His first case involved two electricians from Santa Anita, California who had been electrocuted and catastrophically burned as a result of an explosion on a demolition project in 1992. "As I remember it," says Brenner, "the temperature of the fireball was 5000 degrees. They survived, but they needed multiple skin grafts. One never returned to work. The other did, but in a different occupation."
Both men had burns to at least 50 percent of their bodies. The accident happened because of "an unusual configuration of the power panel," Brenner says. "They thought the power had been turned off, but the actual power switch was in another room."
The jury awarded the plaintiffs $28 million. Including interest, plus another $3.6 million owed to the plaintiffs from additional defendants, the total recovery was $38 million dollars. It was a significant case for Brenner in many ways.
The notoriety that resulted from the trial brought similar cases to Robert Brenner and his firm in Woodland Hills. He now represents burn victims exclusively.
Brenner's cases often involve construction sites. There are often complex legal issues around who is responsible for controlling the premises, and who is in charge of safety on the site. "There are often multiple defendants pointing the finger at each other, so the issues are interesting from a legal standpoint," Brenner says.
Brenner is a genial man, but there is a certain seriousness and empathy in his voice as he talks. He has made himself an expert on burn accidents, and his firm's website is full of startling statistics about the number and nature of burns that occur every day in the United States.
Approximately 2.4 million burn injuries are reported in the U.S. every year. One in four will have to seek medical attention, and thousands end up in hospital with burns to at least 25 percent of their body. As many as 12 thousand patients with burns die. Another one million sustain substantial or permanent disabilities.
"Because the injuries are so horrible, it is not just the cosmetic or disfigurement issues that are involved. There are emotional issues as well," Brenner says. "It is definitely challenging to deal with burn victims as clients, as well as their family members."
In cases where it is the husband who has been injured, the wife often has a claim too. These are usually referred to as a "loss of consortium" claim. Brenner describes it as the emotional impact on the wife and the marital relationship. "It has to do with the uninjured spouse taking care of the injured spouse, doing things like cleaning wounds and changing bandages. There are sometimes financial issues, and in some cases the marriage breaks down."
For women burn victims, the problems are even more complex. "For example," Brenner says, "a two or three inch burn on a woman's face could have a devastating effect on her and her self-image. It can cause changes in the way she interacts with people. I have seen people go from outgoing gregarious people to being withdrawn and insecure because of a facial disfigurement."
These are expensive cases to litigate, often involving many expert witnesses.
"Quite often there are life care experts, medical experts, accident reconstruction witnesses, psychiatrists and even financial experts. So we have to be very selective about the cases we take," says Brenner.
Robert Brenner received his B.Sc degree (1968) from the University of Southern California and his J.D. at Whitter College, Beverly School of Law (1975). He is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Association and the Million Dollar Advocates Forum. He founded and continues to support The Burn Survivors Resource Center for burn survivors and their families.