Ralph Spooner is known to many as “the best trial lawyer in Oregon.” He has been holding court in the Pacific Northwest legal community for five decades. So this year, when his first-rate insurance defense firm Spooner & Much flipped to the plaintiffs’ side and reinvented itself as Spooner Staggs Trial Lawyers, it shocked many friends, clients, and competitors.

Spooner has a history of huge wins on the defense side. Within his firm and community he’s seen as an inspirational mentor, a visionary, a leader. Spooner is revered for being kindhearted, fatherly and personable. In the courtroom however, he’s an unrelenting juggernaut.

“I’m very courteous and respectful to the witnesses. But as a trial lawyer, although you play by the rules, your job is to win the case for your client. And if that means taking someone down on the witness stand, you do it. And I’m always really friendly, so they never see it coming,” says Spooner, smiling.

Spooner has tried 1000 jury trials over his 50 years in the game. One major insurer has flown him all over the country to try cases. Juries can detect his authenticity and care, and opposing counsel are rocked by his confidence and expertise. He’s the King. And earlier this year Spooner decided he was defending the wrong castle.

Spooner Staggs is shedding some light on cracks that have been forming in the insurance industry for over a decade but are only now starting to show. According to Spooner, the system has been devolving, slowly but surely, due to an ever-looming force – the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence.

“Gradually, insurance companies have started to use information from internally developed algorithms to make claims decisions,” Spooner explains. “Predictable outcomes based upon analytical determinations by a computer, not human beings.”

Justice achieved purely by analyzing computerized data didn’t feel right to Spooner because it stopped being about people and their pain; it was just data. Now he’s right at home on the left side of the V. And the highly decorated and seasoned trial lawyer is freshly energized for the next chapter in the epic saga of his career.

Lawdragon: How did you first decide to become a lawyer? What brought you to the field?

Ralph Spooner: One of the defining things in my lifetime is that my dad died when I was a sophomore in high school. I was adrift without the guidance of my father, I lacked an adult mentor. I was attending an all-boys high school, a Catholic school in the suburbs of Chicago. So there was structure there – those schools at that time were pretty strict. They made you show up on time, do your work on time, and be a moral human being.

When I was in college, I met with a career counselor. I hadn't really thought about what I wanted to do. And I remember he said to me, "You're pretty verbal. You’d probably be a good lawyer." That was it. It wasn't a lifelong dream. I didn't have a family member ahead of me that I was trying to imitate. At the time it was just a desire to further my education, and I developed an interest in the law.

LD: How did you get your start once you were out of law school?

I have my doubts about whether jurors really follow the law. They're supposed to, but I think a lot of decisions are based upon their own moral sense of what's right and wrong or fair or unfair.

RS: My first job was with Bruce Williams – a larger than life, big-time trial attorney who tried lots of major cases. He had fully succeeded at everything in life. He was a World War II decorated Navy fighter ace. He bred thoroughbred racehorses. He was president of local and national legal organizations. He and his law partner, Otto Skopil, represented a former governor of the State of Oregon. He was like a father figure to me as a brand-new baby lawyer. He never had a son, so he took me under his wing and was a big influence in my life professionally. His idea of training was to not give you too much information, but just kind of throw you into the pool and say, "Hey, you better swim or you're going to drown." He was a great mentor.

LD: Did he practice defending insurance companies?

RS: He and his longtime partner Skopil did, yes. A major insurance company opened up a regional office in Salem [Oregon] and employed several thousand people – that was one of their main clients when I joined them. But Bruce didn't just do insurance defense. He defended a bunch of high-profile murder cases and he did personal injury work on the plaintiffs’ side and product liability work. So when I first became a lawyer, it was important to me to focus my attention primarily on insurance defense work to get trial experience.

LD: Why insurance defense specifically?

RS: There was a steady supply of cases doing insurance defense work. That was something I was interested in – the art of trying a case. At that time in the court system, historically we didn't have what we have today. There were no mediations or arbitrations, there were no court settlement conferences, what we call ADR – alternative dispute resolution. Back then, on the morning of the trial, the judge would say, "Is this case going to settle or not?" That would be the total effort the court would put into potentially settling a case. We didn't have the mechanisms that exist today to resolve disputes that are filed in court using something other than a trial. As a result, I got to try a lot of cases. Younger lawyers today don't get that kind of trial experience.

LD: Can you share some of what that wealth of experience has taught you?

RS: When we were born, the creator gave us all a little antenna that goes up automatically. What I've learned as a trial lawyer is that if you try a case in court, jurors instantly start doing this. Information's coming at them – whether it comes out of your mouth or your client's mouth or the witness's, or whether it’s in documentary evidence – and they're assessing and collecting this information rapidly. Then they make a decision using their judgment in accordance with how the judge instructs them as to the law. I have my doubts about whether jurors really follow the law. They're supposed to, but I think a lot of decisions are based upon their own moral sense of what's right and wrong or fair or unfair. Because I've tried cases that I couldn't lose, but I did. And I've also tried cases that couldn't be won, but I did.

LD: Interesting. So how does that inform you as a trial lawyer?

RS: It's kind of like being a movie director. Can you tell a believable story? Can it become so believable that the audience cries, or laughs. And not laughs because they're supposed to laugh – but a real belly laugh. Can you create that human experience where people react in a very visceral way? The number one thing that sells in a courtroom is authenticity. And you can't fake that whether you're the lawyer or the client. Because if a jury doesn't think you're authentic, you lose. It's as simple as that.

Experience only comes with time, exposure and practice. It's a very dynamic process, being a trial lawyer.

Lawyers are advocates for people and their important legal problems. Oftentimes people aren't able to tell their own stories effectively by themselves. They lack perspective and obviously are not skilled in the law. That’s your job as the lawyer – you're their voice. The art of doing that takes a long time to learn.

If you’re hiring an attorney, you want someone with experience. There's no substitute for experience. Some would say that knowledge only comes from experience; it isn’t something you can learn from reading a book. And experience only comes with time, exposure and practice. It's a very dynamic process, being a trial lawyer.

LD: Your firm, now Spooner & Staggs, transitioned recently to the plaintiffs’ side, after decades defending insurance companies. What drove that change?

RS: I've primarily done defense work my whole life. But in every single year of my practice, I've always done a few plaintiff cases – bringing an action on behalf of someone who was injured, or had a family member die in a situation where someone else was at fault or negligent. There's a big demarcation in the law practice on the civil side for lawyers who are doing trial work. What side are you on? If you're on the defense side, then the plaintiffs’ lawyers would be the dark side. If you're on the plaintiffs’ side, then the insurance industry would be the dark side. Rarely is someone on both sides at the same time. That's just a phenomenon.

LD: So what compelled you to break the mold?


RS: My whole life I did what I did because in the United States there is something I refer to as a tort tax. In other words, if you're in business, there isn't anything you can do in this world without insurance. Even if you're just born, you're going to end up having to get health insurance. If you get a job, they'll pay unemployment insurance, or workers' comp insurance. If you drive a car, you have to have auto insurance. If you own a home with a mortgage, you have to have homeowner’s insurance. And the reason you have insurance is in case something goes wrong, you have something to help with a potentially devastating financial situation. Insurance should provide peace of mind. Most people don't have independent wealth that would cover them if they mess up and run through a red light and kill someone. Most people don't have the resources to compensate the family who lost a loved one.

LD: Hence, we have insurance.

RS: Right. And if you have a pot of money out there that is for deserving people, there are always some people who are not deserving who want to take money out of that pot. There are people that view an ordinary car accident as an economic opportunity. Unfortunately, that exists in our society. I could always identify with the insurance company when there was somebody who was trying to cheat the system.

Now we are in 2024 and there's been very little reform in the system and the insurance industry has the upper hand – there's a real imbalance. About 10 years ago, insurance companies developed their own algorithms internally to analyze their huge amount of data. Gradually, companies have started to use information from internally developed algorithms to help make claim decisions. Their goal is to save money and sometimes that means not paying claims that should be paid. They prefer predictable outcomes based upon analytical determinations by a computer, not human beings. A very experienced trial lawyer can provide more judgment and predictability when it comes to outcomes than a computer will ever be able to do – because of that human factor.

In the United States there is something I refer to as a tort tax. In other words, if you're in business, there isn't anything you can do in this world without insurance.

For example, they input all of the settlement and verdict amounts for claims involving cervical strains that were paid in the U.S. into the computer, and then it analyzes age groups, length of treatment and dollar cost of treatment. And then the computer says – your sore neck is worth $7,323. As opposed to hiring an attorney to gather information, get medical records, take depositions, meet the people, find out who they are, what's going on in their lives, and then provide a subjective human assessment.

So as the industry moves towards AI, they no longer value the professional judgment of trial attorneys. The lawyer's role is going to be diminished to the point that when the computer says this is a case that needs to be tried, the lawyer is going to be put in positions they don't want to be put in. Trying cases where the lawyer's judgment is that we shouldn't try this case, this case should be settled. But the computer says no – the statistics indicate if you try this case, you're going to win it. At that point, it doesn't matter what you're paying me. If I don't feel I’m doing an honest day’s work, why would I do it?

One thing that separates the U.S. from the rest of the world is this tort system. In other countries, they don't have a civil justice system that compensates people when someone else causes harm. We have a fault-based system here in the U.S. that regulates society. The jury system separates the U.S. from a lot of other countries in the world. The fact that we allow members of our society to decide important matters for individuals, like do you get compensated for injuries caused by another and how much is fair compensation? It’s a good system and lawyers play a critical role.

LD: Recently you settled a big case against a “gig economy” delivery company. I know we can’t get into specifics, but is there anything you’d be willing to share about what you learned in that case?

RS: What we advanced in that case is that we pled a theory of joint tort liability. It goes to the very heart of what's going on in the gig economy at large, not just the particular delivery company involved in the case I was handling. It could be any of them using this same model – a software company thinks up a great idea and then doesn't really build a proper company to carry out the idea, they just create a platform where other people can do the work. These software companies can make billions in a quarter but when something goes wrong, they want to disassociate themselves completely from the activity that was being carried out by the gig worker, who can come and go at will.

So the theory of joint tort liability was to hold these companies accountable. We reframed it to say – actually the company does control the manner in which that person carries out the delivery, or picks up the customer, if you're a rideshare driver. The company controls all of that through their software, and the gig worker can't do the job without the company software. So, we felt that if the driver is jointly carrying out the company’s activity with the company’s software, and something goes wrong – the company should be held accountable. And the judge agreed.

LD: This could be a huge precedent.

RS: They are fighting the concept nationwide. It's something I analyzed and we spent the time researching it and advancing the theory. The risk for the delivery company was if we tried the case and won it for a big number, other trial attorneys would hear about the result and use the same legal theory to advance their clients’ cases. The only potential remedy for the delivery company would be to appeal the trial court’s ruling upholding the joint tort liability theory. Or if we tried the case and lost, we would appeal it. And they knew that. If the case went up on appeal and the joint tort liability theory was upheld, then the appellate ruling would have widespread effect on how the gig companies conduct their businesses. So, when I look at the whole situation, I know the company will make changes in how they're doing business because they can’t risk exposing themselves to these problems in the future. That's something you can do as a plaintiffs’ lawyer. If you recognize there is a wrong in society, the law affords a remedy. We just need trial lawyers who are willing to fight the good fight!