Photo by Robert Bliss.
It’s in the moments of solitude at the base of a Colorado mountain that you might begin to understand Ray Boucher.
He’s completed The Fourteeners, and many more in tribute to his father upon his death, which became his pact with himself. He lawyers in the most difficult way, as well, with his heart firmly entrenched in every case, every cause.
Guaranteed to cause wreckage. And, if you survive, lead to truth and beauty.
Boucher made his name as a California trial lawyer long before he took on the Mt. Everest of litigation: speaking up for hundreds of individuals who had been molested by priests and stayed silent – often for a lifetime – because of their faith. It was early days in what would become a tidal wave of reform when Boucher started to talk to fellow Catholics about horrific harm the church had allowed, covered up, and then denied. The battles he was required to lead against his own church cut deep, but not as much as did the stories of his clients.
To Boucher, the magic of the law is its power to effect change in the lives of people harmed by others, whether the others are organizations or individuals.
“I don’t look at cases from the standpoint of the rate of return,” says Boucher. “I look at them still, after 30-some odd years, and ask, ‘What’s the purpose of it, and what’s the human element that’s returned to our clients?’”
That element is a recurring theme in Boucher’s work, from assisting the family of Demetria Wallace in a mid-1980s lawsuit against Los Angeles police for failing to protect her after she agreed to testify in a murder case to winning the landmark $660M settlement from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles in clergy sex-abuse cases in the mid-2000s.
“When I look at my career and the cases that I’ve handled – the homeless man I won a verdict for, the clergy abuse victims, and the strike-violence cases on behalf of farm workers – they have a component in which people’s humanity is put to the test,” explains the founding partner of Boucher LLP. “In different ways, they lose a part of it through what has happened to them, through somebody’s conduct that was illegal, inappropriate, vile or inexcusable.”
More recently, Boucher has committed to work with families from Porter Ranch, a community in northwest Los Angeles evacuated after a massive natural gas leak at a nearby storage facility in late 2015 and taken on claims involving Juul, the e-cigarette maker accused of using candy flavors to attract teens to its products. He’s also working with victims of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Nairobi, Kenya.
“The thing about it is, I just feel like over the next 10 to 20 years, there’s so much more to do,” Boucher says. “I still love everything there is about being a lawyer.”
Lawdragon: It shows. Not only do you have a lot of cases behind you, you’re handling some very significant matters now. Tell me about Porter Ranch.
Raymond Boucher: With Porter Ranch, you have 36,000 people, and we’ve pooled a little over 100 discovery plaintiffs from the plaintiff group, based on four buckets, preparing for a trial in June, which has since been moved to September because of Covid-19: Renters who were relocated; renters who were not relocated; homeowners who were relocated; and homeowners who were not. There will be one family from each of those buckets who will be part of the first trial.
LD: How did you get involved?
RB: Initially, I was reluctant. Then, I looked at it and thought there were two elements that seemed unique. One was the potential for economic recovery for the business group. I represented a bunch of businesses, and we took the issue to the California Supreme Court, and we recently lost on the question of whether businesses could recover damages. The court upheld prior law that essentially said no, which I think is unfortunate, but I really think that the wildfires that burned large sections of California in 2019 had an impact on the court’s decision. I think they saw it as a slippery slope.
Where does the right to recovery start, and where does it end? FedEx can’t deliver up there for a couple of weeks. Do they get a recovery? Banks don’t have the same number of customers. Where do you start, and where do you end? For me, it’s really sad. You have people who are starting businesses, local gyms or small restaurants, whatever they might be, and it becomes a ghost town and they lose everything. That’s not a stretch. Unfortunately, in the end they are left without a recovery and without justice.
LD: And that’s what has happened, right?
RB: Right. It has changed now, and it’s getting somewhat better. That’s the real rub, and I don’t think the court could find a way to carve it in a way that would give clear guidance.
LD: What piqued your interest about the Porter Ranch gas-blowout cases?
RB: At first I had a few friends who had been impacted, the sheer size and magnitude of the impact, I think, from the standpoint of ultimate resolution. Meaning that this kind of blowout has never happened. The closest thing is the BP oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. That was in and of itself a different animal. So, for me, I filed a class action on behalf of the property owners who didn’t want to bring personal injury claims, but had loss of use and enjoyment of their homes and/or diminution of value in their homes. At first that has been my primary focus from the standpoint of clients, working with those individuals.
The litigation has been ongoing for five years now. People need resolution. We have an incredible group of lawyers working together and getting ready for trial.
LD: Can you please tell us more about the terrorism case you’ve been working on? I know you have a passion for international justice.
RB: In the Kenya bombing, all evidence showed that Sudan and Iran participated in and provided material support to al-Qaida, which carried out the attack. Long before I got involved, a group of lawyers put together a consortium, and they brought a number of cases in the D.C. Circuit, and both Iran and Sudan defaulted. So, they did the discovery they needed to do and proved up the case, and ultimately were able to obtain default judgments for these clients. Toward the end of it, there were a number of other clients who were left out. I was asked by one of the lawyers to look at them, and I decided to move forward and litigate to the extent that we could. Iran never answered but the Court ruled that the statute of limitations had run.
We argued that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the court to invoke the statute, which is an affirmative defense, on behalf of an absent tortfeasor, in this case, Iran. Because Iran chose not to participate. And, if you look at Iran’s history, I argued that they take advantage of the U.S. courts regularly as a plaintiff. You can’t let them take advantage of the courts as a plaintiff and then protect them when they decide to sit it out as defendants.
The cases went up to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal. On appeal, the court agreed and reversed the ruling. We were given a very short window to do our prove-up on behalf of our clients. So, to have folks go to Kenya, go to England to take depositions and do the discovery necessary to prove-up the damages in each of the cases. We had special masters that were appointed by the court to make recommendations and evaluate each claim.
We presented the proof to all the special masters, who have made recommendations to the trial court. Hopefully the judge will enter a judgment. We’ll have to seek payment of the judgment through the fund, and enforce then we’ll also have to seek whatever’s not covered by the fund, seek to enforce the remaining judgment against Iran.
LD: Do you enjoy working on that case?
RB: I do. It’s a complex, interesting case. You’re dealing with people whose lives are unalterably affected. Part of what we try to do is to bring healing. When we settled the first major component of the clergy abuse cases against Orange County, California, then-Bishop Tod Brown wanted to be the one to announce it, which was fine. He gave an apology. Whether people trust the apology, believe in the apologies, that’s always a personal choice. But you could see these survivors who had been so affected by what the church had allowed to happen to them, by the betrayal and the destruction of their childhoods and their lives, you could see this incredible humanness come back into them.
That’s the thing that makes these cases interesting. When you talk about a man or a woman who was out at lunch, and a bombing takes place and they’re pulling bodies out of the rubble, the effect on them, their lives, their families, their hearts and their minds, the nerves and the numbness, and everything that we feel, it’s just amazing.
In too many cases, particularly the sexual abuse cases, but others that are similar to it, including the embassy bombing cases, you see survivors or victims of them take their lives, become addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or engage in massively destructive behavior. For us, as lawyers, who are there to fight for their lives, their livelihoods, their humanness, to be able to see it actually occur and the change take place at a real level is what we’re made to do.
LD: Right. That’s what it’s all about.
RB: For me, I continue to feel blessed in doing what I’m doing. I’ve had this whole constellation of cases, and I’ve been involved and continue to be involved in cutting-edge litigation. Obviously, some of the cases we handle, and I’m handling, are more bread-and-butter type cases. They’re not all cutting edge.
But even with the Juul cases, the idea of marketing these products in the way that they were, a way that appealed to children and to teens. You can put all the disclaimers you want on the internet: “Sign off that you’re 18 years old,” right? “OK, I’m 18 years old.” But 19-year-old, 20-year-old, 30-year-old, 40-year-old people, they don’t give a darn about bubblegum-flavored nicotine.
LD: Right. You and I are not going to go vape bubblegum.
RB: That’s designed solely to addict kids, so that they have an ongoing slot machine. That’s frankly what we believe the evidence will show that Juul did: It’s as if children, and young teenagers, are a row of slot machines in Las Vegas. If we can get bubblegum and raspberry, and whatever the flavors happen to be, and get them to pull that lever, and make this cool, make it fun, put some hip-hop around it, they’re going to be slot machines standing there in a row for the rest of their lives, and we’ll make billions of dollars off of them. There is an amazing group of talented lawyers from around the country working on these cases. It’s great to be a part of it. Hopefully this litigation, both on the national and the state level, can help claw back some of those inhumane profits that they were able to obtain, and put it back toward health, and healing and recovery.
LD: It’s astounding how fast it started killing people and became known as dangerous. In retrospect, you wonder how we didn’t see this all along.
LD: Can we go back, for a moment, to the earlier stages of your career, the Demetria Wallace case. Tell me more about that.
RB: Demetria Wallace was a high school honors graduate and a student at Los Angeles City College studying to become a California Highway Patrol officer. She had been approached by a Los Angeles police detective and asked to testify about a killing outside her boyfriend’s workplace in May 1983. Right before a preliminary hearing, she got a phone call from someone threatening to blow up her house if she testified. She reached out to the detective, who said, “Look, you’ve got nothing to worry about. We have all these other witnesses. If you had anything to worry about, I would tell you. I stake my life on it.”
She said, “Look, I can go to Arizona and live with my grandmother. I can go to Venice to live with my boyfriend.” The detective told her she had nothing to fear. She also talked to her mom, who said, “Look, when a police officer gives you his word, and tells you he stakes his life on it, you can take that to the bank.” Those are the words that she used. A few days before the preliminary hearing, Demetria went out to board the bus to go to school and she was shot and killed in front of her house.
Her mother filed a lawsuit against the city afterward, and the trial judge ruled that Los Angeles didn’t have a duty to protect Demetria. So we took it up to the Court of Appeal, and in a published decision called Wallace v. City of Los Angeles, the court issued a precedent-setting decision in 1993 that created a new obligation to provide truthful information to victims and witnesses of crime.
So, in her death, she was able to accomplish what she had hoped to accomplish in life. It’s known as the Wallace Rule.
LD: Was that one of the first cases that garnered more widespread recognition for you?
RB: It was probably the most significant up to that point in time. Later, I took on a case involving pesticides, and the fight against Chlordane and Heptachlor. That was a fairly noted verdict and decision because of its implication. Ultimately, Chlordane was taken off the market and Heptachlor has been severely limited in its use. I’ve tried I don’t know how many cases, but I worked really hard earlier in my career to keep my name quiet.
RB: I enjoyed having anonymity. In a way, I liked having nobody know much about me.
LD: You could just do your work, and then go climb mountains.
RB: Exactly. But at some point, you handle enough cases, receive some awards that you get some recognition. I also got involved with the board of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles and the State organization. I think that changed things a lot.
LD: And after the clergy cases, there was really no going back. Are you ever in touch with any of those victims?
RB: I still get notes, particularly during Christmas, from some of the victims. Many are doing much better. Extremely well. I have said, and I believe, that there’s no case that’s bigger, per se, than any other case. For the most part, anybody that comes to a lawyer, they’re coming because something has happened to impact their lives. In the work that we do, on our side of the table, it’s normally something that has had a significant effect upon them, whether it’s a mild traumatic brain injury, where people can’t understand why, for instance, a dad who used to be fun, gregarious, and happy is suddenly angry, mad, and can’t remember things. The effect on the whole family will be a lifelong effect. Sexual abuse victims. Even rear-end auto accident cases, where somebody has soft-tissue injuries. When you see them and the effect upon them, it’s just as important as any other major case that you have. When we’re fighting for people, and we’re trying to bring justice, trying to effectuate change, it’s the human component to it, and the family aspect of it, that is so important. The size or value of the case isn’t what matters.
LD: There was a point in time, near the end of the clergy cases, where I didn’t know how you would be able to go on and handle more cases with so much pain. How are you doing with that?
RB: Well, there’s no question that by the end of the clergy cases, and all that had come with it, that we had several people in our office who were suffering posttraumatic stress disorder. I was Catholic, still am, but it rocks your faith. I put in an enormous amount of time reviewing DVDs, in which victims told their stories, and meeting with the clients, and learning, and understanding, and editing the DVDs so that they could be presented. Even if I didn’t meet with that particular client, I edited the video and handled other tasks designed to tell each individual story.
We had a number of clients on suicide watch at all times, and several that took their lives during the course of litigation, that it can’t help but take a part of that element of humanness away, and at least deaden it, I suppose, in some ways. But for me, I have my two sons, who are amazing young men. I write a lot of poetry, and I climb mountains, like you said. Still doing that.
LD: I think lawyers today are more aware of how the stresses that come with the profession affect their mental health. It’s more of a topic now than 10 years ago. And we both know that lawyers who take their job seriously see so much pain. Your ability to find your way through it without shutting down, to recognize the humanity of your clients and use your own to translate theirs to judges and juries is something I’ve always admired about you.
RB: I see so many young lawyers who are doing such amazing, amazing work. I think in Los Angeles, in southern California, we have a significant group of outstanding trial lawyers, and I marvel at the work that they do. For some, this is more of a business, and for others, it’s more of a profession. For me, it’s much more of a profession. The funny thing about it is I don’t find the practice of law to be overly stressful.
Certainly there can be moments of stress, no question. Certainly, there can be very emotional time periods, where you’re in a battle or a fight in which you just get offended by what the other side is doing. But I’ve had an amazing love affair with the practice of law, and I know that I’ll go to my death completely engaged in that. That, and the love of my family, helps me manage the effects of difficult situations.
LD: You just have to keep yourself attached to the bigger picture. And you can remind yourself of how much good you’ve been able to do.
RB: People talk to me about the church, and it was an amazing case with an amazing result. We had a good team of lawyers and people, and a dogged determination and resolve that every single survivor was going to be compensated who had come forward in a timely fashion. We weren’t going to fight over statutes of limitations or anything else. They came forward, and everybody was covered. So that was something we did. Standing up on behalf of everybody to the church, giving them that forum. It was a blessing to participate in that, be at the forefront of helping develop the strategy and executing it.
LD: Was it a defining moment in your career?
RB: When you watch a movie, the first segment of a movie gets to a certain point, and then you have what they call a plot point, roughly a third of the way through. Then it comes up to a moment halfway through, and again you have another shift. Then you come down to the last plot point, which brings you to the results, to the moral message. I don’t look at my life, my legal life, as the Catholic Church case. It is certainly a plot point. One of the results of it is that people consider me as this lawyer who works on a variety of cases.
LD: Incredibly complex and difficult ones.
RB: In some ways they are all difficult. I just handled an electrocution case on behalf of a young man who will never work again, who was a laborer, and it was an extremely difficult case. Coming into the trial, we ended up resolving the case for a significant amount of money that will take care of him. And I believe that there’s still so much more out there. The Porter Ranch case, for instance, is an important one.
From the day I started practicing to today, I’ve been in awe of what it means to be a lawyer, and do what we do. Like I said, I have this love affair with the law. I’m excited about what we’re still going to be able to do through the law, and what I hope to participate in doing as we move forward. There is still so much to learn and so much to do.