It's not often that an attorney can truly say that a single case changed his life. But that's exactly what happened to Denis Stearns, who has recently transitioned to of-counsel status at Marler Clark, LLP, where the fickle finger of fate landed him some 13 years ago.
Of course, it was not your run-of-the-mill case that set Stearns on a new course; it was a big case — the litigation spawned by the massive 1993 E. coli outbreak in Washington and elsewhere, traced to tainted hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants. The matter was recently chronicled in Poisoned: Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat, which turned the spotlight back on the case some 15 years after its peak.1 Stearns was prominently featured in the book as a key member of the Jack in the Box defense team.
"Even if it was only one case, it was a case that provided an amazing breadth of experience," said Stearns, casually dressed in cargo shorts and a polo on a warm, summer day in his modest-sized office in Marler Clark's new, well-appointed quarters in downtown Seattle.
He was less than a year out of law school and working as an associate at Karr Tuttle Campbell, when Bob Piper, a dean of the Seattle defense bar, tapped him to assist in the defense of Jack in the Box's parent company, Foodmaker. Stearns handled discovery, pleadings, motions, court arguments and depositions, was the lead contact with Jack in the Box executives and spent weeks at JIB's San Diego headquarters poring through thousands of documents.
"It was an amazing experience for a young attorney," he continued. "Once we got the work, I spent 90% of the remainder of my time at Karr Tuttle with JIB. I was never terribly worried (about being tied up in one case) because very few young attorneys would get that breadth of experience."
As the Jack in the Box case was winding down in 1997, Stearns was well aware that he might have to move on so he could put to use what he had learned over the previous four years. "I wasn't real eager" to do standard litigation at that point, Stearns said. "As I surveyed what was going on in the firm in litigation, it was much less dynamic." The prospect of returning to more typical defense work, he said, conjured visions of "moving from the big city to a small town."
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