Razor sharp: Lawyer defends product liability, toxic tort cases


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

In 1993, Gary Sharp was lead defense counsel in a Wisconsin case where the plaintiff was suffering from a terminal cancer – and his only known exposure was to a homemade oven utilizing an asbestos-containing insulation material manufactured by Kalamazoo based Baldwin-Ehret-Hill (BEH).

“The plaintiff’s lawyer was a former prosecutor who kept referring to my client’s product – a box of which they had in the courtroom – as the murder weapon,” says Sharp, a partner at Foley & Mansfield and a veteran of numerous complex product liability and Toxic Tort cases.  “I was able to convince the jury to assign a percentage of fault to the plaintiff which was greater than the percentage of fault that they assigned to BEH.

“Wisconsin had adopted had pure contributory negligence which precludes recovery by a plaintiff against a defendant whose percentage of fault is higher and therefore my client owed nothing – and the case was selected by the National Law Journal as one of the Top Ten Defense Verdicts of the year.”

Sharp, whose extensive trial experience has resulted in successful outcomes for numerous product manufacturers, suppliers and distributors, is chair of the firm’s Toxic Tort Group.

“We have so much talent in our firm and with a large focus on Toxic Torts, managing the group is very easy,” he says. “We have managing partners in most of our offices who are extremely involved in defending toxic tort cases and have years of experience in dealing with the cases and our clients. The most difficult part of my job is putting firm resources in the appropriate places as hot spots across the country in different jurisdictions will change.”   

Retained as national and regional trial counsel for several companies and corporations sued as defendants in asbestos related litigation, Sharp has tried asbestos cases to verdict in California, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin; and has handled or supervised cases in almost all 50 states and the Territory of Guam. He divides his time between the firm’s Detroit office and its west coast offices in Oakland and Los Angeles.

“The lawyers who represent the parties across the country is a fairly small group,” he notes. “I’ve had a unique opportunity to try cases all over the country and regardless where I travel, I always know someone involved in the case. It makes it so much easier when you know people in the places that you travel.”    

Sharp was once called on a Friday to appear for a trial in Washington D.C. on Monday morning for a new client. Walking into the courtroom, he faced six lawyers on the plaintiff’s side from the law firm whose head partner owns the Baltimore Orioles.

“During jury selection, each and every time they exercised a preemptory challenge they would all march out of the courtroom after asking permission for time to caucus,” Sharp recalls. “After taking multiple breaks for 20 to 30 minutes each, the court asked me for one of my challenges. I asked the court for time to caucus with myself. Just that one moment of levity cut the tension in the courtroom and signaled to the jury that I would make an effort to keep them interested and entertained.

“I ended up winning the case but the most valuable lesson was to never walk across Penn Avenue for lunch since before I finished, the street was blocked off for three hours to allow for the President’s motorcade. Fortunately, the court was very understanding and allowed the jury to go home for the day.”

Tort reform has by far been the largest fundamental change in product liability cases across the country since Sharp first started practicing thirty years ago, he notes.

“In most jurisdictions we faced joint and several strict liability with no damage caps,” he explains. “There were also a number of courts across the country that were extremely plaintiff-friendly where large numbers of cases were consolidated for trial and the number of defenses were limited by those Judges. Tort reform brought a degree of sanity to product litigation and for the most part has acted to limit liability to the percentage of fault attributed by an individual defendant.”

The other large change he has seen over three decades is lawyer advertising, or lack thereof.

“When I first started, lawyers were not allowed to advertise and those rules were changed over the years,” he explains. “The net effect in the asbestos litigation has been a high volume of lawyer ads for asbestos cases and increase in the number of cancer and mesothelioma claims that are brought.”

Nationally recognized for trial strategies and the defense of medical claims in the toxic tort arena, Sharp has taught seminars for defense counsel, in house counsel and insurance professionals across the country. He has been elected to the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) and the Litigation Counsel of America and is a member of the Defense Research Institute and the Litigation and Product Sections of the State Bars of California and Michigan. Named among Michigan Super Lawyers, and Top Lawyers in Metropolitan Detroit, he has attained the highest possible Martindale-Hubbell rating.

Not bad for a high school “theater kid” whose drama advisor pointed him towards law school.

“The likelihood of being successful in a career in the theater was extremely unlikely while the skills that I learned from performing onstage have served me well as a trial attorney,” Sharp says.    

A native of California, Sharp was raised in Colorado Springs, Colo., and earned his undergrad degree at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he started as a chemical engineering major and a scholarship athlete.

“The two were not a great combination and after organic chemistry and differential equations and 8 hours a day in the gym I figured there was an easier way to law school,” he says.

Switching to political science and economics, Sharp went on to earn his J.D. from Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

“Besides the obvious of attending law school in the most beautiful setting one can imagine, the collegiality of the students was amazing – I never felt the competition that many have experienced in law school,” he says.

Working several jobs through law school – including waiting tables, working in the law library and in a law firm as a law clerk – Sharp came to rely on classmates for help in class and in studying for exams.

“I learned the value of teamwork early on and was tremendously successful as a result,” he says.

After graduating, Sharp practiced in California; and moved to Michigan when his wife Terrie was pregnant and homesick for her hometown of Farmington Hills. 

“We moved here in 1988, which means I’ve spent the longest portion of my life as a Michigander,” he says.

Almost immediately after moving to the Great Lakes State, Sharp was asked by a California client to take over their defense in 13 Midwest states. He also became national trial counsel for a number of different companies and continued representing defendants in California.

He became close friends with firm founder Kyle Mansfield – also the firm’s managing partner in the Minneapolis office – who represented a different company in the Midwest; the two became of counsel to one another’s firms.

“In 1995, we decided to join forces and we’ve been growing ever since,” Sharp says.

A founder of the firm’s Detroit office, he served as it managing partner for 18 years, expanding Michigan operations significantly in size and revenue.

He also found time to earn an LLM in Intellectual Property at Cooley, then located at Oakland University.

“I enjoyed the program immensely but never found the time outside of my toxic tort practice to actually develop a IP practice,” he says.

In his leisure time, Sharp enjoys skiing, hiking and golfing, passions he shares with his wife and two sons. When his boys were younger, he served on the Farmington Board of Education for 12 years, including terms as president, vice president, and secretary. He coached in the North Farmington West Bloomfield (NFWB) football program and NFWB baseball program including the Cobra travel teams; and as an Assistant Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 179 had the opportunity to spend more than two weeks at the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch in New Mexico with a group of Scouts.

Sharp’s wife Terrie, a graduate of Albion and Pepperdine University School of Law, is an attorney and donates her time as a pro bono attorney for Detroit Legal Defenders. The couple’s younger son, Ryan, is a senior at Central Michigan University, majoring in political science and leadership studies (ROTC), and is a member of the Michigan Army National Guard. Their older son, Andrew, a graduate of Albion and the University of Colorado Law School, is an associate attorney with Foley & Mansfield’s office in Oakland, Calif.

“He has had the opportunity to try a case with me and has tried his first case as a first chair lawyer,” says his proud father.