“APPELLATE LAWYERS ARE VERY ANALYTICAL,”
SAYS VAN DYCK. “I’M REALLY GOOD IN FRONT OF A
PANEL OF JUDGES INSTEAD OF BEFORE A JURY.
I ENJOY PLAYING HOPSCOTCH WITH JUDGES.”
Her transient upbringing gave Van Dyck the gumption to change
course throughout her lifetime—such as when she decided to go
to law school after nearly a decade of practicing occupational
therapy. Upon graduating with high distinction from Indiana
University in 1974, she went to work for a hospital in Indianapolis,
and did the same after moving to Minnesota in 1977. When she
realized her pay scale was capping out, Van Dyck, then a newly
single mom, re-evaluated. “It was a matter of raising my son by
myself,” she says. “I was never going to have the house with white
picket fence and dog. My whole life had been turned upside down.
Why not start over?”
She chose law for its intellectual rigor. “The first lawyer I got to
know was my divorce lawyer,” she says. “I knew I didn’t want to go
into family law.” She worked her entire way through night school at
the William Mitchell College of Law, and has a special appreciation
for select professors who allowed her to bring her son to class. (“He
would literally sit at the desk with his Matchbox trucks,” she says.)
Toward the end of her tenure, she took out a loan so she could take
a full-time position with the Minnesota Supreme Court. She was
its first female marshal. “Basically, you’re a gopher, but it’s a great
job for a law student,” she says. During this season of her life, she
remembers not sleeping much: “But you just do what you’ve got to
do when it’s required of you.”
Her next move was taking a job as a law clerk with Schwebel,
Goetz & Sieben. After graduating magna cum laude from William
Mitchell in 1987, she joined the firm. “Schwebel gave me a big
start,” she says. “It allowed me to do civil litigation.” She eventually
took over appeals and complex motions practice for every major
case that came through Schwebel’s doors. “With a motion to
dismiss, the whole case will live or die depending upon what a
judge decides,” she explains. “It’s often on a purely legal matter.
Law and fact.”
The appellate and motions cases became her bread and butter.
“Trial lawyers are very good on their feet. They are storytellers, big-
picture people who use details well,” she says. “Appellate lawyers
are very analytical. I’m really good in front of a panel of judges
instead of before a jury. I enjoy playing hopscotch with judges.”
Her first case, Kaiser v. Memorial Blood Center of Minneapolis, Inc.,
involved a lot of hopscotch. “The case was on my desk when I got
back from taking the bar exam,” she says. And it would stay there
for the next five years.
Her client had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion from
two sources after giving birth. In the 1980s, there was testing for
certain types of hepatitis, but a test for HIV didn’t exist yet when
accepting blood donations.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Van Dyck says. “I was
scrambling like a maniac trying to find anybody doing this. There
were many cases across the country, and everyone was losing.”
Her case wove through the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
and eventually made its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“I argued there only two years out of school, because I followed
my nose,” she says. Ultimately, the case settled. “The big result
in Kaiser was the effect of the ruling on the applicable statute of
A few years later, she found herself digging through FBI files
in a Kansas City, Mo., warehouse for another client. “I ended up
working on all the odd cases,” she says. “I worked on one where
a guy fell out of a dunk tank—after someone dressed in a chicken
suit thought he’d be funny by triggering the seat manually when
the guy on the seat was unaware of his presence. Sadly, the guy on
the seat fell backward out of the tank, hit his head on concrete and
became a quadriplegic.”
One of Van Dyck’s colleagues won against the Dundas
Jaycees, the volunteer organization responsible for supplying the
homemade dunk tank. When Van Dyck sued to collect the money
from the Jaycees’ insurance company, it became clear that the
insurance didn’t exist. She asserted that the insurance agency that
sold the insurance to the Jaycees should have known it was fake.
“The U.S. Congress had even investigated the insurance ring,” she
says. “The Department of Justice had put the head broker in jail. It
was a Ponzi scheme.”
So in the dead heat of summer, she ended up “in an unair-
conditioned warehouse looking at FBI files that were unindexed,”
she says. “A retired FBI agent, out of the goodness of his heart, met
me in Kansas City and helped me interpret documents. He said,
‘Sharon, the only way to figure them out and to catch them, is to
think like they do, to think like a criminal.’” In the end, Van Dyck
recovered a sizable reward for her client.
These investigative skills would be invaluable in the years to
come, when she handled large-scale railroad injury cases. The first
of such cases came in the form of Hernandez v. State of Minnesota
in 2000. Schwebel attorney Paul Godlewski recruited Van Dyck to
research the federal issues surrounding the railway accident, which
involved a family and many devastating injuries. Together, they
secured “a significant settlement” for the victims.
It was Godlewski who originally took the BNSF case,
representing the Chase family. “During the course of the case,
Sharon became indispensable,” he says. “She developed genuine
rapport with the judge and briefed honestly, citing correct law.
Initial impressions were that the kids went around the gates.
Some early rulings were very conservative. Then the court started
to listen. Sharon’s efforts were extremely time-consuming, and
involved lots of early, hard work.”
In 2008, Judge Maas issued the historic $21.6 million judgment,
ruling BNSF was 90 percent at fault. But the case would take
several more turns. In 2009, Judge Maas tacked on $4.2 million
in sanctions after finding the railroad guilty of destroying and
fabricating evidence to support its case.
“There was so much evidence that was destroyed,” says Van
Dyck, who traveled to BNSF’s Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters