President's Award 2018 Honoree Speech
Eric J. Haag
Atterbury, Kammer & Haag, S.C.
Thank you to Heath Straka not only for his work as the WAJ President for the past year, but for nominating me to receive the President’s Award, and to the WAJ leadership and membership for finding me worthy of this award. I also want to congratulate Ann Jacobs on her receipt of the Robert Habush Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. She is a fantastic lawyer and a tireless advocate for the injured.
The description of the President’s Award indicates that it is for “a person who, in the course of zealously representing [his or her] clients or in advocacy for the voiceless, pursues and helps achieve substantive changes in the law of the state, improves our civil justice system, enhances the rights of citizens’ access to the courts, preserves the right of trial by jury or enhances the right of everyone to attain full, fair and timely remedies for civil wrongs.”
In December 2015, I was fortunate to get the opportunity to represent Sydni Briggs. She is a young girl who had a challenging upbringing, to say the least, and found herself at Copper Lake School for Girls in July 2015. On November 9, 2015, she hung herself in her cell and suffered a severe brain injury. She had waited more than 20 minutes after turning on her call light, a cry for help, before she hung herself. When I started the case, I didn’t know that story. Fortunately, I had done a fair amount of civil rights work earlier in my career, and I felt comfortable looking at the case and taking it on.
In discovery I discovered a litany of errors, incompetence, indifference, and laziness. I don’t pretend to be an expert in how to run a juvenile corrections institution, but I knew enough to know that Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills were a disaster. Some of the kids who were there have done bad things and undoubtedly deserve punishment as much as they need rehabilitation. Some of the kids, like Sydni in my opinion, were good kids at heart. Her transgressions were fairly minor, and it comes as little surprise that her prior life challenges and traumas had produced a child who was not exhibiting model behavior. It is easy to stand and be critical of a kid who breaks into a liquor store or runs away from home, but the critics have not walked in her shoes.
I am honored that our historic settlement will be able to meaningfully change the quality of Sydni’s life. I remain dedicated to making sure that goal is realized. It was an unintended bonus that the powers that be saw fit to close down Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and move on to a more modern model of juvenile corrections. The legislature’s vote to close those facilities came on the same day as our settlement was publicly announced. I know that my case was a cause – not the only cause but a cause – of that closure. I am proud of that result just as I am proud of the work I did for Sydni.
As we all can relate, some of our best legal work goes unappreciated. We have cases we try to verdict and lose despite excellent legal work. We have hard-fought, excellent settlements which are sometimes not recognized as such by the client. Now and then we receive a pat on the back for a job well done. After obtaining this 18.9 million dollar civil rights settlement, I never received a thank you from the same mother who sat in my conference room in December of 2015 begging for a lawyer. In fact, in my efforts to secure proper guardianship for Sydni, and to ensure special needs trust funds are being utilized properly, I have recently been informed by the parents that they do not want to have any further contact with me.
So, this recognition by you, my peers, is my pat on the back in this case. I am humbled and grateful and honored. Thank you all and once again, especially to Heath Straka for exercising his discretion to bestow this upon me. I will do my best to continue to earn it.