Celebrated personal injury attorney Mary Alexander views the law with a scientific eye and her clients with a compassionate heart. A former environmental health and toxicology scientist, Alexander entered the legal field more than 30 years ago and has been fighting for consumers in California and nationwide ever since. She has litigated tirelessly on behalf of victims of negligence, with clients ranging from victims of preventable car crashes to survivors of sexual abuse. In the latter area, she is widely recognized for her work representing victims of childhood sexual abuse by clergy members – cases that are emotionally and logistically difficult to bring to court. But Alexander knows the importance of being heard. In all her cases, she has one goal: Make perpetrators pay.
Alexander’s unique scientific expertise enables her to represent her clients with a depth of knowledge not only of the law, but also of the medical and biological implications of her clients’ injuries. In one such case, she was one of the lead attorneys in a twenty-year litigation against multiple paint companies whose lead-based paint had been used in California homes. After those two decades of battle and team effort, Alexander and her clients were rewarded with a staggering $1.15B bench verdict.
But money isn’t everything. With successful cases like these, Alexander generates not only monetary benefit for her clients, but policy changes that aid untold numbers of California residents and stop injuries before they happen.
Out of the courtroom, Alexander has been elected to high-ranking positions in multiple bar associations. She has served as president of both the Consumer Attorneys of California and the American Association of Justice, where she has continued to advocate for consumer rights on a nationwide scale.
Alexander was inducted into the Lawdragon Hall of Fame in 2021.
Lawdragon: Tell me a bit about the founding of your firm.
Mary Alexander: Well, my firm, in its current form, started in about 2001. Before that I was with larger firms until I went out on my own.
LD: Why did you decide to start your own firm?
MA: I thought that it would be very exciting to have my own firm and work on the cases that I wanted to do. We do general personal injury, but we've also done mass torts. Right now, for instance, I'm working on the clergy cases.
In California right now, we have a window open for people who were abused by priests or somebody in the Catholic Church to come forward, no matter how long ago it was, and bring an action. It’s very satisfying to help these people who suffered for many years to get compensation and justice. So, that's an example of the matters I’ve focused on that have been important to me.
LD: When did you first become interested in practicing personal injury law?
MA: It was when I was in law school, trying to decide if I wanted to be a scientist with a law degree or a lawyer with a science degree. Before law school, I was a scientist with a career in environmental health toxicology. I worked for a number of years at Stanford Research Institute in environmental and occupational health. So then, when I wanted to study law, I thought I could continue in the area of regulation as a lawyer. But the question was: Did I actually want to be a lawyer that was litigating and representing people? In the end, I thought it would be most satisfying to help individuals. I wanted to make a difference in the world and thought I could do that more by being a lawyer than by doing research.
LD: How do you feel that scientific background informs the cases that you try now?
It’s very satisfying to help these people who suffered for many years to get compensation and justice.
MA: I use science every day, all the time – particularly if I take a deposition with a scientific expert. I've had training and experience not only on the biology and the health side of things, but I took physics and had a minor in chemistry. So, I like to think they can't pull the wool over my eyes.
LD: One of the things that stood out to me about you and your firm was your motto that you measure success in lives changed, not in dollars earned. Can you tell me about any particular cases where you feel you were really able to make an impact in somebody's life or in a policy change outside of a verdict or a settlement amount?
MA: One of those cases was actually an almost 20-year case.
LD: Right, the lead paint litigation.
MA: Exactly. We sued the lead paint companies for nuisance in our homes, because lead paint was not banned until 1978 in California. In the nine public entities that we represented, there were thousands and thousands of houses that still had lead paint. The goal was to protect children from lead paint poisoning and to get the lead out of the houses. So, we went on appeal numerous times, we finally had a trial, and then it settled. That was a very long, hard battle, but it was satisfying to make a difference, to try to protect children from lead poisoning.
LD: Wow. How did that case begin? Could you tell what a battle it was going to be?
MA: Well, we knew it was going to be a battle, but we didn't know it was going to last that long. The City and County of San Francisco asked me to come in because of my background in toxic chemicals. In fact, I'd even done research on lead during my career in the laboratory.
LD: Another use for that science background.
Then, tell me a bit about your firm. You've kept it pretty tight-knit. Has it grown in the way that you expected over the years?
MA: The firm has grown in the way that I had hoped it would in terms of the cases that we do. In addition to the cases that I've mentioned, we also do pharmaceutical cases. For example, we’re currently doing talcum powder cases against Johnson & Johnson. We’ve done increasingly more work on mass torts, but it is still the individuals that we're representing. We want to make a difference in their lives, and we’d also like to make a change in the world.
LD: How have you seen those changes manifest themselves?
MA: One thing that I’ve found, even in my individual cases, is that we can make a real change. For example, in an automobile case we tried where there was no wall dividing a highway, a truck came over the line and killed my client's husband. The trial made a difference for her, but not only that – after the case was over, up went a wall. In another case, a man was hit by a train and he survived, but lost his leg. They had said, “Oh, we couldn't possibly put up a fence to keep people from crossing there.” After the trial, a fence went up right away. There are numerous examples of policies that have been changed because of a case that I brought when they said they couldn't possibly make that change. So, these cases really can help keep the public in general safe.
The goal was to protect children from lead paint poisoning and to get the lead out of the houses.
LD: Those real-world impacts are so important. Speaking of which, you mentioned the clergy sexual abuse cases. I know sexual abuse cases are at the forefront of your practice. Tell me about how you got involved in that practice area, and how you help support clients who are in such a vulnerable position.
MA: I started doing child sexual abuse cases at the very beginning of my career – so 35 years ago now. My first case was a child who was molested by a janitor in an after-school program, and I've been doing them ever since.
I first represented people in clergy cases when there was a one-year window that opened in 2004, and then we now have this additional three-year window, which is going to close at the end of 2022.
It was that early case that made me realize how important it is to help people who have experienced child sexual abuse. Sometimes, it takes people into their 50s or 60s before they can even talk about it, and they've never told anyone. Without a window of statute of limitations available, there's no redress for them if they choose to come forward.
It is hard when they're going through it. You have to really support them through the whole process of the case – support them in a way that helps them heal and helps them feel like they're getting justice and getting their power back. They felt powerless as children and that feeling often carries through until they get access to justice.
LD: I imagine it must be very different working on cases where the crime happened so far in the past.
MA: It is different than trying to litigate, say, an auto accident that just happened. Witnesses have passed away or other witnesses’ memories have faded. But the memory for the child – now adult – who suffered the abuse has not faded. I think it's important that the Church takes responsibility and compensates these people.
LD: Absolutely. Are there any other landmark cases that stand out in your memory?
MA: One of the important cases in my career was a bicycle case, an accident that happened in the Yosemite Valley. A woman came into the park and rented a bicycle from the Curry Company. She rode downhill, her brakes didn't work, and she crashed into a tree. She broke her neck and was on a breathing machine for life. That case was difficult because we had to prove that the brakes didn't work, bring in eyewitnesses, perform tests on the bicycle and go through lots of depositions. But it ended in a great verdict for her.
That verdict meant that we were able to get her the funds to get out of the hospital – she'd been in the hospital for two years – and get care at home. So, to have her own home, to have her own nurses, where she didn't have to wait for a sip of water or the care that she needed – that was really satisfying. And it changed the way things were done in Yosemite Valley.
In another major case, a husband and wife were walking home from having dinner two houses down from their neighborhood. They were holding hands and, in the dark, a drunk person came along, ripped him out of her hand, hit him and killed him.
It was a very dangerous roadway. Even though this was the residential area, there was no sidewalk – no place to walk except just on the side of the road. The city knew that the road was a problem. And one of the reasons was the school right there. Kids were doing the same thing. Children were walking to school along the road with no sidewalk, and with rocky terrain in certain areas. So, we were able to proceed against the city for a dangerous roadway and settle that case for money to compensate the widow and their two children who were teenagers. Also, there has been a change in the road now.
LD: That seems to be a common theme with all your cases. Yes, there's a verdict or a resettlement, but there's that real-world impact, which is so important.
How about recent cases – what kinds of matters have kept you busy lately?
You have to really support them through the whole process of the case – support them in a way that helps them heal and helps them feel like they're getting justice and getting their power back.
MA: We've also focused on toxic chemical cases that fit right into my background. Benzene cases, for example, have been big lately. Benzene is found in petroleum products. I tried a case for families of two men who worked in a factory in Arkansas, but they were exposed in California. We were able to get a $22M verdict, which of course is on appeal now, but I find those cases really interesting. I get to use my science background, as well as to get justice for families who've lost their loved ones through no fault of their own. They weren't warned and had no personal protection on the job. It is really important that the companies responsible are brought to justice.
LD: Are there any cases that have exposed you to areas of science that you hadn't researched in your previous career?
MA: I have worked in some new areas. For example, some pharmaceuticals have whole new diseases and mechanisms of action. But I find that I've been reading scientific articles my whole adult career and being able to know the language – to know the principles of, for example, a dose response – is vital for the whole gamut of scientific cases.
LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? I’m sure your science background feeds into that.
MA: I would like to think that I represent my clients vigorously but am still civil to the other side. I also like to make sure that the case proceeds in a timely manner so that we get it to trial as fast we can. I think it’s important to move the case along as quickly as possible for the benefit of the client.
LD: You’ve also served as president of multiple bar associations. Tell me a bit about that.
MA: I was president of the California Trial Lawyers Association, now called the Consumer Attorneys of California. When I was president, we fought three anti-consumer initiatives that would've really hurt people's ability to bring cases, and we were successful.
Then I was also president of the American Association of Justice, which is nationwide. When I was president there, we were facing a medical malpractice bill that would have reduced people’s ability to bring medical malpractice cases – and we defeated that bill, as well. So, I have spent a lot of my time and energy in bar associations to help make a difference for consumers across the country, not just in California.
LD: How do you have fun outside of work, to get a break from so many emotionally trying cases?
MA: The joy of my life is my grandchildren, and I really enjoy being with them and being with my whole family. I also do volunteer work, particularly for my church. So, in that way I do have an escape from my work.
LD: Over the years, you've received so many awards, accolades and leadership positions. To what do you attribute your success?
MA: Well, if I've been successful, I think it's not only from hard work, but really from caring about clients. Very early on, when I was a brand-new lawyer, one of my mentors said, “The lawyers who do well are the ones that care about their clients – not just about the money”. That stuck with me, and that's really been a part of my entire career and my approach to the law.