Attys Spotlighted In HBO Documentary On Charlottesville Suit

By Andrea Keckley | October 13, 2023, 4:59 PM EDT ·

A team of boutique and BigLaw attorneys and their clients are the stars of a documentary legal thriller that debuted on HBO this week capturing the battle they fought against the white nationalist forces that helped fuel 2017's deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The documentary, "No Accident," features the yearslong litigation in Sines v. Kessler, led by attorneys from firms such as Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, Bloch & White LLP and Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP.

"I think one of our hopes is that people will see this movie and understand that civil litigation is a powerful tool to hold these violent extremist groups accountable," Paul Weiss partner Karen Dunn, one of the documentary's stars, told Law360.

It was more than six years ago when the nation fixed its eyes on Charlottesville as torches illuminated a summer night at the University of Virginia. When the sun came up on Aug. 12, 2017, demonstrators took to the streets. That day, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring more than 30 others.

It all happened only about one month after Roberta Kaplan opened Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP. The following October, lacking confidence that Jeff Sessions, then the U.S. attorney general, would devote Department of Justice resources to investigating the rally, she filed a lawsuit alongside Dunn on behalf of nine counter-protesters injured that day. Named as defendants were 17 organizations and individuals, including Fields.

The documentary team came on board shortly after the lawsuit was filed. And as extraordinary as Kaplan says she thinks "No Accident" was, she admits she wasn't used to having people around to film her work.

"As the filmmaker said, I think at the premiere in New York City, I spent a lot of time pushing them out of the room — which I fully copped to, I definitely did," Kaplan told Law360.

"But in retrospect, looking at it today, I'm very glad that they did it, and I'm very glad I didn't push them out of the room all the time."

As Kaplan mentions, the trial took place around the same time as other high-profile state court cases, such as the criminal case against Kyle Rittenhouse, which, unlike this trial, could be televised. Rittenhouse was tried and acquitted of homicide in the fatal shooting of two people at a 2020 racial justice protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

"And therefore, it was very easy for the press to kind of cover those cases," she said. "And as a result, our case — where there were no cameras in the courtroom, and in fact, the whole courthouse was basically shut down — didn't get I think as much coverage as I would have wanted to. Again, not for me, not because I have any desire to appear on local news, but because I think this educational component is so important here."

Attorneys for the defense did not immediately respond to Law360's request for comment.

The trial ended in November 2021 with a $26 million judgment for the plaintiffs. While the jury was deadlocked on two federal conspiracy claims, they did find liability under Virginia state law for civil conspiracy; racial, religious or ethnic harassment or violence; assault or battery; and intentional affliction of emotional distress.

In order to pull this effort off, attorneys had to try to demonstrate that the defendants were part of a conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence. But they faced far more burdens than just the legal ones they had to meet.

Dunn said she would refer to taking part in the trial as "being in a bubble of hate and violence for five weeks." And Michael Bloch said he'd never heard someone in a deposition speak with the level of vitriol some of the defendants displayed as they were questioned. One scene in "No Accident" shows a defendant, Chris Cantwell, calling Bloch, whose grandparents escaped Nazi Germany, an antisemitic slur.

"It's a really powerful moment in the case because, as you can see in the documentary, Cantwell exploded with genuine antisemitism toward me, which I thought was a really powerful piece of evidence that he was not just an entertainer, but that those views seemed — particularly in that moment — to be genuine," Bloch said.

"This is sort of the irony of doing the kind of work that we do. A lot of what we experienced in Charlottesville, a lot of the more difficult and heinous moments and pieces of evidence, were also simultaneously very helpful for our case."

At trial, the attorneys had to try to counter either arguments that the defendants' actions were protected by the First Amendment or that much of their conduct, in the words of the jury instructions, was "motivated by considerations of self-defense." But part of what stands out in the documentary, directed by Emmy Award-winning Kristi Jacobson, is its exploration of the pretrial process, from Discord messages leaking onto the internet, to the phones of defendants being conveniently destroyed, to the defense striking the first Black prospective juror.

"It's sort of unusual," Dunn said. "It's not something that normally people make movies about."

Reflecting on the pretrial process, attorneys speaking to Law360 point to Paul Weiss partner Jessica Phillips as one of the key forces of this case. Bloch called her "absolutely critical to our victory" for her efforts in arguing that defendant Elliott Kline intentionally destroyed evidence, leading to a penalty not especially common in civil litigation.

"The film doesn't go into this, but Elliott Kline was held in contempt for destroying evidence, and ultimately, because of Jessica's advocacy, the court awarded us plaintiffs an adverse inference — actually, multiple adverse inferences — related to multiple defendants," he said.

Phillips says Kline was detained for 48 hours.

"Kline, of course, didn't show up at trial (too bad because I was looking forward to cross-examining him for a fourth time!) but we got a default judgment against him and I had fun using some of Kline's stuff to cross-examine Nathan Damigo at trial," she said in an email to Law360. "Damigo was close to Kline and the founder of Identity Evropa in which Kline was the #2. I will also say that representing our nine plaintiffs has been the most important matter that I've worked on in my career and I will forever be in awe of and grateful to them for their bravery."

Benjamin White, who was also involved in the litigation, praised the way "No Accident" "captures the essence" of the legal battles they fought.

"I think, among the many reasons that the film is so masterful, is that it's able to condense what is complex, yearslong litigation happenings into a digestible, 90-minute presentation that anyone can understand, appreciate and learn from," White told Law360.

"And that's not easy."

--Additional reporting by Matt Perez. Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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