WA State Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers Retires (12/12/12)

Posted on 12/12/2012

The following article pays tribute to the illustrious legal career of recently retired Washington State Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers. It was written by Washington State Association for Justice President Rebecca J. Roe and was published in the December 2012 edition of WSAJ Trial News (Volume 48, No. 4):

Without doubt, Tom Chambers was, for over 25 years, the heart and soul of WSTLA, now WSAJ. He became a member in the early 1970s and helped shape the organization like few others. He served the organization in nearly every capacity on his way to the WSTLA Presidency in 1985-86. Over the years, WSTLA/WSAJ has bestowed nearly every major award upon Justice Chambers, including The President's Award (1993), the Alvin Anderson Award (1994), Trial Lawyer of the Year (1989), and finally, Judge of the Year in 2012. In 1992, on WSAJ's 40th anniversary, Justice Chambers described the importance of WSTLA to him:

"WSTLA means the generous sharing of information, knowledge and inspiration and joyous camaraderie among lawyers who share the same aspiration to be better lawyers and to better serve individuals who have been victimized by other individuals or large corporations or governments."

Justice Chambers demonstrated his commitment to the underdog from the beginning. In 1968, a year before graduating from U.W. Law School, he organized a migrant workers' legal clinic in Toppenish, Washington. He has represented clients in a myriad of pro bono programs ever since. He has also continued to quietly help many former clients long after their formal attorney-client relationship ended. Prior to ascending to the Supreme Court bench, Tom Chambers epitomized the term "trial lawyer" - he possessed the courage to say "no" to unfair offers of settlement; he developed cutting-edge trials skills to go along with his never-ending determination to level the playing field with jury trials; and, he has an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He prepared his cases like few others. Many lawyers like to call themselves "trial lawyers," but, in truth, fear going to trial. But not Tom Chambers. Tom was tireless in his willingness to take his client's cases before a jury because he believed in the jury system and in the fact that if insurance companies wanted to present his clients with "lowball" offers, he would not get mad or get even - he would just go get a (usually higher) verdict! Tom ascribed to the Spence Trial College approach of "just go try your case if you do not like the offer" before Gerry Spence started the Trial Lawyer's College. In the end, Tom Chambers probably tried more civil jury cases than any Washington lawyer.

What set Tom apart from so many others in the "early days" was his understanding that in order to change the public's less than complementary view of trial lawyers, the best thing he could do was to freely share the knowledge he gained through his own courtroom battles with others, thereby increasing the competence of the profession. To this end, he was just as tireless in helping other lawyers as he was in fighting for justice in courtrooms around our state.
For example, for many years, Tom was the chair of the WSTLA Tort Section, holding monthly brown bag meetings for plaintiff lawyers to share ideas. He was a frequent chair and speaker at WSTLA CLEs, and one of the early proponents of the "try lots of cases" approach. He also founded the Tom Chambers Super Seminar - a comprehensive annual CLE which reviewed all of the major appellate rulings in our state. He also authored a regular Trial News Column, "Tom's Tips on Torts" for many years, issue by issue sharing the knowledge he had accumulated with others. Finally, in 1992 Tom produced the two-volume "Tom Chambers Trial Notebook." Singlehandedly, we produced, wrote and edited this 1,000-page publication which continues to be used by many lawyers even today. In addition, he also created two videotapes for plaintiff lawyers and their clients: Preparing For Your Defense Medical Exam and Preparing For Your Deposition in a Personal Injury Case. Again, many continue to use these videos to prepare their clients for DME's and depositions.

Tom also served WSTLA as a board member from 1975 to 1996, which is believed to be the longest continuous tenure on the WSTLA/WSAJ Board. As noted above, Tom was President in 1985-1986, one of the most difficult periods in WSTLA history. In April of 1986, Tom wrote this in his President's Column about the so-called tort reform bill which passed the legislature and was signed into law by Governor Booth Gartner:

"The rights of victims and our judicial system suffered serious losses during the 1986 legislative session. The Liability Reform Coalition was born out of hysteric reaction to an artificially created insurance crisis. We must abandon crisis politics and make a commitment to a long-range program of public relations, grass roots organization, allied development and political action activities. The program will require a substantial commitment of resources from all of us."
Take a second to re-read Tom Chambers' comments above and to consider how true his words continue to be today - more than 25 years later. It is this type of vision that made Tom Chambers one of WSTLA's great leaders.

WSTLA was not the only organization to which Tom contributed his talents. Even while continuing to be an integral part of WSTLA, Tom found time to actively serve our profession in other ways as well. He was on the WSBA Board of Governors for a number of years before being elected as WSBA President in 1995. Tom was also selected for membership in The American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), as well as a number of other prestigious professional associations.
Tom's major achievements as a lawyer included Mutual of Enumclaw v. Wiscomb (family exclusion void and unenforceable in automobile contracts); Kyrkos v. State Farm Insurance (self-insured and government vehicle exclusions held void and unenforceable in underinsured motorist contracts); Kowal v. Grange Insurance (non-named insured exclusion void in automobile insurance contracts); and Schooley v. Pinch's Deli (established the liability of the vendor of alcohol to one minor who transfers the alcohol to a second minor, where the second minor injures a third party). However, I suspect that if asked to name his favorite case, Tom would tell you about any number of down-and-out clients who he somehow managed to help get just and fair compensation. Tom was truly a "people's lawyer" who never forgot where he came from despite all of his professional success.

Despite climbing to the highest levels of both WSTLA and the WSBA leadership, Tom was not yet done serving our state's legal profession. He set his sights on our state's highest appellate court, the State Supreme Court, believing that the Court needed a "true trial lawyer" who understood what it was like to work "in the trenches" and to represent "the little guy." Elected to the Supreme Court in 2001, Tom has repeatedly authored opinions noteworthy for educating lawyers and the public about fundamental principles of the tort system, and protecting the same, for example, stating "Protecting parties in a position of weaker bargaining power from exploitation is fundamental public policy" in McKee v. AT&T (2008); "Our goal should be to fulfill the legislature's intent to make governments accountable to the same degree as private individuals and corporations, but also to ensure that governments have no greater liability than others" (Munich v. Skagit Emergency Communications Center, (2012)); and "Our rules of discovery are grounded upon the constitutional guarantee justice will be administered openly. Our legislature did not intend that defendants could conceal discoverable documents ... under a quality improvement committee's umbrella of secrecy" (Lowy v. PeaceHealth, (2012)).

But, I think what we will all remember Tom for after his ascension to the Supreme Court was his continued insistence at WSAJ events that he was "just Tom" - not "Justice Chambers." He left us for the highest bench, often saying "This organization is ‘home' for me." Well, Tom, welcome home!
Tom Chambers' voice for the less powerful will be sorely missed on our Supreme Court, but his legacy will live on in the other justices he has influenced and taught during his years in Olympia. We hope Tom will continue his involvement with WSAJ, albeit secondary to time with his family and friends. Thank you for all you have done, Justice Chambers!

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