Peter Gordon (LLB 1979)

1 July 2014

Changing lives through class action – MLS spoke to Peter Gordon, Director of Gordon Legal and Chairman and President of Western Bulldogs.

"We'll be changing a lot of people's lives today," says Peter Gordon, head of Gordon Legal, a practice established in 2010 to run a class action for more than 100 Australian and New Zealand thalidomide survivors whose initial claims were rejected many years ago.

Multi-national beverage company Diageo has deposited $96 million into Gordon Legal's account overnight and Peter's wife, Kerri O'Toole, is working feverishly in the office next door to arrange for EFT and cheque payments to be distributed to thalidomide survivors who were part of the firm's class action settled in December last year.

It is a momentous day for Peter and the small team who have "poured their heart and soul" into the class action.

The settlement ranks as the finest amongst many wins for the battlers he has represented throughout a legal career spanning more than 30 years.

President of the Western Bulldogs Football Club, the 56-year-old former partner of Slater & Gordon is a passionate advocate for what was once called "law for the poor", representing injured workers, claimants, consumers and aggrieved shareholders.

He grew up in West Footscray, was Dux of St John's College in Braybrook and arrived at Melbourne Law School in 1976. He struggled, a shy kid who had few connections at the University.

"It was pretty daunting to go into the Law School and see cabals of kids from Scotch, Melbourne Grammar and Xavier who all knew each other," he recalls. "I found it quite intimidating."

He gravitated to the first floor of the Baillieu Library where students from the western suburbs gathered and he threw himself into his studies. The Whitlam Government had been dismissed months earlier and the event framed fervent debate on and off campus.

"One of the leading commentators was Dean of Melbourne Law School, Professor Colin Howard, who spoke with incredible intellect, perspicacity and insight into various constitutional law issues, especially the Reserve Powers of the Crown," Gordon recalls. "I found him enthralling and went to lectures in subjects I wasn't even doing just to hear him talk."

Two years into the course he volunteered at the Williamstown Legal Referral Service, which confirmed his career ambitions.

I wanted to practice on behalf of poor people.

The way he sees it, as a lawyer you're either for the little people or for the big corporations.

When applying for articles he applied a broad brush, looked up solicitors in the Yellow Pages and spent a day handwriting applications.

"I started at A and finished at R at 9 o'clock and retired to bed, exhausted. My Dad had been watching me and feeling sorry for me; he completed the alphabetical run-through the Yellow Pages from S to Z.  So it was my Dad who actually applied for the job at Slater's," he says.

Slater & Gordon "thought I had the right sort of working class stock and potential," and Peter started with the firm in 1980.

Four years later, he convinced his boss Mike Higgins to let him and his lifelong friend Rob Stary open a Footscray office, "beginning a very long acquisition and growth strategy" that saw Slater & Gordon also open offices in Perth and Sydney.

Peter recalls how "the first day at Footscray was the start of the trial in Pilmer vs McPhersons – the first successful common law action for damages for negligence for an asbestos cancer victim."

As a junior lawyer he'd previously been told that it was too hard to run a case for negligence for someone with an asbestos-related cancer because "the victims died too quickly". So he spoke to the firm's senior partner and said he wanted to approach the Court to fast track the process "for interlocutory processes, discovery and interrogatories" to make sure victims got a trial in their lifetime. The firm agreed and Peter applied to the Court which "granted us a speedy trial; we ran the trial and we won."

The case was reported in the newspapers and Peter found himself "besieged" with new inquiries from victims of asbestos cancer. "I loved the work and so did the firm. They were interesting, intellectually challenging and forensically complex cases that got important results for decent working people," he says.

It opened the door to Slater & Gordon's first landmark class action, Wittenoom, in 1989 which won compensation for hundreds of asbestos miners, their families and workers in other industries.

The first case, Wally Simpson vs CSR, ran for 55 days in the WA Supreme Court in 1984. It lost and almost sent the firm broke. While it was later overturned on appeal, the breakthrough case of Klaus Rabenalt vs CSR was heard in Victoria in 1987.

"We got a record verdict including $250K for punitive damages, which was a seismic result and turned our fortunes around," he says.

A list of landmark class actions followed. The Sydney office ran a class action for women who had used faulty intra-uterine devices called the Dalkon Shield. They won and "all of a sudden we were a national law firm".

Other high profile cases included compensation for Papua New Guinean land owners impacted by the leakage of tailings waste from the BHP-owned Ok Tedi mine between 1994 and 1996; and the 1993–2002 class action against Dow Corning over faulty breast implants which affected thousands of Australian women. Between 1993 and 1997, Peter and his team took on the might and the aggressive lawyers of the Catholic Church for child migrant boys sexually abused in outback institutions in WA. In 2001 the firm ran McCabe vs British American Tobacco which saw Rolah McCabe, 51 and dying of lung cancer, commence a case against British American Tobacco (BAT) Australia in the Supreme Court of Victoria. She sued BAT arguing that it had been negligent in its manufacturing and marketing of cigarettes and that its negligence had caused her lung cancer. The Supreme Court found in McCabe's favour but the decision was overturned on Appeal. VIOXX, the waterside workers asbestos epidemic and the pursuit of the asbestos giant James Hardie through a government inquiry and to the Netherlands are all part of the Peter Gordon CV.

In 1989 Peter led the fight to save his beloved Footscray Football Club, the Western Bulldogs, from closure or merger.

Peter was also made an equity partner in 1989. The legal partnership was later incorporated and listed on the ASX in 2007. It is now one of the top 50 law firms in the UK.

Throughout his career Peter had worked tirelessly for causes he believed in. He left the firm in 2010, selling down his shareholding and thought he'd never practice again, but when the need arose to run the thalidomide case for the many victims left behind, he jumped at it and established Gordon Legal.

"Thalidomide has been the most satisfying, challenging and intellectually stimulating litigation of my life, which is not to diminish any of the other big actions I've helped with," reflects Peter.

He also runs a commercial enterprise called Comprehensive Legal Funding (CLF) and in the past four years CLF has litigation-funded the Centro, Sigma and real estate investment trust GPT litigation "all of which have resolved successfully".