 brought the historic opening of Orange County's Federal District Courthouse, located at the intersection of Santa Ana Boulevard and Flower Street in Santa Ana. It was the new home of two district court judges, the Honorable Alicemarie H. Stotler and the Honorable J. Spencer Letts; one magistrate, the Honorable Ronald W. Rose; five Assistant U.S. Attorneys; the Federal Public Defender; and the U.S. Marshall.

  As most of our members know, Alicemarie Stotler was the first woman to be elected to an office in the Orange County Bar Association, and would most likely had been the first woman Orange County Bar President had she not been named to the Federal Court in 1984. Her other "firsts" included being hired as the first woman attorney in the Orange County District Attorney's Office, and the first woman attorney whose practice was in Orange County to be appointed to the Federal District Court.

  Even with the backlogs and logjams in the courts, very important cases were being heard in Orange County. While most people did not ordinarily think of Orange County as a "hotbed" of legal controversy, nor a venue for litigation with national implications, one of the trials which made this distinguished list took place right here at the courthouse in Santa Ana. In 1978, an Orange County jury rendered a verdict with an impact not unlike the nearby San Andreas Fault, which rocked not only the legal community but corporate America as well.

  Last year, Trial magazine, a publication of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, featured an article entitled "Important Civil Trials of the Millennium." The article presented a select group of ten cases from the past millennium, which it cited as milestones in the development of the civil justice system. Included in them was Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. (1981).

  In May of 1972, a new Ford Pinto hatchback unexpectedly stalled on Interstate15, erupting into flames when it was rear ended by another car. Mrs. Lilly Gray, the driver of the Pinto, suffered fatal burns and 13-year-old Richard Grimshaw suffered severe and permanently disfiguring burns over 90% of his body. Grimshaw and the heirs to Mrs. Gray sued Ford Motor Company, alleging that design defects in the Pinto made the car's fuel system extremely vulnerable to compromise or rupture in a rear-end collision, and that the passengers would be seriously injured or killed as a result of post-collision fires fed by escaping gasoline.

  Richard Grimshaw was represented by bar members and local attorneys, Mark P. Robinson, Jr. and the late Arthur Hews. Byron Rabin of Rose, Klein & Marias represented the heirs of Mrs. Gray. What appeared at first to be an ordinary product liability case, began with little fanfare or attention in the media. However, the six-month trial was filled with startling revelations about the inner-workings and thought processes within one of the world's largest companies, and how the bottom line can sometimes be placed ahead of safety and human life.

  One of the principal witnesses called by the Plaintiffs was Harley Copp, a former Ford engineering executive, who was fired just before Robinson was scheduled to take his deposition. Acting on a tip from a Ford employee moonlighting as a Detroit cab driver, Copp was tracked down and testified that he was forced to take an early retirement because he spoke out on matters of safety. Mr. Copp further testified that the highest level of Ford's management made the decision to go forward with the production of the Pinto, knowing that the fuel tank was vulnerable to puncture and rupture at low impact speeds.

  According to OCBA member Mark Robinson, "Several documents introduced into evidence at trial showed that despite management's knowledge that the Pinto's fuel system could be made safe at a cost of $4 to $8 per car, Ford decided to defer corrective measures to save money and enhance profits. One key document which came to light as a result of the Grimshaw case was the infamous "Grush-Saunby" memo, a Ford interoffice memorandum from the early '70s, discussing the costs versus the benefits of meeting proposed federal motor vehicle safety standards."

  Although Judge Leonard Goldstein did not allow the memo into evidence, he did permit Mr. Copp to testify that Ford "had put a value of $200,000 on a human life, and that even though inexpensive alternative design 'fixes' were available for use in the Pinto, management based its design decision on the cost savings which would inure from delaying or omitting corrective measures."

  The jury's verdict was front-page news nationwide: $128 million. Up until that time the largest verdict in America was approximately $20 million in a personal injury action involving punitive damages against an airplane manufacturer. The Fourth District Court of Appeal had this to say in a concise yet profound comment on corporate irresponsibility: "Through the results of the crash tests Ford knew that the Pinto's fuel tank and rear structure would expose consumers to serious injury or death in a 20 to 30 mile-per-hour collision. There was evidence that Ford could have corrected the hazardous design defects at minimal cost but decided to defer balancing human lives and limbs against corporate profits. Ford's institutional mentality was shown to be one of callous indifference to public safety. There was substantial evidence that Ford's conduct constituted 'conscious disregard' of the probability of injury to members of the consuming public." Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., 119 Cal.App.3d 757,813 (1981).

  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pressured Ford into recalling the Pinto and conducting modifications. The Pinto verdict was a wake-up call for not only Ford Motor Company, but for manufacturers and businesses all over the world. The specter of substantial punitive damages awards for reckless business decisions, which endanger the public, caused businesses to reassess their responsibility to the public. No longer could large corporations put profits over safety. The shock wave set off by the Grimshaw verdict in Orange County still reverberates today. Much like the phrase, "we don't want another Vietnam" is often heard in political decision-making, the phrase "we don't want another Pinto" has found its way into the corporate lexicon.

  One would think with all the involvement by OCBA members with the Federal Court, the Court of Appeal  and our county courts that there would have been no time to deal with OCBA business and "buildings." Not so! Not only did the OCBA pull itself out of financial insolvency during the 1980s, it also raised funds to purchase a building of its own!

  John C. Garrett, 1981 OCBA President, tells us that when he started his presidency, "There was no 'honeymoon period' for me. Within weeks after I took over, we found out that a staff person in charge of our bank account was embezzling from us, and independent of that, our executive director unexpectedly quit." President Garrett himself went to the "miscreant's doorstep" to reclaim the OCBA's check books and banking records. Next he deputized an interim executive director until they could search for a permanent replacement. When the replacements didn't work, a fourth executive director was hired, all in Garrett's term. Efforts to raise contributions from the members began.

  Gene Andres, 1982 OCBA President, followed Garrett's lead, and he was successful in wiping out the approximately $147,000 debt owed to creditors at the beginning of the year. At the end of the year, the OCBA had not only resolved all financial obligations but also had a surplus of $75,000. Membership continued to grow, as well.

  James Bear, 1983 President, began his year paying highly deserved tribute to both Garrett and Andres for their leadership in bringing the OCBA back to financial solvency. The OCBA then began the job of rebuilding its image. The year's focus was on tight fiscal management and membership services. Not only did the OCBA build a financial reserve, but placed a significant portion of the money in a "building fund."

  As is so common with our wonderful legal community, the members went, without skipping a beat, from an outpouring of generosity in response to the financial plight of the OCBA in '81 and '82, to contributing to make the OCBA the only county bar association in California, at that time, to own its own building. During the years of 1984 through 1989, the OCBA found a vacant building at 601 Civic Center Drive in Santa Ana, purchased it, renovated it and moved into it, thanks to the selfless service of the OCBA leaders involved in the "building project," and the Fund Raising Committee headed by Tom Malcolm and Bob Currie.

  The 5,500 square foot building that had formerly been the Southern California Edison building transitioned from dream to reality. A spot on the Recognition Wall in the conference center honors the building's financial benefactors. The OCBA entered the 1990s with a new home, new courthouses and a renewed vitality. We thank and salute the magnanimous generosity of our members and their firms that do not waiver year after year.

  Division Three of the Fourth Appellate District, headquartered at 925 North Spurgeon Street in Santa Ana, was established in December 1982. The justices of Division Three are pictured in front of the courthouse (which opened in 1989), on the cover of this issue of Orange County Lawyer. Division Three files more than 900 opinions and handles about 600 writ petitions each year.

Danni Murphy is a senior attorney with the Orange County Public Defender.