A renowned trial lawyer, Frank Pitre has a resume replete with high-dollar verdicts and splashy headlines, but one of the cases that makes him proudest generated neither.
The plaintiff was an 88-year-old woman. Despite dutifully making mortgage payments on her home for 35 years, she had fallen behind on some of them and her lender was throwing her out.
The way the lender went about doing so, however, “violated the law,” the name partner at Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy recalls. “I was able to help her keep her house and to have the mortgage extinguished because some of the things that they did in threatening her were egregious. I didn't get any notoriety, but I got the nicest thank-you card from this woman. The one thing that she cherished was her home and it was the only home that she had lived in for all those years.”
It’s a common thread in Pitre’s cases, fighting for the powerless against the powerful, whether it’s advocating for California homeowners who lost everything in wildfires that savaged their communities or the relatives of people killed in a crash of the Boeing 737 MAX, a jetliner eventually grounded for months amid an investigation by U.S. air safety officials.
The desire to help people who feel unable to help themselves probably dates to his youth, Pitre says, when he worked in his immigrant father’s grocery-delivery business.
Lawdragon: Tell me more about that.
Frank Pitre: My dad came over on the boat from Sicily in 1954 and he went to work in the wholesale produce business in the San Francisco Bay area, delivering fruits and vegetables to small corner grocery stores and what I call mid-market independent grocery stores. Over time, he built his own little delivery service. My mother was the bookkeeper, my dad bought the merchandise and I used to load the trucks and make the deliveries before I went to school each morning.
I saw how hard people worked, and I also saw what happened to them: They'd put in a lifetime of hard labor and often ended up with bad backs and other disabilities. I also saw the unfairness that existed, with some people taking advantage of certain folks who worked in the business. I decided then and there that I wanted something different. I was 17 years old, counting boxes of zucchini on the back dock and asking myself why I was there at two o'clock in the morning. I decided I was going to take a shot at going to law school and see if I couldn't do something to help people. And that was the beginning of a dream.
As opposed to thinking that I was going to be the next Willie Mays or Joe Montana, I said, “Look, my way of getting ahead is through education and devoting myself as best I can to school.” I ended up being fortunate enough to do well in school, went on to law school and got my first job working with Joe Cotchett, who later made me a partner and I've been with that same firm for 40 years. I’ve been fortunate to handle some wonderful cases, meet some great people and be able to try a great number of cases. When the firm first started, I was lawyer number six out of six, and now the firm has about three dozen lawyers in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and New York.
LD: You must have seen the practice of law change quite a bit over the past 40 years.
FP: Absolutely. When I started, first of all, you got to trial a lot more often. I was fortunate in getting a lot of cases that went to trial in the first 10 years that I was practicing law. The result was that lawyers ended up trying many more cases, and I learned very quickly how to try a case. By the time I had practiced law for 10 years, I had tried a dozen cases. And a lot of those cases were tried for a minimum of four weeks to as many as eight to 10 weeks. They were your basic personal injury cases as well as medical malpractice cases, antitrust cases, fraud cases, product liability cases and intellectual property cases. I ran the gamut, trying them in federal and state court. And that’s what gave me the confidence to continue to move on and to expand. I learned that once you understood the fundamentals of how to try a case, how to present evidence, the only thing that would change is the law and the particular facts, but the fundamentals were always the same.
I had become so familiar with the ins and outs of how this company ran and the failures that existed in the company that I instinctively knew where liability stood.
LD: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about how to present evidence? I know that can be a big shift, going from practice in law school to actually doing it real time in front of a judge and a jury.
FP: The thing that I learned is that when you start, you're focused on mechanically doing all the things that are required to make sure that the evidence is admissible. You’re focused on the nuts and bolts of blocking and tackling. Once you gain confidence as to what those rules are and how you do it, then you get to the creative stage. There, the focus is not just presentation of evidence, but how to present evidence effectively and persuasively, and that’s where creativity comes in.
How do you present your version of events, your story, in a way that is effective and likely to resonate with the audience, your jury, as opposed to mechanically just doing it? That's where the light bulb went on for me: Our job as lawyers is to persuade and to do it in the most effective and, today, efficient way possible. People don't like to waste their time. That's the biggest change that I've seen in trying cases. Before, you'd have cases that went on for weeks. Now you're trying to figure out what is the most effective way to present something without wasting people's time.
LD: What advantages did that give you compared with lawyers who are starting their practice today?
FP: It helps tremendously in developing what I call a discovery plan. When you start, you're just going through all of the motions and using all the tools in the tool shed, but to what end? Young lawyers today, because they haven't tried cases, don't have the vision and the understanding that lots of what you do in discovery is really meaningless. Courtroom experience helps you identify what’s important, making you a better lawyer in terms of focusing your investigation and discovery plan on what's most relevant and not wasting a lot of time.
When you’re on the plaintiffs' side, your job is to figure out the real issues that are in dispute. What evidence do you need to prove your version of the events? And how do you get to that information in the most effective, simplest and efficient way possible? Because your clients are people who need prompt resolution. They are hurting, they may have lost loved ones or, as in some of the California wildfire cases, they may have lost everything they owned: their home and all of the personal items they accumulated over their lifetimes. They don't have years to reach resolution. The perspective of having tried cases when I was younger showed me that taking 16-hour depositions is not the way to be the most effective lawyer I can be.
LD: You’ve worked with a lot of the wildfire cases. How did you get involved in those? Was it just a matter of demand or did you feel a personal connection because you live in California, which has had so many of them?
FP: That’s a great question because it really shows how your life and career can come a full 360 degrees. When I was around 10 or 12, I came to live in a town called Millbrae, which is close to a town called San Bruno. I had a lot of friends who lived in San Bruno. In September 2010, a huge natural gas line exploded in that town. It was a catastrophic event: Eight people died, scores of other people lost their homes and ran for their lives and the culprit was a company called PG&E. I learned a heck of a lot about how PG&E did business because for the next three years, I took 40-odd depositions of everybody from the CEO down to the people who crawled in these natural gas lines when they were first buried in the ground in 1956. I learned about the corporate culture of PG&E, which sacrificed safety for the sake of profit. Freeze frame: That case resolved three years later.
Because of my involvement with suing PG&E, after a wildfire in Calaveras County known as the Butte Fire, which occurred Sept. 15, 2015, one of the persons that I had worked with in the San Bruno case, Steve Campora, teamed up with me again to pursue PG&E. We saw that the same failed corporate culture and risk management practices from the gas side that led to the San Bruno explosion was occurring on the electrical side, regarding PG&E’s distribution lines in rural areas. They sacrificed safety for the sake of improving their stock price and their financial position. Two years later, in 2017, the calamity that had happened in Calaveras County struck 22 counties in northern California with the North Bay Fire. There were the same kind of issues: PG&E failing to implement a safety power-shutoff program that had been used by San Diego Gas & Electric, failing to have done what was required to inspect the scores of trees that posed threats to their lines and that caused a calamity and damage of more than $7B to $8B.
Once again it was keeping their shareholders happy at the expense of delaying projects and not investing in infrastructure.
One year later, in 2018, the same problems manifested with the Camp Fire. Those were transmission lines, not distribution lines, but it all ties back to the same root cause. You have to consider that many of PG&E's transmission towers were built in the 1900s to the 1920s and '30s. If you don't invest in improving that infrastructure, you are going to continue to suffer from failures, metal fatigue and corrosion. You need inspections and a plan to replace those things before running equipment to failure.
I had become so familiar with the ins and outs of how this company ran and the failures that existed in the company that I instinctively knew where liability stood and that this was something that needed to be corrected, not just with payment of money to victims but with the company changing the way it did business. It had buried itself in such a dark hole that it was going to take years to dig itself out. When you ignore, culturally, the need to put safety first for a period of 30 or 40 years and more, you can't dig out of it quickly. So there's going to be a lot of pain before you finally see this company get on the right track. I believe that it will. It's just going to take a lot more time.
LD: The tragedy is how many homeowners and their families have had to suffer. You wonder when the change is coming.
FP: It’s not just PG&E. The Boeing cases, the two different crashes with the 737 MAX, the last of which was in Ethiopia, just outside of Addis Ababa, point to the same cultural issue. These two companies – one, a utility; one, a manufacturer of aircraft – both had multiple calamities that, if you look to the root cause, stem from a culture that places an emphasis on profits and stock value and as a result, cuts corners. For Boeing, it was keeping up with competition, rushing the 737 MAX into the marketplace to compete with the new Airbus A320neo. For PG&E, once again it was keeping their shareholders happy at the expense of delaying projects and not investing in infrastructure.
You see what happens. The consequences are that the public suffers because of the failure to have a corporate culture that has its head on straight and understands that safety being number one means that sometimes you have to sacrifice profits to ensure that you're doing things the right way. But in the long run, a company that always lives by safety first is going to have greater value for shareholders over a long-term period. If you're in this to play the long game, you put safety first.
LD: You've talked about two very high-impact cases. What were some of the most memorable cases that you've handled, either because they were personally satisfying or because of how they helped victims?
FP: We talked about the 88-year-old woman who was thrown out of her house. Another one that sticks with me is the San Bruno fire and explosion case because I was able to help families of people that I had grown up with as a teenager. Many were mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of folks that I went to school with. Being able to do something to rebuild the community that I was once part of was significant for me. All of these types of cases create a mosaic of who you are as a person, and they all have shaped me.
LD: Knowing that, what advice would you give to people who either are considering becoming a lawyer or have gotten their degrees and are just starting out as lawyers?
FP: My advice is this: If you really want to help people, if you really want to do something that is rewarding and fulfilling, then I can think of no greater way to do that than to be a trial lawyer. I would also tell them not to look at how Hollywood depicts the legal profession. It is hard work. If you really want to help somebody and you want to be the best you can be in this profession, there are no shortcuts you can take. You’ve got to be willing to be disciplined. You’ve got to be willing to get your hands dirty, to dig in and review documents and understand everything about the case.
There is nothing that is more rewarding than being able to look back and say that you made a difference in somebody's life because you devoted all of your hard work and energy to that case, to providing justice to someone who was ready to give up, or didn't know where to turn to get justice, to stand up against the powerful for somebody who feels powerless. There is no greater feeling.