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Forceful, congenial trial lawyer fights for the underdog

By Adam Kaye

As a trial attorney, Vincent J. Bartolotta Jr. has won more than $112 million in verdicts since 2000 and even his opponents don't seem to begrudge it.
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As a trial attorney, Vincent J. Bartolotta Jr. has won more than $112 million in verdicts since 2000 and even his opponents don't seem to begrudge it.

He was friendly but firm in resolving a bitter battle between a prominent politician and a Roman Catholic priest who operates a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

That winning personality — which has won over juries for 33 years and brought smiles to the board rooms of numerous charitable groups — has won Bartolotta an Irishman of the Year Award.

"He's the only Italian who's an honorary member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick," said San Diego attorney Mike Neil. "He sometimes out-Irishes the Irish."

Congeniality played only a small part in Bartolotta's latest accolade: Trial Lawyer of the Year for 2003.

Presented by the California chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates, the award goes to an attorney who is considered to have a superb reputation of high ethics and results. Bartolotta was chosen from a statewide field of seven nominees.

The award recognizes a passion for the law and commitment to civility, ethics and professionalism day in and day out, said Shirley Schwartz, executive director of the state chapter, which calls itself Cal-ABOTA.

"It's not a popularity contest," Schwartz said.

But when the trial lawyer first learned that he had won the honor, the reactions were pure Bartolotta, beginning with humble thank you's.

Hours later, at a casual dinner reception, a resplendent Bartolotta burst into the ballroom at Rancho Valencia Resort sporting a Fred Astaire-style get-up, complete with gloves, cane and Bartolotta's trademark touch — a white carnation pinned to his lapel.

"He humbly presented himself to the group that voted him in," said Denny Schoville, president of Cal-ABOTA's San Diego chapter. "It wasn't just a tux. It was tails and a top hat."

Bartolotta, 58, reflected upon his career recently inside his San Diego office.

One of many photographs shows him pumping hands with then-President Jimmy Carter. Other shots show his four sons, who range in age from 22 to 32.

Since 2001, he has won 33 cases. The largest single verdict, $94.5 million in January 2001, was among the largest in San Diego County history.

Bartolotta prevailed on behalf of developer Roque de la Fuente in a lawsuit against the city of San Diego.

Other settlements are far smaller, such as the $50,000 he secured for Estella Blackwell, who sued The Pete King Corp. when one of its paint trucks crashed into her front yard. An extremely frightened Blackwell screamed so hard that she needed surgery and speech therapy to repair her vocal chords.

"I'm proud of all of them," Bartolotta said of his victories. "In most cases, they're for the underdog."

It is the trial lawyer, he said, who keeps democracy alive, who validates the sacrifices of a military that defends America's freedom, who gives persons of the lowest status their day in court.

To critics who say the trial lawyer harms business, he retorts: "If companies and corporations didn't run their businesses or make their products in a fashion that harms individuals, then they wouldn't have any concerns about a trial lawyer calling them on it."

As California surges through political turbulence, Bartolotta said he would like the legislature to remove caps set on noneconomic damages in medical cases.

Citing one of his own cases, Bartolotta said he represented a 35-year-old man whose wife was killed when, during a sinus drainage, the doctor cut an artery.

"All this young man who has to raise his daughter on his own can collect is $250,000," Bartolotta said. "There's something very unfair about that to me. In that case, it was cheaper for them to kill the woman than just injure her."

Only feelings were hurt in the tiff between former San Diego City Councilman Juan Vargas and Father Joe Carroll, leader of the St. Vincent de Paul rehabilitation centers. But tempers certainly flared as Vargas fought to keep Carroll from expanding within his council district.

"Vince forced the two of us to sit down," Carroll said. "Today we have the building we were fighting over done and (Vargas) went on to become a (state) assemblyman; he even got some state money for St. Vincent de Paul."

When both sides agreed to agree, Carroll said, Bartolotta "threatened the first one who broke (the agreement), whether it was me or the politicians, he would make them pay. Vince would personally make it his goal to make it a real problem, and you just knew that you didn't want to make Vince Bartolotta an enemy."

To St. Vincent de Paul, though, Bartolotta has been a consistent friend, generous contributor, and, for six years, chairman of its board of directors. He also is a leader of the group's $100 million capital campaign.

To those who worship golf, Bartolotta helps raise about $1 million annually for charity by organizing the PGA Buick Invitational Golf Tournament at Torrey Pines.

Other charitable groups Bartolotta supports include beside the Century Club the San Diego Nice Guys, UCSD Regional Burn Center, American Trauma Society and Mercy Hospital.

Near his home, he has helped to build athletic teams and youth centers; in Mexico, he has organized the construction of medical clinics, orphanages and schools.

In 1968, he was a first alternate to the Olympic soccer team. He still is an agile soccer player and three of his sons competed at the college level.

His youngest son, Nicolas, 22, is seeking a slot on the Olympic diving team for the 2004 games in Athens.

Bartolotta lives in Rancho Santa Fe with his wife, Judy; the couple met as 10th graders at Greater Monongahela Area High School in Pennsylvania.

Looking ahead, Bartolotta said he will remain as a trial lawyer — a judgeship doesn't interest him.

"I still love being in the arena," he said, "being a competitor more than a referee."

• Adam Kaye is a staff writer for the North County Times.

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