December 11, 2009
Members of the team at Pellegrini, Seeley, Ryan & Blakesley: from left, Earlon Seeley III, Patrick McHugh, Donald Blakesley, Phyllis Ryan, Michael Chieco, and Earlon Seeley Jr.
A Client-based Approach Prevails at Pellegrini, Seeley, Ryan & Blakesley
By GEORGE O’BRIEN
Springfield-based Pellegrini, Seeley, Ryan & Blakesley has become the largest personal-injury law firm west of Worcester, a feat its partners attribute to a solid reputation earned through what many of them called “creativity” when it comes to building a case and serving the client. It is creativity, or imagination, that has enabled the firm to succeed in a highly competitive field.
Phyllis Ryan was talking about Gerard Pellegrini, his approach to legal work, and the way his attitude and energy still define the way things are done at the law firm he started 52 years ago.
“He was a lawyer’s lawyer, a true advocate for his clients, said Ryan, who joined the Springfield-based firm in 1980, and whose name is now also on the letterhead. “No person could tell him his client was in the wrong. He had a vision for that client, and he did everything possible for that client.”
This is the culture, or philosophy, that now pervades a firm that has more than a dozen lawyers and several offices across the Commonwealth, said Earlon Seeley Jr., who joined Pellegrini in 1972 as his first partner. He has played a lead role in shaping the firm — now known as Pellegrini, Seeley, Ryan & Blakesley, P.C. — into one of the larger and better-known handlers of complex cases involving product liability, personal injury, medical malpractice, and workers’ compensation.
Seeley had his own way of describing the mindset that prevails at the firm, considered the largest personal-injury firm west of Worcester, and plenty of examples to illustrate his point.
“I like to say that we go to the ends of the earth to serve our clients,” he said, noting that he uses that phrase in both a literal and figurative sense. And he cited one case involving an industrial accident at a foundry in England that illustrates both meanings.
Summing up a complex case rather quickly, Seeley said he and other lawyers from the firm traveled to England several times, interviewed dozens of people, and eventually came to the conclusion that something just didn’t fit — as is often the case in such mishaps.
The lengthy investigations eventually determined that an otherwise well-constructed, efficiently operating machine (what amounts to a very large auger that mixes raw materials) had a simple yet fateful flaw — an unguarded switch that enabled it to re-engage, thus tearing off the arm of the person assigned to clean it.
“We interviewed the designer and asked the simple question, ‘why didn’t you put an electric interlock on this to prevent it from engaging?’” said Seeley. “He replied, in essence, that they did, but the company they sold it to took it off because they thought doing so enabled the machine to run more efficiently. And that ended that.”
Many cases turn on such hard digging, said Michael Chieco, a partner who focuses on personal injury, industrial accidents, and vehicle mishaps, and this is the approach the company has taken with everything from very complex medical-malpractice cases to the Jahn Foundry explosion suit filed more than a decade ago, to pro-bono work done on behalf of relatives of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The common denominator, says Chieco, who handled many of those 9/11 cases, is what he called “creativity” in the way cases are weighed and then handled when taken on.
“A lot of it is engineering, and in many cases, we become designers ourselves — not only of the product but the case itself,” he explained, referring specifically to industrial mishaps but also to most every case that comes in the door. “You’re limited by the law, obviously, but you can use your imagination and creative insight into how something could have been prevented and how it should have been prevented.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with several of the lawyers at Pellegrini, Seeley, Ryan & Blakesley about the firm’s success and, more specifically, the factors that have driven it.
Cases in Point
Ryan said Pellegrini (who retired earlier this decade), a former long-time attorney with Kemper Insurance in Hartford, became a “legend” in Springfield in workers’ compensation and personal-injury work after setting up a practice in the City of Homes.
Handling both plaintiff and defense work, Pellegrini worked tirelessly on behalf of his clients, said Ryan, thus setting the tone that prevails today. “You could dangle a huge fee in front of him, and he couldn’t care less; if he didn’t think that was the best thing for the client, he would never settle a case. If he took your case on, he would do whatever it took; he’d take your case to Appeals Court or Supreme, which he often did. And that was the foundation on which this firm was built.”
Pellegrini was joined by Seeley in 1972 as founding partners in what would become Pellegrini, Seeley, Ryan & Blakesley. Seeley, who helped the firm make a transition to larger, more complex cases, has focused on a number of areas in his nearly 40-year career, especially workers’ compensation, medical malpractice, product defects, and construction-site accidents.
Don Blakesely, who also specializes in a wide range of areas, from workers’ comp to medical malpractice to personal injury, joined the firm in 1978, as it was continuing its evolution from an almost-equal mix of plaintiff and defense work to a focus almost exclusively on representing plaintiffs.
“We decided years ago that we wanted to represent people,” he said of the firm’s transition and current course, noting that many of the firm’s product-liability and industrial-accident cases originally come to the firm as workers’ compensation cases and evolve into broader, more complex matters involving third parties.
Ryan was the next addition to the firm. A former registered nurse, she later attended Western New England College School of Law, and used that mix of school and background to impress Seeley when he interviewed her for an opportunity to join the firm as a medical-malpractice specialist, a career step that is far more common now than it was then.
“He tried to trick me,” she explained. “He had a very interesting case he was working on, a young man who had a tooth infection that no one picked up on. He had a fever of unknown origin, and that fever caused an infection that went to his heart. Earl was telling me the facts of the case, and I came up with the right diagnosis — subacute bacterial endocarditis, a rare infection of the heart — and he hired me.”
The firm now boasts more than 15 lawyers, and has established offices in downtown Springfield, Pittsfield, North Adams, Northampton, Worcester, and Fall River.
Over the years, the firm and its growing of roster of lawyers has established a number of areas of concentration, including medical malpractice, workers’ compensation, birth injuries, motor-vehicle accidents, product liability, slip-and-falls, toxic and chemical exposure, construction-site accidents, wrongful-death claims, nursing-home neglect, and even dog bites.
Most cases come from within the 413 area code, said Seeley, but the firm has taken on clients from across the country and around the world. This wide reach has been attained through an effective mix of marketing and word-of-mouth referrals, he explained.
Like most personal-injury firms, Pellegrini, Seeley, Ryan & Blakesley does a significant amount of marketing and advertising to be front and center whenever parties have the need for such services, said Seeley. He noted that the firm uses most of the traditional vehicles — large, loud phone-book ads, some radio and television spots (the latter using former Red Sox star Dwight Evans as spokesperson), and a Web site — but the most-effective methods are positive recommendations from clients and referrals from other attorneys.
And while it’s been the high-profile, large-settlement cases, including a $5 million medical malpractice case award gained by Ryan (said to be the largest in Western Mass.), that have given the firm its reputation and earns those referrals from other lawyers, said Seeley, it is the willingness to take on cases of all sizes that has made it so successful.
Both Seeley and Ryan said there is an art and science to deciding which cases to take on. With regard to medical malpractice, Ryan said the number is very small, perhaps 5% of those that are brought before the firm for consideration.
“To prove those cases is complicated and very expensive,” she explained, adding quickly that just because things go wrong medically doesn’t mean there is a case of malpractice, or negligence. “There are lot of reasons why people have bad results, and that’s why, in cases like this, we screen a lot, we obtain a ton of records, sometimes we hire experts when necessary. At the end of the day, we take on a very small percentage of cases.”
As she discussed the matter of cases, how the firm sizes them up, and how it approaches suits once they are taken on, Ryan returned to that word ‘creativity’ used by so many of the partners. She said it’s this creativity, or imagination, mixed with diligence that often leads to favorable results for clients — and also some instances where “cases take you on.”
As an example, she mentioned one medical-malpractice case involving a young woman who had cervical cancer. The firm couldn’t find any individual locally who could identify any negligence on the part of the physician, whose testing apparently went no further than pap smears, but it kept digging and found some experts in California who could, and did.
“That was a case where it didn’t look like there would be a big return — this was a single mother raising her child,” said Ryan. “But we made a commitment to her that we would do whatever we could; that’s an an example of how a case takes you on.”
Chieco said the same approach to discerning whether there is negligence — and then proving it — prevails in product-liability and industrial-accident cases as well.
“The negligence is generally everywhere in cases like that,” said Chieco. “It’s shared by a lot of different entities, and it’s not always the same way. And as a lawyer, you have to know what you’re looking for right away, because time is important and evidence gets lost or destroyed.
“As a private entity rather than a governmental entity, a firm like this doesn’t have the ability, as a police officer does, to go in and say, ‘stop everything, we’re taking over,’” he continued. “You’re your own investigator, so you have to have the foresight to know what you’re looking for, rather than say, ‘gee, I don’t know what’s out there, but I’ll find it someday.’”
Overall, a large measure of creativity comes from old-fashioned digging, said Chieco. “You bring an action against someone, and you start to poke around and take depositions,” he said, “and in 95% of the cases you’ll find something. It’s there — sometimes it’s hidden — but if you dig hard enough, you’ll find it.”
Being creative is important, said Seeley, because if only the employer is involved in the negligence in a mishap, then the victim is entitled only to workers’ compensation. Thus, effective plaintiffs’ lawyers look long and hard into who else might be negligent.
Such was the case with an incident in 1978 involving a Chicopee-based manufacturer, said Seeley, in which a 19-year-old man was severely injured when a 300-pound piece of a high-pressure vessel (bound for a nuclear power plant) struck him following an explosion.
“Everyone who was in that plant that night attempting to get this pressure vessel tested so it could go back on line was employed by the employer,” said Seeley, “except someone from a company hired simply to perform inspections to make sure these vessels met extremely high specifications.”
This inspector showed up periodically, Seeley continued, adding that, through some hard digging and interviews with countless workers, he and Pellegrini were able to determine that the inspector was actually outside the test site having a cigarette when the leak that caused the explosion began.
“That’s the kind of case where the liability wasn’t clear,” he said, “but through creativity, we were able to find it, and prevail for the client.”
Summing up both what the firm does and the quality that has enabled it to succeed, Seeley said that essentially comes down to one word.
“You have to persevere,” he said. “In medical-malpractice cases, you have to understand the medicine to the extent that you can, and in product liability, understand the engineering to the extent that you can.
“And you have to be creative,” he continued, “not in the sense that you’re creating something out of whole cloth that doesn’t exist, but you need to have an imagination so you can understand what’s going on in these kinds of cases.”
And sometimes, as with those trips to England, you really do have to go to the ends of the earth.