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Retired O.C. judge handled major cases

Times Staff Writer

Leonard Goldstein, a retired Orange County Superior Court judge who presided over the 1970s Ford Pinto product liability case that resulted in a then-record jury award of nearly $128.5 million in damages, and who later oversaw civil cases related to the UCI Medical Center fertility clinic scandal, has died. He was 76.

Goldstein, who had congestive heart failure, died April 12 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, said his daughter Bethany Anderson.

A UC Berkeley law school graduate, he was appointed in 1976 to the Municipal Court bench in north Orange County by Gov. Jerry Brown, who elevated him to the Superior Court in 1977.

After Goldstein lost his position in a judicial election in 1978 -- a time in which prosecutors throughout California led a call to unseat a number of incumbent judges who had been appointed by Brown -- the governor put Goldstein back on the Municipal Court bench in Fullerton early the next year and in 1980 elevated him again to the Orange County Superior Court.

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In a 1987 profile of Goldstein in The Times, Superior Court Judge Robert H. Green said the election defeat “was really shattering to [Goldstein] because it was absolutely unjustified.”

“The governor told me at a dinner once that Goldstein was one of the best [judicial] appointments he ever made,” said Green, who was co-counsel with Goldstein on numerous cases in the early 1960s when they were lawyers in Santa Ana. “He has the best legal mind of anyone I ever worked with.”

Goldstein, who served as presiding judge of the Orange County Superior Court in 1990 and ’91, retired from the court in 1996.

A month after Brown appointed him to the Superior Court in 1977, Goldstein began presiding over a six-month trial that made national headlines: the Pinto case.

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The jury awarded Richard Grimshaw of Anaheim $2.8 million in compensatory damages and $125 million in punitive damages stemming from a 1972 automobile accident in which a Pinto erupted in flames when it was rear-ended by another car on Interstate 15 near San Bernardino.

The driver of the Pinto, Lily Gray, 52, of Orange, suffered fatal burns, and passenger Grimshaw, then 13, was severely burned over 90% of his body.

The case, according to a 1978 account in The Times, was based on allegations that Ford had deliberately fitted Pintos with poorly designed gas tanks that ruptured upon even light impact.

The jury verdict was said to be the largest ever recorded in a personal injury-product liability case. (Gray’s family, which filed a wrongful death suit, was awarded about $666,000 in compensatory damages; punitive damages were not permitted in their case.)

About two months later, Goldstein declared the jury’s award “excessive as a matter of law” and reduced Grimshaw’s punitive damages award to $3.5 million, as well as cutting the compensatory damages to $2.5 million for Grimshaw and to $559,680 for the Grays.

Goldstein told The Times that he believed the $3.5 million in punitive damages he left in his decision was in line “with the kind of trial it was,” the actual damages and Ford’s actions.

“It’s still larger than any other punitive damage award in the state by a factor of about five,” he said.

In 1987, Goldstein presided over a trial in which he dismissed a suit by dissident shareholder Harry H. Hoiles that could have led to the dismantling of Irvine-based Freedom Newspapers, the nation’s 14th largest newspaper chain and the parent company of the Orange County Register.

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Known to enjoy presiding over long, complicated trials that “raise esoteric areas of the law,” Goldstein also concluded an 11-month trial in 1987 in which he ruled that Newport Beach had not violated state or federal laws prohibiting housing discrimination.

And a year before he retired as a Superior Court judge, he was assigned to oversee all current and future lawsuits associated with the UCI Medical Center’s Center for Reproductive Health scandal involving doctors who had stolen eggs and embryos from patients and implanted them in other women.

Retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Donald Smallwood, told The Times this week that Goldstein “probably had the most acute sense of justice that I’ve ever run across.”

“He was very knowledgeable about the law and the Constitution -- he was very concerned about upholding the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights -- and he had a wide range of knowledge on a whole bunch of other subjects,” Smallwood said.

From 1997 until recently, Goldstein had been a mediator, arbitrator and private judge for Judicate West, a Santa Ana-based alternative dispute resolution company, where he handled large, complex cases that tended to last several months.

“He was a real intellectual,” said Alan Brutman, president of the company. “People really respected him for how he was able to dissect complex matters. I really enjoyed having Judge Goldstein around here. What will be sorely missed is how, when a challenging legal issue did come up, I’d always hear, ‘Somebody check with Goldstein on that; he’ll know how to figure that out.’ ”

Goldstein was born in Cleveland on July 20, 1931. He received a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University in 1953 and served five years in the Navy.

After graduating from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law in 1961, he spent time in private practice specializing in business litigation and was a deputy attorney general for the business law section of the California Department of Justice. He was also an adjunct professor at Western State University School of Law from 1970 to 1971.

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Before becoming a Municipal Court judge, Goldstein spent four years as an administrative law judge for the California Office of Administrative Hearings.

Away from the bench, he was known for pursuing a rather small hobby: collecting and publishing miniature (3 inches or less) books.

In addition to his daughter Bethany, Goldstein is survived by daughter Risa Fowler; a sister, Debbie; and three brothers, Dennis, Gary and Edward.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com


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