LAWYER LIMELIGHT: Philip Freidin of Freidin Dobrinsky
Photo source: Freidin Dobrinsky

Philip Freidin has represented plaintiffs in personal injury and medical malpractice cases since 1969, but he had never handled an ROP case until this year. ROP stands for retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disorder that affects premature infants. The problem arises when blood vessels in an infant's eye do not grow properly, which can lead to retinal detachment and blindness. With proper screening, the disorder can be identified and successfully treated, usually with laser therapy.

It's complicated stuff, but Freidin's first foray into the field was a success. In April, he won a $38 million verdict in Lee County, Fla., for his clients: two boys stricken by ROP, as well as their parents. The case is now in post-trial motions.

Freidin, the founding partner of Miami-based Freidin Dobrinsky, has made a habit of scoring big verdicts. He also isn't afraid to break new ground. He was plaintiffs' trial counsel in West v. Caterpillar, a 1975 case that established the doctrine strict product liability in the state of Florida. Strict product liability allows plaintiffs to sue over defective products without having to prove negligence on behalf of the defendants. He also scored one of the state's most influential bad-faith victories with Powell v. Prudential in 1991. A state appellate court ruled in Powell that insurance companies have a duty to make a good faith settlement offer even if they have not received a formal demand by the plaintiffs.

Lawdragon: Tell me more about the recent ROP case.

Philip Freidin: It was a case involving twin boys who were born at 26 weeks. The boys developed ROP at a time when they were being screened by the doctor we ended up suing. Essentially, the claim was that the screening wasn't done thoroughly enough or properly to see that there was a problem and that they should be sent for laser treatment.

The testimony in the case, and from what I learned in preparing the case, is that almost all children who get proper laser treatment in a timely manner do well. I think that's an important thing for new parents to know: When they have premature infants, this screening has to occur to see if ROP is developing. And obviously you want the screening to be done right.

LD: What were some of the challenges in this case?

PF: There was a defense to our claims that the boys received a proper screening. The biggest challenge was to have the jury understand the disease, how the process works and how the treatment works. Generally, I think in malpractice cases confusion is the enemy of the plaintiffs and the ally of the defense. If the jurors think the case is too complicated, they are more likely to side with the doctor. The challenge is to explain the issues to the jury in an understandable way. Also, in any case, a challenge is being able to cross-examine the experts on the other side who are saying "It's not so simple," or that the way we are presenting the case is not true.

One of the difficult parts of this case is that [ROP is rare]. Everybody can understand a missed appendicitis or heart attack, but this is an area where really no one will have a frame of reference. It's a very complicated part of the anatomy. It's a very small area of the body with a lot of details. We spent tremendous amounts of energy and time and money to learn this area by educating ourselves with experts, and I think that's the problem any lawyer will have who does one of these cases. They really have to invest their time, energy and money because it's so complicated.

LD: Did you go right into plaintiffs' work after law school [American University, Washington College of Law, 1969]?

PF: But for a little bit of insurance defense in the beginning, it's been plaintiffs' personal injury for my entire career.

LD: What made you want to get into that area?

PF: When I was in law school, I went to a lecture given by Melvin Beli, known as "The King of Torts" in those days. I heard him speak about plaintiffs' personal injury law. I was just totally fascinated and mesmerized by the idea of it. It just sounded so great. There was no turning back. I knew it was a perfect fit for me.

LD: When did you start this firm? Were you hesitant to go out on your own?

PF: I spent about five years working for other people before starting my own firm in 1974. I never saw it any other way. The lawyer I was working for told me when I left, "I knew you weren't going to stay here long. You have that look about you of somebody who had to have his own business, his own practice and be his own boss." I did it as soon as I could. I liked the independence. I was raised to believe in my own independence, and it's been a great joy to make all of my own decisions.

LD: What were the claims in the landmark case [West v. Caterpillar] that established strict liability in the state of Florida?

PF: The case involved a young woman who walked across the street and was hit by a Caterpillar tractor backing up. It ran over and killed her. The suit was brought by the husband, and the claim was that the tractor should have had a means of warning people that it was backing up. At the time, there were almost none of those back-up warning mechanisms; it was somewhat new in manufacturing. We claimed that there should have been a backing-up alarm, and the jury agreed there was liability. Now tractors and other vehicles have these beeping mechanisms that warn people.

LD: How did you come up with the concept of strict liability for your case?

PF: I read about someone doing a similar case in California. I read it in a journal - I think one put out by the American Trial Lawyers Association. The idea jumped into my head when I read that article, and I applied it to my case. It was groundbreaking in Florida and around most of the country. California was already taking steps in that direction. That's one of the benefits of spreading the word in articles and advances in communications between lawyers: to help people get justice. At the time it was just a long shot, but I guess that's the story of most groundbreaking things.

LD: You had one of the earliest major verdicts [in 1985] against amusement parks, against Walt Disney. What happened in that case?

PF: A four-year-old boy was at the Walt Disney World in Florida with his family, and just disappeared for a moment - he let go of a parent's hand for a moment, that type of thing. They couldn't find him and then eventually found him in the water of the moat that surrounded Cinderella's Castle, obviously drowned. The claim was that the moat should have been protected with a higher fence, and that the moat was designed so that if a child did fall in, it would be very hard for the child to get out. The verdict was $1.5 million, and I've been told that that was the largest verdict against Walt Disney World to that time.

LD: You've always practiced in Miami?

PF: Yes.

LD: Did you ever think about staying in DC after law school at American University?

PF: I thought briefly about staying in DC, but my family was in Miami, and my wife's family was here. It just became very clear where we belonged. I grew up here and love it here. I thought about staying in Washington for about an hour. There's no place like home.

LD: Ever think about going into another type of law or profession?

PF: No. The truth is, I really get up everyday and look forward to working. I love the challenge, and it's hard for me to imagine not doing this kind of work. I just came back from vacation and was really happy to get back. I love vacation, but I look forward to coming back when I've been gone long enough. That's a good sign that you should keep doing what you're doing.

Have a suggestion for our Lawyer Limelight? Email Editor John Ryan at john@lawdragon.com