Trial lawyers have a poor public image, to the point that the Association of Trial Lawyers of America changed its own name years back to the American Association for Justice. Some of the reputation is earned by some practitioners. But cases often arise that demonstrate how lawyers are indispensable to the public interest.

Last month in Reading, Berks County Judge Jeffrey K. Sprecher rendered a verdict in one such case. Attorney Benjamin J. Mayerson of Pottstown waged a withering, 16-year battle against Nationwide Insurance that faithfully served his client and exposed what consumers often face against powerful interests.

Sheryl Berg was driving a newly leased 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee on Sept. 4, 1996 when it was involved in a crash. No one was hurt. Nationwide, Ms. Berg's insurer, refused to "total" the car for $25,000, insisting on a $12,500 repair. Experts later determined that the car could not be properly repaired, yet Ms. Berg and her husband had to drive it until the lease expired, when Nationwide bought it.

Through a long litany of court filings, Mr. Mayerson ultimately discovered that Nationwide had adopted a policy to aggressively defend relatively minor claims to establish that it was a "defense-minded" company.

Judge Sprecher characterized the company's strategy: "Simply put, what Plaintiff, and more importantly, what lawyer in his right mind, will compete with a conglomerate insurance company if the insurance company can drag the case out 18 years and is willing to spend $3 million in defense expenses to keep the policyholder from getting just compensation under the contract. Its message is 1) that it is a defense minded carrier, 2) do not mess with us if you know what is good for you, 3) you cannot run with the big dogs, 4) there is no level playing field to be had in your case, 5) you cannot afford it and what client will pay thousands of dollars to fight the battle, 6) so we can get away with anything we want to, and 7) you cannot stop us."

As he put it: "Nationwide was willing to risk the Bergs' lives to save itself money on a collision claim."

The judge awarded $18 million in punitive damages and fees of $3 million to Mr. Mayerson, roughly what the company had paid its own lawyers. Like all trial lawyers, Mr. Mayerson bore the costs - in this case, for 16 years.

The judge ruefully noted, "Mrs. Berg will not have the opportunity to continue this litigation should Nationwide appeal this decision. More importantly, she will never see the case concluded and she will never receive her due justice. After years of fighting for her life against the ravenous disease of cancer, she died just last month."