Bruce Rasmussen: Lawyer won big awards, high regard

When a jury awarded $20 million in 1997 to a Keswick man seriously injured by a 16-ton hunk of concrete falling off a truck and onto his vehicle, it was the largest personal injury verdict in Virginia at the time.

While the sizeable awards Bruce Rasmussen won made headlines, friends and colleagues say the 57-year-old lawyer who died July 31 truly cared for his clients.

The most valuable lesson Bryan Slaughter learned from his mentor at Michie, Hamlett, Lowry, Rasmussen & Tweel was "not to be a lawyer. Being a human being was the most important thing."

At trial, says Slaughter, "Bruce was the best. It was about the human condition and human emotion."

In 1997, Rasmussen shocked the ski industry with a $6.2 million verdict against Massanutten ski resort for Tom Hoar, who suffered permanent brain damage when he skied off an unmarked cliff.

Afterward, Rasmussen said, "You don't fight a case like this– with these odds– with your end goal of making money." The goal, he said, was to make ski areas safer.

He was working on another skiing lawsuit– this one against Wintergreen– when his lung cancer was discovered in March. Slaughter took over the case.

"I asked myself," says Slaughter, "what would Bruce do?" Their client, who had skied into a grooming vehicle, was awarded $8.3 million in damages in July.

Rasmussen was one of the top two or three trial lawyers in the state, says Slaughter, and "he was gaining a national reputation when he got sick."

Slaughter remembers Rasmussen's willingness to do whatever it took, within ethical bounds, in a case for his client.

"He was very passionate about helping people," says Judy Rasmussen, his wife of 35 years. "He would carry around mementoes from clients," in one case, a flat line EKG reading from a client who wasn't supposed to make it.

He brought in the assistance of good luck charms when he took that case before the Virginia Supreme Court: a little Pinocchio to make people tell the truth, and a little rubber ducky, both of which he set on the table.

"We got into an argument about whether they should have a tent to cover them so the justices wouldn't see them," recalls Slaughter.

Slaughter prevailed and covered the totems with a paper tent; Rasmussen prevailed for their client.

"I know Bruce was one of the most highly regarded plaintiff's attorneys in Virginia for his ethics, demeanor, and how he treated other lawyers," says Paul Fletcher, publisher of Virginia Lawyers Weekly. "He was a zealous advocate and considered a real gentleman."

Rasmussen had served as president of both the Southern Trial Lawyers and the Virginia Trial Lawyers associations.

He also had a political side: He took over as chair of the Albemarle Democratic Party in 1975, a time the party was "in the throes of realignment," says Jim Heilman, who served as Rasmussen's vice chair.

After the McGovern race in 1972, old-line Dixiecrat Dems were leaving the party in droves, explains Heilman. "Bruce picked up the reins at a difficult time, trying to keep the old members while welcoming the Humphreyites and McGovernites," he says.

Over his 10-year tenure, Rasmussen brought stability to the Democrats, says Heilman, the former county registrar. The lawyer helped build precinct organizations, and he introduced modern campaign techniques, such as phone banks and favorable lists. Rasmussen also served on the Albemarle County Electoral Board.

A lengthy obituary written by his daughter, Briley, describes over and over his joie de vivre (as well as his love of all things French).

"Working with Bruce was fun," confirms Slaughter, who relates one of Rasmussen's favorite stories about trying to depose a woman who wouldn't answer his questions in the correctional facility in Goochland. He told her she'd been subpoenaed and had to answer, and he delighted in her response: "What are you going to do, Mr. Rasmussen, put me in jail?"

Besides inspiring younger attorneys at his firm and teaching them how to put together a case, Rasmussen left them one other legacy: "He gave us all Pinocchios," says Slaughter.

Forget the lawyer jokes: Bruce Rasmussen used compassion, skill– and a rubber ducky– to win multi-million dollar personal injury cases.