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Holding Polluters Accountable

John Fiske

$2.213 billion is a prodigious amount of money by anyone’s standards.

$2.213 billion is the amount of money that John Fiske ’07 and his colleagues at the law firm Baron & Budd have recovered for public entities, like local government, cities, and counties, in total since December 2018. Of that amount, $1.395 billion was recovered for public entities in the 2015, 2017, and 2018 California wildfire cases.

In addition, in June of this year, Baron & Budd announced an $818 million settlement package with Monsanto for PCB contamination of stormwater all across the country, on behalf of a class of 2,528 public entities across the U.S.

These successes, among the first significant multi-plaintiff settlements for public entities in California, have been recognized as Fiske and his colleagues, attorneys Ed Diab ’08 and Torri Sherlin, were named 2020 California Lawyer Attorneys of the Year by the Daily Journal.

“This groundbreaking settlement created a new paradigm for public entities in wildfire actions because it incorporated the inter-governmental complexities associated with federal and state disaster aid,” said Fiske at the time.

Fiske was quick to acknowledge that the honor was shared with each of the government and in-house co-counsel from the 23 public entities. “They were absolutely critical in the litigation, strategy, and resolution, especially when it came to coordination with the federal and state governments.”

Since his Torts I class at California Western, Fiske knew he wanted to work in torts law. He started with San Diego-based Sullivan Wertz McDade & Wallace, opened his own practice, and then worked with Gomez Trial Attorneys in mass torts. While at Gomez Trial Attorneys, he met an attorney named Scott Summy, who in 2002 had started the Environmental Litigation Group at Baron & Budd.

“Scott Summy was working in mass torts for public entities, and that really peaked my interest,” recalls Fiske. “Because not only was he working for public entities and the public entities were the clients, but he was also working on important governmental matters like cleaning up water and dealing with water contaminants, so that is where I really found my niche in the world—representing public entities.”

In July 2016, Fiske moved his practice to Baron & Budd, where he started representing public entities as plaintiffs in tort lawsuits for water contamination, wildfire disaster, and other public nuisance and public policy cases.

“We represent the public entities, largely local government, against big multi-million dollar corporations,” explains Fiske. “In the JUUL litigation, we represent the overwhelming majority of the school districts in California and around the country. We have filed suits as part of a National JUUL Litigation team on behalf of various school districts against JUUL Labs Inc. for its role in creating an e-cigarette epidemic.”

Representing public entities and fighting for the rights of property owners in California is a complex business, and Fiske credits California Western for instilling in him the idea of creative problem-solving.

“When I went to Cal Western, creative problem-solving was the school's theme, and this is something I'm using in my practice today,” says Fiske.

Professor William Lynch’s torts and Professor Mark Weinstein’s civil procedure classes were particularly influential for Fiske in determining his career path. “I really enjoyed both those classes,” says Fiske. “Torts and civil procedure is exactly what I do today—my first-year law classes laid the foundation for my practice today,” continues Fiske. “So torts and civil procedure lessons are things I’m still using today, almost 17 years later. I learned how to think within the context and character of the principles of American tort and procedure.”

But there’s more to John Fiske than being an award-winning mass torts lawyer. When not fighting for California's public entities, he rescues farm animals in need and advocates for compassionate, sustainable, and environmentally friendly policies.

Together with his wife Courtney, Fiske runs San Diego Farm Animal Rescue, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that provides homes for farm animals in need, and creates new lives for animals and their human companions in Elfin Forest, in unincorporated San Diego.

“I couldn’t do it without her,” says Fiske. “She actually deserves all the credit as she runs the farm and all the volunteers. She makes sure the animals are happy and healthy at the same time raising our two boys.” John and Courtney also founded the Fiske Family Foundation which supports public education and recreation for all.

Back to California Western today, Fiske acknowledges that he was a particularly young law student, starting his first class at age 20, and his advice for those younger law students is to start focusing now on where they want to be in 10 years.

“Most people overestimate what they can do in a year, but they underestimate what they can do in a decade, and my advice would be to make sure you really take care of yourself,” says Fiske. “Make sure you take care of your health, mental health, and relationships, and really build a strong foundation of eating healthily, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Without a strong personal foundation, achieving those higher level goals is difficult.”

As California's leading public entity-as-plaintiff lawyer and his long history of charitable work, John Fiske is a passionate environmentalist—and consummate professional who holds polluters accountable under the law.