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A Buffalo attorney will help shape the tort reform debate as head of one of the nation's premier legal institutes.

Neil A. Goldberg, a partner at Saperston & Day, has been elected president of the Defense Research Institute. He becomes the first local lawyer to lead the Chicago-based institute representing 22,000 of the nation's civil defense attorneys.

Goldberg specializes in product liability law, and his Buffalo firm has built a national practice representing General Motors, General Electric, Fisher-Price and other major clients.

The seeds for his ascent within the profession were planted by his father in Brooklyn more than 40 years ago. The senior Goldberg, a salesman, wanted his son to be a successful attorney. While other fathers were taking their sons to ball games, Goldberg and his father visited courthouses to watch trials.

"I really developed a love of the law. My father really thought this was a wonderful thing to do with your life," Goldberg said.

Now the 52-year-old University at Buffalo Law School graduate will help shape public policy governing the legal profession. He will lead the institute, which is trying to curb the nation's voracious appetite for civil litigation.

"You don't see the level of litigation in Europe or Japan that you do in the U.S.," Goldberg said. "There are different paradigms in other countries. Obviously, we'd like to see the pace of litigation contained so corporations in the U.S. can compete more effectively with their counterparts in other countries."

The cost of fighting product liability cases, and other civil litigation, can carry significant expense.

Reforms sought by the Defense Research Institute include moving all class action lawsuits with interstate class members into federal court, capping plaintiffs' attorney fees for class cases and raising the qualifications for expert witnesses in all state courts to the minimum standards set by the federal court's "Daubert rule."

The institute does not directly lobby state legislators, but attempts to influence public debate by publishing reports and studies. Goldberg's group is often at odds with the American Trial Lawyers Association, the larger and well-financed group representing plaintiffs' attorneys.

John Kouris, executive director of the Defense Research Institute, believes Goldberg will help strengthen the defense lawyers.

"He's an energetic, big picture thinker. He has tremendous ideas for energizing the defense bar," Kouris said.

One of Goldberg's main objectives is to increase the number of female and minority members in the historically white organization.

"The message is, please come join us. This is a land of opportunity for all attorneys and we open our arms to everybody," he said.

Goldberg will be installed Oct. 7 at the institute's annual meeting in New Orleans

Goldberg is known locally for several high-profile cases. He defended the Jacobs family in getting the New York Court of Appeals to overturn an $800,000 jury award against Seth Jacobs, who was accused of assaulting actress Mary Kate O'Connell in 1980.

He also faced a team that included celebrity attorney Johnnie Cochrane Jr. while defending Pyramid Co. in the wrongful-death suit filed by the family of Cynthia Wiggins. The case, which included multiple defendants, was filed after Wiggins was struck by a truck and died while crossing Walden Avenue attempting to reach Walden Galleria Mall. The case was settled out of court for $2.5 million.

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