Keith R. Clifford Recipient of

2004 Robert L. Habush Trial Lawyer of the Year Award


Keith Clifford of Madison is the 2004 recipient of the Robert L. Habush Trial Lawyer of the Year Award.  He received his award on December 3 at the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers (WATL) Dinner in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The Robert L. Habush Trial Lawyer of the Year Award is bestowed on that member of our organization who has made an outstanding contribution to the public interest or who has demonstrated compassion and commitment to advocacy on behalf of injured consumers.  

Keith Clifford, past President of WATL, amply meets these criteria according to his law partner John Raihala of Madison.  “Keith has dedicated his career to fighting those who challenge the rights of injured consumers to a fair trial before a jury of our citizens. He has fought for those rights in the halls of our legislature, in the media, in gatherings of lawyers assembled in this and other professional organizations, and, of course in our courtrooms.  At a time when many trial lawyers have abandoned representing victims of medical malpractice because of inordinate obstacles placed between these victims and justice, Keith has remained willing to undertake the most difficult cases,” said Raihala.

Keith has also been a leader in educating and training other attorneys.  “He has never forgotten all that he has gained from those excellent trial lawyers in WATL from whom he learned so much in his early years of practice.” 

Keith has developed and promoted novel theories to assist in obtaining better settlements for injured consumers.  Most particularly, he has pursued judicial acceptance of the application to third-party claims of 12% interest for untimely payments by insurers under Wis. Stat. § 628.46 and shared his theory with WATL members through articles, briefs and discovery materials.  John concluded, “he has always believed in his duty not just to assist his colleagues in the practice but to assist their clients by rendering advice and counsel.”

Keith’s professional background began with a stint at the Attorney General’s office in 1974.  He moved on to form his own firm and now is the President and senior member of Clifford and Raihala, which concentrates in personal injury, professional negligence, family law and general civil litigation.  He has been a Court Commissioner in Dane County since 1984.  He is also certified as a Civil Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. 

Keith also serves on the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin Patient Safety Institute and the Board of Directors of the International Breast Cancer Research Foundation.  He is also a Past Chair of the Wisconsin Civil Justice Education Foundation.  He has served on Legislative Council Committees on Jury Service (1990-91) and Discipline of Health Care Professionals (1998-99).  He was a long-time member of the City of Madison Ethics Board (1981-99).

WATL past president M. Angela Dentice wrote of Keith, “In each of my interactions with Keith, what has stood out in the forefront of our interactions is his true commitment to advocate on behalf of injured consumers.  Whenever he has discussed with me a case or legal issue, his concern for how to best serve his client takes precedence in the conversation.  Keith also demonstrates a commitment to ‘band together’ with other trial lawyers and dispense the knowledge and experience he has acquired, through hard work, to other trial lawyers.”

John Peterson, a former past president of WATL and past recipient of the Robert L. Habush Trial Lawyer of the Year Award, wrote, “Keith Clifford’s contribution to the cause of civil justice has been limitless.  The time and thought he has put into the cause of protecting our clients’ rights in the political context has brought as much to our success as anyone in the organization.  The wisdom and breath of his knowledge and experience has taught a generation of younger trial lawyers the very best about our profession.”

Milwaukee attorney and first recipient of the Robert L. Habush Trial Lawyer of the Year, J. Michael End wrote, “I believe Keith Clifford exemplifies what a Wisconsin trial lawyer should be.  He has committed an extraordinary amount of time working for the betterment of WATL and the clients served by its lawyers.  Keith’s frequent seminar presentations have benefited many Wisconsin people whose lawyers learned ways to enhance their recoveries.”

Upon accepting his award, Keith spoke of the importance of the civil justice system to our society.  Below is part of his acceptance speech.

As I reflect upon receiving this award, I cannot help but think about what it is we do in our communities, in our society and in our civil justice system.  That system is based upon principles, which we were taught as children, principles based upon the basic lesson that in our society we have an accountability and responsibility to one another.  This is part of our social compact.  In our system and in our society, we fulfill our duty to be accountable to each other by buying insurance with the promise that the insurance company will stand in our shoes and meet our responsibilities to one another.

Wisconsin not long ago was the pride of the nation in how it regulated our insurance industry.  It was regulated for the benefit of the citizens, not the insurance companies, under a code which was designed to ensure that claimants were treated fairly and equitably. 

Not long ago, in our practices, we could look to insurers to fulfill that duty just as they promised they would when they issued an insurance policy to their insureds. 

Now, however, something has changed.  We find in our practices that insurers fight every claim, they delay payment even when they know it is due, they impose economic burdens upon anyone who dares bringing a proper and appropriate claim just to make it more difficult.  And they say that this is a good thing.

We see this in our practices every day.  There is not a single attorney in this room who has not experienced — and does not regularly experience — insurers defending defenseless claims and denying payment which they know is due.  And we ask, “why do they get away with this?”  And we know the answer.  It is because they can.

In our courts, they argue hypertechnical and legalistic readings of policy language to avoid coverage which they sold in their policies for a profit.  They don’t discuss their duty to stand in the shoes of the insureds.  And they don’t discuss the rules that require prompt payment or fair and equitable treatment of claimants.  They argue instead that these should be ignored as meaningless surplusage. 

In our legislatures, they argue almost everyone needs immunity.  They insist that damages caps are necessary to protect insurers.  They seek special rules and special treatment to avoid their obligations to treat claimants fairly and equitably.

And in the public, they argue that all claims are frivolous.  They insist that our civil justice system is flawed. 

The burden of defending our system from these high-financed and cynical marketing campaigns is upon you.  You have accepted that burden in the past but it is now heavier and more burdensome than ever before.

This has been a bad year.  We know that the tort “reformers” have been emboldened by the recent elections in which they have seen a near sweep of legislative and executive offices nationally and around the country.  We know they are mounting an effort to insolate themselves even further from liability and from accountability.  We know that they are planning new measures to limit access to our civil justice system and to the guarantee of trial by jury. 

We are about to be tested as never before.  We face a long day ahead.  But, as they used to say on the old western movies we saw as children, “get plenty of rest tonight, we ride out early in the morning.”

And we will ride out early in the morning, to challenge the mistruths, the half-truths and the deceptions of this marketing campaign that suggests that there is a medical malpractice litigation crisis in America.  We will let people know that the real crisis is one of rampant medical errors in our health care system. 

And we’ll ride out early in the morning to challenge those who misrepresent that health care costs are rising due to medical malpractice litigation.  We’ll tell the truth:  only four-tenths of 1% of health care costs are related to our medical malpractice system. 

And we’ll ride out early in the morning of this new and perilous day to challenge the claim that doctors have been forced from their practice by medical malpractice premiums.  Just this past week the Patients Compensation Fund promised the physicians of this state a 30% reduction in their premiums for fund coverage.  Last year, our physicians received 20% reductions in their premiums.  Wisconsin physicians now pay premiums which are lower than they did in 1986 for their Patient Compensation Fund coverage. 

And we’ll ride out early in the morning to prevent anti-consumer zealots from further harming our civil justice system.  We are facing the most significant effort at re-writing the laws which govern suits in our civil justice system in the past 20 years.  One commentator recently wrote:  “These are changes legal scholars believe could alter the balance of the three branches of government; changes that could defang the civil jury so thoroughly that its role . . . will alter drastically, if it doesn’t wither and die.”

You will not allow our civil justice system to wither and die.  You will now allow our civil jury to wither and die.

You will be there to defend the rights of consumers in our society, to protect and assure fair treatment for victims harmed through no fault of their own, and, ultimately, to fight for our civil justice system.

And because you will be there as you always have been to fight for our civil justice system, I am proud to be among you and I am proud and humbled to be awarded this honor.  I thank you for that and for all that you do.  

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