Attorney Robert Sullivan of Sullivan Papain Block McGrath Coffinas & Cannavo P.C. Fights for 9/11 Heroes

Robert Sullivan. Photo by Matthew Kropp

Equality before the law is among the most sacred rights of the American citizen. Among those most highly regarded for protecting those rights is trial lawyer Robert Sullivan, of the New York City and Long Island-based law firm Sullivan Papain Block McGrath Coffinas & Cannavo, P.C. 

Sullivan has a plethora of experience defending the rights of everyday people in court. He started his legal career in 1974 clerking for Harry H. Lipsig, a legendary trial lawyer. Bob was immediately recognized as a talented, up-and-coming attorney who would soon become one of the state’s top trial lawyers and a partner at the firm in just two years.  

In more than 40 years of practice, he’s had as much impact on his clients as on the law itself. He has tried more than 300 cases involving people seriously injured by reason of the negligence or wrongdoing of others.

“It’s never lost on me the impact that these cases can have on people’s lives,” said Sullivan. “Corporate greed knows no bounds, and many people would have no recourse or power against it if not for the law. A person’s lawyer is their voice, their advocate, and their gladiator.”

While Sullivan is known for the many victories that have brought his clients many millions of dollars in compensation for the damages they have suffered, he is perhaps best known for his work on behalf of September 11, 2001 first responders and survivors who were killed or have been diagnosed with illnesses related to the terrorists’ attacks and its aftermath.

In the wake of that awful day, Bob Sullivan and his firm represented 363 injured firefighters and the families of fallen firefighters in the 2002-04 September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, obtaining more than $265 million in awards for absolutely no fee, thus forgoing more than $25 million in legal fees.  

“We are on the side of the angels,” said Sullivan. “After September 11, there was nothing to do other than help, and our firm was first in line to help the men and women who lost their spouses, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, moms and dads, in that tragic terrorist attack. Everyone served the country in their own way — our way was to make sure that these families had a voice,” continued Sullivan. 

And in the years since, Bob Sullivan has developed into the “firefighter’s lawyer,” while representing firefighters and fire officers, and other first responders, who have since been stricken with illnesses resulting from their exposure to toxins during the rescue and recovery efforts that ensued. He and his firm represent thousands of active and retired New York City firefighters in a myriad of cases, including injuries suffered on the job.

“It’s really gratifying to be able to change people’s lives for the better,” Sullivan said. “Helping first responders who get hurt while on the job is a gratifying way of giving back to those who have given so much,” he continued.

The Long Island Press asked Mr. Sullivan some questions about the highlights of his distinguished career. 

What have been your most fulfilling cases? The most fulfilling cases of my career involve representing the family members of firefighters who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to others. Securing justice for their loved ones is something I take great pride in. Whether it was the Waldbaum’s fire, the Father’s Day fire, Black Sunday, or 9/11, my firm’s mission was to ensure that the memory of these firefighters was honored and that the families were protected.  While we knew that we could never make them whole again and could not ease the grief they felt, we hoped to provide comfort and peace of mind knowing that we would not stop until they received the compensation that they deserved. It isn’t hard to pick a jury when you are on the side of the angels. 

What are you most proud of throughout your career? I am proud of being able to not only try successful cases for my clients, but also to stand up for what is right. When I tried the Waldbaum’s Fire case, we were able to secure a landmark victory for the families who lost their husbands on one of the deadliest days in the history of the New York City Fire Department.  The evidence was clear that this was an unimaginable tragedy, but one that happened as a result of negligence.  

Despite this, there was a young, African American man, Eric Jackson, who was convicted of arson for setting the fatal fire. The evidence suggested not only that he was innocent, but also that his confession was coerced. I took his case to the Appellate Division and was able to get his conviction overturned and secured his release. This, after he spent nine years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. 

You see, the criminal justice system and the legal system are nothing without integrity. People’s trust in the courts are, perhaps, the most important thing. When someone with the power to act sees something wrong, and fails to do what is right, that is how people lose faith in the system. 

In one case I was able to secure compensation for the families of the deceased firefighters and exonerate a man who otherwise would have spent decades behind bars. Justice can come in different forms, but this case reminds me that, as lawyers, we have a responsibility to pursue it at all times.

What is a true story from your career that is too crazy to be true? I think back on the hundreds and hundreds of cases I have tried and one is more crazy than the next, but my craziest experience in the courtroom has to be when I questioned Muhammad Ali. Arguably the most noteworthy professional boxer of the 20th century, he also had an uncanny ability to keep people entertained. Up on the witness stand, his testimony was brilliant and he was one of the ‘sharpest’ minds that I’ve ever questioned. During this same trial, I also had Howard Cosell and Tony Perez as witnesses as well – but Ali was the best. The jury loved him. 

How have you made a difference throughout your career? I would like to think that my career has really made a positive impact on individual lives and on changing unsafe practices employed by city agencies and corporations.

As counsel to the Uniformed Firefighters Association and having an office in downtown Manhattan, we deeply felt the tragedy of 9/11. I hope that our efforts as a firm to help the victims of the terrorist attacks from that day, both in the immediate aftermath by representing hundreds of families without taking a fee, and in the years that followed through litigation and lobbying to secure permanent healthcare and compensation, gave some comfort to those who lost a loved one or became ill.

I also am proud that the successes in the courtroom have translated into real change. One case comes to mind, Lyle v. City of New York, where our victory ensured that New York City firefighters had to be provided safe and adequate bunker gear to fight fires. It is wins like this that protect our first responders from budget cuts that threaten their safety.

Finally, I hope that our role in the New York State tobacco litigation similarly reminded everyone that corporate greed will not be tolerated at the expense of the health and safety of each of us and our children.

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