Mary McKissick still talks about the awe she felt after meeting St. Paul attorney Fred Pritzker.
In 2012, after her husband, John, contracted a near-fatal case of food poisoning that left him hospitalized for two months, six weeks of that time unconscious, the Murrysville, Pa., woman began interviewing attorneys from around the country.
Pritzker impressed her as soon as he arrived at the rehab hospital in Pittsburgh where John was recovering, she said. “He knew more about Listeria meningitis than any doctor I had met so far,” she said.
Pritzker, founding partner of the Pritzker Hageman law firm in Minneapolis, died Jan. 10 of complications related to multiple myeloma. He was 71.
Pritzker, who practiced law for more than 40 years, was “a pioneer in the area of foodborne-illness law,” said Eric Hageman, his longtime law-firm partner. Pritzker also specialized in explosion and fire litigation, as well as catastrophic-injury cases, he said.
“Fred had such a unique ability to understand the science and the medical aspects of a case almost better than our retained experts,” Hageman said. “Because of his scientific and medical expertise, he could spot issues in cases and see things in medical records or in regulatory reports that 99 percent of lawyers would have missed.”
Pritzker also was a skilled orator and negotiator and “had a work ethic that was second to none,” Hageman said. “He was always the most well-prepared lawyer in the room.”
In October, Pritzker and Hageman resolved a case that is “believed to be the largest foodborne illness settlement in U.S. history,” Hageman said. “That was certainly something that drove him in the last few years of his life. It was his final act as a lawyer and one of his crowning achievements.”
Details of the settlement are confidential, he said.
One of Pritzker’s biggest cases involved a man “horrifically hurt in a pipeline explosion,” Hageman said. Pritzker helped negotiate a $45 million settlement on the man’s behalf, and, as he did with many former clients, he stayed friends with the family for the rest of his life, Hageman said.
“He liked to hear people’s stories, but he, just as much, liked to tell people’s stories,” Hageman said. “He loved to be the voice of the voiceless and to speak out on behalf of little people taking on big companies or those in power.”
Pritzker grew up in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood and graduated from Highland Park Senior High School in 1968. He got his bachelor’s degree in political science from Northwestern University and then graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School.
His first job as an attorney was at the state attorney general’s office, where he was assigned to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. He then worked for Meshbesher Singer & Spence and Schwebel, Goetz, Sieben & Hanson. He started his own law firm in 1996.
In 1977, he met Renee Beloy, who was working for Hennepin County Attorney Referral Services; Fred Pritzker was working pro bono for Legal Advice Clinics, providing free legal help for low-income people. The agencies shared office space in Minneapolis, she said, and the couple were introduced when Pritzker stopped by one day to see a friend.
“We argued about this for years,” she said. “He left the office — remember, we didn’t have cellphones back then, and he called me right away. He always said he went back to his office and called me and asked me out, but he called me so quickly that he must have called me from the pay phone in the lobby of the building.”
Pritzker asked her to go out that night and offered to pick her up from work. First, though, they had to go to his house and let Sam, his dog, out. Pritzker lived near the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul; she lived near Macalester College, she said. “He and Sam walked me home,” she said.
The couple married in August 1982 in the back yard of their house on Fairmount Avenue in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill neighborhood.
Pritzker started specializing in foodborne illness more than two decades ago after an outbreak in New Jersey caused by turkey lunch meat, Renee Pritzker said.
“He clearly recognized that this was an area of law that no one was doing,” she said. “It was a good example of what Fred did well: he learned the science, and he recognized that this wasn’t just an isolated incident, that there were many people being injured and that there was really little protection for them. He learned the science, he worked up the case, and he got a great settlement.”
Pritzker loved working on complex civil cases “that involved great technical scientific issues,” Renee Pritzker said. “A lot of people might have shied away from it because it just takes so much work, but Fred loved that sort of investigation.”
In 1985, the Pritzkers’ first child, Jacob, was born. A month later, Jake, now 36, was diagnosed with Angelman syndrome, a genetic disability characterized by lack of speech and cognitive disabilities.
“Here’s what I’ve learned: in one way or another, we’re all disabled to some degree,” Pritzker once said. “But we are not defined by our disabilities. We want to be loved, have friends, have fun, do interesting things and be accepted for who we are rather than what we can do.”
Pritzker worked to expand the rights of people with disabilities. He was an officer or director of the Angelman Syndrome Foundation, Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance, and ARC Minnesota, among others. The couple helped found the Highland Friendship Club, endowed the Jacob E. Pritzker Fund to support the University of Minnesota Law School and the Minnesota Disability Law Center, and helped underwrite the Angelman Syndrome Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“Fred was so effective at getting things done,” Renee Pritzker said. “He was involved in the major litigation of trying to keep people in their homes and in the community and building a better life. It wasn’t enough to just serve on a board; it was, ‘How do I bring this to the next step?’”
Pritzker was a world traveler, an avid athlete and a serious runner and bicyclist. A few days before heading out on an ice-climbing trip to Washington state in 2000, he had an episode during which he fell, Renee Pritzker said.
He was subsequently diagnosed with secondary progressive myelopathy, a neurological disorder that caused him to eventually lose much of the ability to use the left side of his body. In 2019, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
While in the hospital receiving care, Pritzker formed deep and lasting friendships with the nurses, phlebotomists and other patients, said his daughter, Sarah Pritzker, who lives in St. Paul.
“My dad had no time for small talk,” she said. “He didn’t care about your hobbies or pastimes; he wanted to know your story. Who were your people? What scared you most? What did you want in life?”
Pritzker’s medical battles “stripped away any ego my father had,” she said. “He was capable of making deep and lasting relationships in a few moments, of touching someone’s life in a profound way and, perhaps most importantly, helping someone to believe in themselves.
“It was this gift that I loved most about my dad: his ability to make you feel like you mattered. That you were important. That you were understood.”
Services were held Friday at Temple Israel in Minneapolis.
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