Jim Weis

2005 Robert L. Habush Trial Lawyer of the Year Receipient

 

Below are comments given at the Annual Dinner on the Selection of the Robert L. Habush Trial Lawyer of the Year.  President Bruce Bachhuber presented the award.

 

It is my privilege to present the Robert L. Habush Trial Lawyer of the Year Award.

If you want a great lawyer and a great person, I have just the person for you.

  • He has a long history of commitment to WATL.
  • He co-chaired the College of Trial Advocacy.
  • He has served in every office from Treasurer to President.
  • He has successfully sued and tried cases both big and small.
  • He has the unanimous respect of his peers both on the defense and plaintiff’s side of the bar.
  • Among all of those that know him, he is universally regarded as a “great guy.”

In the words of one of the nominators:

“There is evenness, a balance to this man; he is the same regardless of whether he’s talking to a WATL gathering, arguing with opposing counsel or addressing a court. His homespun humor and wisdom are his hallmark. He is never haughty and he always takes pains to speak plainly, truthfully and with respect.

“With respect to the quality of his legal work, he has been admitted to the American College of Trial Lawyers, he has been admitted to ABOTA and he has been president of this organization. He is listed in the Best Lawyers in America and he is certified by the NBTA.

“There has been no lawyer who, over the past twenty years has done more in a wider variety of services to WATL, the plaintiff’s bar and the legal community as a whole, than Jim Weis. I can think of no lawyer in the State of Wisconsin more deserving of this award than Jim.”

Please join me in honoring the Trial Lawyer of 2003, Jim Weis.

 

Comments by Jim Weis

When I first heard that WATL had designated me for this recognition my initial thought was one of concern.  I love this organization and value it’s reputation and effectiveness.  I feared that my selection would cause many to believe that the leadership of this organization had, in the words of my grandmother, completely taken leave of their senses.

But after having been told that my apparent mistaken selection was final, the serious word that came to my mind was privilege--because I have been and am privileged in so many ways.

I’m privileged to practice in a state where the vast majority of attorneys and judges treat each other and litigants honestly and with dignity and respect.

I’m privileged to work in a firm with a great group of partners and staff.  It is a joy to come to a meeting with my partners.  They are smart, committed and hard working but most important, they have a great sense of humor.  I’ve often said that they, as a group, possess the perfect degree of irreverence.  They tolerate me with a smile when I take on some lost cause.  Young or old, I learn something from them every time we get together and I’m lucky to have the privilege to call them partners.

I’m privileged to have the opportunity to be mentored by Bob Habush, the man for whom this award is named and who constantly amazes me with his commitment and capability.  I’ve never met any one with more of a fire in his belly for the little guy and I’m awfully thankful that he is on our side.

I’m privileged to be a member of this organization and to enjoy the help, comradely and commiseration that makes this group what it is.  The talent of the people in WATL is nothing short of remarkable.  I always marvel when I get on a conference call with the amicus committee members at how bright and creative they are.  I never remember calling a member of this organization for help or advise and being denied.  I’m proud to be a member of this Academy.

I’m privileged like many us are, to be part of a, supportive family and to have a loving wife, who understand the excesses that our profession sometimes demands.

But perhaps the greatest privilege of all is the privilege of being able to represent the people that we do.  In thinking back on last year the case that was the most satisfying to me was a case that lasted two days, for which no file was ever opened and no fee received.  I’d like to tell you tonight about a man named Tom because I hope his story illustrates what’s good about this organization and why we do what we do.

Tom called us last summer.  He lives in Mercer, Wisconsin with his wife. If you go much further north than Mercer, you fall into the big lake.  Tom would tell you that he gets by but the fact of the matter is that Tom is poor, but too proud to complain about it.  Three years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare but potent form of cancer and his prognosis was not good.   He went to the Marshfield Clinic and with some aggressive treatment the disease was controlled.

After finishing his treatment his Doctor’s told him that he would need to continue to take medication in order to keep the cancer at bay.  At the time Tom called us he had been on the medication for three years and the treatment had been successful in keeping his disease in remission.

His health insurance company paid for the treatment for those three years. Then some new adjustor was assigned to Tom’s file and decided that the treatment was experimental and told Tom that they would no longer pay for the medication. 

Tom protested, as best as he could, but the insurance company stood pat on its denial.  Tom asked for help from his Doctors at Marshfield. His chief oncologist wrote a detailed five-page letter explaining that this treatment was not experimental and was necessary to keep Tom alive.  Still they refused to budge.  Tom appealed the decision through all channels but to no avail.  No one would listen to him.  His voice was simply not heard.

He called us after the last denial had been received and shortly before the medication was to be cut off. He was a dignified man but the desperation in his voice was obvious.  There was simply no way that he could afford this lifesaving medication. He was poor, he was scared and he felt helpless.  He said that he felt bad about calling because he didn’t know how he would pay us.  He said that he called only as a last resort.

Tom sent the letter that was written by his Doctors and it arrived the next day.  True to what Tom said, the letter made it clear that this treatment, while uncommon, given the rarity of his disease, was not experimental.  It also made clear that without it, Tom would simply not make it.

I called the insurance company that morning and asked for the president of the Wisconsin Division.  He, of course was not available.  I left specific instructions with his secretary to leave him a message and no matter how else she phrased the message to be sure to use three specific words, bad faith and death. She apparently carried out the instructions because within an hour I received a call from the president.

I explained the situation to him.  Our conversation was civil, but guarded on his part.  He was polite, but non-committal.  It was clear that he was not enjoying our conversation. When we finished talking, I had no idea what he would do.

I don’t believe that he knew me in any way.  He didn’t need to.  He was a smart man and knew that my firm was standing to my right, and this organization to my left.  He knew if he chose not to do the right thing that, we, you and I, would bring his company to justice.  He knew that if they let Tom die, they would be held to account.  He knew this because many of you sitting here tonight and many who have gone before us in this organization have taught companies like his that they simply cannot get away with cheating a man like Tom.

Later that afternoon I received a call from Tom.  He had just received a call from the company.  His benefits had been reinstated.  Tom didn’t know what to say.  His wife simply cried.  The next day Tom’s wife traveled the 60 miles from Mercer to Rhinelander to bring a coffee cake to the office.  She said that she needed to express her appreciation somehow and was sorry that she couldn’t do more.

While I would like to think that it was a sense of fairness that persuaded the company to reinstate the benefits, I suspect it was the doomsday accountant dwelling in the recesses of the president’s mind that did the trick.  I know full well that I had little or nothing to do with this success in representing Tom.  The president heard that doomsday accountant, and was persuaded to do the right thing, due to good work done by members of this Academy.  Individually, we are powerless, but together we hold the ability to keep even large corporations honest.  Together, we level the playing field for those like Tom.

So tonight, I offer you my heartfelt thanks, but I can accept this award, only if I can share it with you and with the loved ones that provide us with the support and tolerance we need in order to do this work.  Tonight, I would like to share Tom’s thanks, his wife’s coffee cake and this award with you.  Because without each of us standing together, none of us could enjoy the greatest privilege of all — the privilege to be the voice of Tom.

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