Peter W. Riley: Attorney of the Year 2004Author / Coordinator: Michelle Lore
Born: May 27, 1952; Minneapolis
Education: University of Minnesota Law School, J.D., 1977; Williams College, B.A. (Economics, Psychology), 1974
Employment: Attorney/shareholder, Schwebel, Geotz & Sieben, 1991-present; attorney, Deparcq, Hunegs, Stone & Koenig, 1977-91
Professional Activities (highlights): Minnesota State Bar Association; Hennepin County Bar Association; Association of Trial Lawyers of America; Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association; American Board of Trial Advocates, Minnesota Chapter; Douglas Amdahl Inns of Court; Academy of Certified Trial Lawyers; Panel of Arbitrators — American Arbitration Association; Million Dollar Advocates Forum
Civic Activities: Twin Cities Public Television
Bar Admissions: Minnesota, 1977; U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota, 1978; U.S. Supreme Court, 1978
Personal: Wife, Patricia; daughter, Sara
Hobbies: Working out, skiing, boating, tennis
Minneapolis personal injury attorney Peter W. Riley kept busy this past year. He completed a one-year term as president of the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association and began another as treasurer of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates.
In addition to several other significant recoveries last year, in May, Riley secured an $11.2 million settlement for a 16-year-old girl who was paralyzed in an automobile accident. The settlement is noteworthy in and of itself, but it is all the more impressive given that the owner of the vehicle in which the plaintiff was injured had taken the driver off of the applicable insurance policy weeks before the accident.
Despite the hurdles, and after a great deal of discovery, Riley was able to devise a favorable resolution for the girl and her family.
“We had a number of issues and we had some good experts who worked with us. But it was a solid year of digging and depositions and other things to the point where we were able to get it resolved,” Riley recalls. “What it boiled down to was that we were able to put together a very, very substantial trust for this girl.”
The plaintiff was out with a friend and three others when the driver of the vehicle lost control while attempting a lane change. “The vehicle flipped and … the impact crushed the roof where my client was sitting in the back seat,” Riley explains.
The plaintiff sustained a severe spinal cord injury and was ultimately determined to be a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. Her doctors have opined that she will require 24-hour nursing care for the rest of her life.
Within days of the accident, a serious issue arose as to whether the vehicle, a Toyota Rav4, was insured. The driver’s father, the owner of the car, had insured it through the corporation of which he was president. Because of other serious losses on the policy, the insurer had notified the father’s company that, effective on a date one week after this crash, it would no longer allow personal vehicles like the one the driver was in to be insured on the policy.
The father had arranged for coverage to be placed on his personal policy effective one week after the crash. However, when he contacted his company’s controller asking her to advise the insurer of the crash, he learned that the controller had deleted his daughter and her car from the policy a month earlier due to a misunderstanding in his instructions. The insurance agency sent the controller a confirming letter advising that the vehicle and the daughter had been deleted from the policy and returning the unearned premium.
Riley took on the case knowing it would be an uphill battle. “There were more than a few lawyers who told me that I was pushing a rock up a very steep hill and I wasn’t ever going to get anywhere,” he says. “[But] what we did was we just start from the ground floor and demanded every record from the insurance company.”
Riley explains that discovery included production of more than 11,000 documents. Discovery demonstrated that the insurer had a history of making errors in the issuance of policies and going back and correcting those errors many months later. Discovery also revealed that the underwriting guidelines of the insurer specifically directed that personal vehicles not be covered on the commercial vehicle policy unless the agency also controlled the personal vehicle coverages of the principals and employees — which was not the case here.
“Gradually we began to develop the theory that number one, this was a mistake, and number two, even if it was properly removed and they said to remove it, it wasn’t done the proper way by the proper people,” Riley observes.
Eventually, the insurer tendered $11 million of coverage — a $1 million commercial vehicle policy as well as a $10 million umbrella policy.
“I think the insurance company ultimately came to the right conclusion and did the right thing,” Riley says. “They could have forced us through some further hearings. The risk to them, of course, would have been substantial exposure we believe. … They came forward and dealt with us in a very straightforward way.”
Riley was also able to recover another $1 million from an umbrella policy carried by the driver’s father. Of the $12 million total settlement, the plaintiff received $11.1 million and other injured passengers received the balance. The plaintiff also received $100,000 of underinsured motorist coverage.
“For a horrible situation, it was the best possible outcome,” Riley says.
Riley obtained several other significant verdicts and settlements last year as well. Highlights include a $260,000 settlement for the family of a man who was killed when his car hit a bull that had escaped from its pen; a $313,000 verdict for man who suffered a neck and low-back injury after being rear-ended; a $335,000 settlement for woman who suffered leg and feet fractures in a car accident; and a $250,000 arbitration award for the family of a man who was killed while unloading a moving van.
All of Riley’s 27 years of practice have been devoted to injured plaintiffs.
“All I’ve ever done since the day I got out of law school was represent injured people,” he says. “In fact, the first case I ever worked on was the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. … [I] represented two of the families of men who died on that ship.”
Riley has represented people from all walks of life — from corporate CEOs to the unemployed — and enjoys the fact that he often makes a significant impact on their lives. He notes that he continues to keep in touch with many of his former clients, adding that one even named the family golden retriever Riley.
“It is making a difference that is wonderful about the work I do,” Riley observes. “And working with the people. There are many of them that are so grateful.”