After a bicycling accident landed him in the hospital, Joshua White felt compelled to turn away from his practice as a defense attorney and focus his efforts on representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases. He has since built a busy and effective practice, teaming up with a handful of other attorneys to found Altair Law last year, a firm that is quickly gaining traction in a competitive field. He brings a compassionate and zealous advocacy to his work representing individuals in injury and wrongful death suits – with a particular focus on cycling accidents. He is based in San Francisco.
Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within your practice?
Joshua White: I am a trial attorney at Altair Law in San Francisco focusing on representing individuals in complex catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases involving vehicle collisions, defective products, dangerous conditions of public and private property, rideshare collisions, and bicycle collisions. A focus of my practice involves representing cyclists, due in part to my personal connection to cycling. What was once a fairly niche practice area, bicycle collisions, is rapidly growing because of several factors, not the least of which is the dramatic increase in the popularity of cycling for both recreation and commuting where cyclists are forced to share roads with extremely inattentive and distracted drivers.
LD: What’s your personal connection to cycling?
JW: Flying through the air at 25 mph has a remarkable way of changing your perspective. Years ago, I was hit by a car while cycling, launched over the hood of the car through an intersection and landed on my head, shoulder and back. Lying in the gutter, I was certain I’d broken either my neck or back. Thankfully I was wrong - my helmet and bike took the brunt of the impact, and after a visit to the emergency department and several months of therapy to heal a separated shoulder, I was ready to ride again.
At the time of the collision, I was practicing as a defense attorney with no thought of switching to plaintiffs’ personal injury law. However, the memories of my collision and experience of pursuing a claim against the at-fault driver deeply affected me, as I experienced first hand what injured people go through when seeking justice. I recognized that, despite my legal education and training, I was unable to advocate for myself as effectively as someone who specializes in the practice. That realization, and the empathy I felt for victims of the negligence of others, uncovered a passion for this practice that I had not previously felt.
Painful as it was at the time, I knew that the power of personal experience is a voice that cannot be denied, and accepted that the moment I was struck by the car put in motion a series of events that not only changed the course of my legal career, but continues to influence how I advocate for my clients every day.
LD: You began this work with such a passion for it. How have you been able to sustain that?
JW: The people who come to us seeking representation are typically dealing with the worst experience of their lives. For those who are catastrophically or seriously injured, they are not only struggling to recover from the physical injuries they suffered, but are also dealing with other issues caused by those injuries, including marital difficulties, financial hardship, and psychological trauma, to name a few. They often come to us because nobody has accepted responsibility for causing their injuries, and consequently, we are their last resort. Knowing and accepting that is something I cherish. Accepting that the weight of our clients’ future often turns on our ability to obtain a favorable outcome for them is daunting. Yet, I find no greater satisfaction than reaching the moment when I have done absolutely everything within my power to secure a favorable outcome for them, and I see the relief in their eyes and joy on their faces when they realize their ordeal is over and justice is theirs.
LD: Can you talk a bit about the founding of your law firm?
JW: In 2018, I decided to join four other founding partners and create Altair Law LLP. I recognized then that I was fortunate to partner with incredibly talented people whose intelligence and skill is matched only by their passion for seeking justice for our clients. Everyone here, from partners to staff, cares deeply for our clients and strives to obtain the best possible outcome for them. We have created a collaborative team environment where we work together on cases and roundtable them among our attorneys and staff so that our clients benefit from the experience and differing perspectives of our entire team. It has been the most rewarding, challenging, and invigorating professional endeavor I have ever undertaken.
LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in personal injury law in terms of the types of matters keeping you busy these days?
JW: There has been an uptick in road cyclists being severely hurt or even killed. But one of the busiest components of our practice is rideshare litigation. California was the first state to enact rules governing ridesharing operations, and in a tragic irony, my partner, Kevin Morrison, and I litigated the first case against Lyft involving a rideshare fatality. The case was venued in San Francisco. We represented the mother and boyfriend of Shane Holland, who was tragically killed on Halloween night when the car he and his boyfriend were riding in spun out of control, left the roadway, and crashed into a tree, instantly killing Shane. The case involved many novel legal issues, including vicarious liability for employee drivers of rideshare companies. Despite how hotly contested those legal issues were, we were able to obtain a favorable outcome for Shane’s mother and boyfriend.
Since that case, we have seen a dramatic increase in rideshare litigation. Given the likely inevitability of autonomous rideshare vehicles and transportation services, we anticipate that the trend will only continue.
LD: Can you describe a recent matter that you’ve handled?
JW: My partner, Kevin Morrison, and I are currently litigating a complex case in which we represent the victims of a mass workplace shooting that occurred at the UPS facility in San Francisco in June 2017. Specifically, we represent the families of two of the men who were killed, Michael Lefiti and Benson Louie, as well as two of the men who were shot yet survived, and dozens of other UPS employees who were at the facility when the shooting occurred and fled, fearing for their lives. Our lawsuit alleges that the security company hired to secure the facility failed to do its job, because its security officer allowed the shooter to pass through a metal detector at a security checkpoint with guns and ammunition, which set off the metal detector, yet the security officer did nothing to stop him. Our lawsuit also alleges that because of those failures, lives were tragically lost, others were shot, and still others were physically injured and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder because they feared for their own lives while fleeing the shooting. The case, Lefiti v. Allied Universal Security Services, is currently set for trial in July 2020 in San Francisco Superior Court.
We also represent the adult children of Martin Nelis, a bicyclist who was tragically killed after being run over by a large truck in August 2018 while on a mid-day ride. In cases like this, it is crucial to get an investigator to the scene quickly to search for any video of the incident from nearby cameras since the video is often erased after a short period of time. In this instance, our efforts allowed us to obtain video footage from a homeowner’s camera near the scene of the collision. The video shows Mr. Nelis doing everything right: he’s wearing a helmet, bright clothes, and riding as close to the edge of the roadway as possible. The lawsuit alleges that the driver of the large truck that hit and killed Mr. Nelis violated California’s Three Feet for Safety Act, which requires that any vehicle must allow three feet of space when passing a cyclist. Had the truck driver simply followed the rule, a beloved father would not have been killed. As cyclists and fathers, this case resonates with Kevin and me on a profoundly personal level. We seek accountability for Mr. Nelis’ senseless and preventable death, and also to raise awareness for bicyclists and the laws that protect them on the roadways.
LD: Do you have any mentors who really helped shape the course of your professional life?
JW: I strongly believe that a career, like life, is shaped by people. That’s certainly true of my legal career, as I have been blessed to call Kevin Morrison a friend, partner, and most importantly, mentor. He is not only one of the finest people you could ever have the privilege of crossing paths with, but he is an incredibly talented litigator respected by both sides. Kevin litigates with an unparalleled mix of advocacy and civility, and has set the finest example of what it is to be an attorney I could have ever envisioned.
LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer?
JW: The attorneys I have most admired and respected throughout my career have been those who have litigated with honesty, passion, creativity, and civility, and have outworked their opponents. I strive daily to foster those characteristics in my practice, while striking a balance between advocacy and civility.
We’re all zealous advocates for our clients, that’s the job. But, this is more than just a job, it is a profession, and one where at its aspirational best, attorneys embrace civility and have the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.
LD: Can you share some strategic plans for Altair Law in the coming months or years?
JW: Since our inception, one of our goals at Altair Law has been to create a collaborative practice in which we partner with other attorneys and firms. Cognizant of this goal, we sought a name that reflects our vision. Legend, or at least Wikipedia, tells us that Altair is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila (Latin for “the eagle”), and that explorers relied on Altair, the star, to plot their course. We envisioned that Altair would be the star by which our clients, and the attorneys and firms we partner with to build a collaborative practice, plot their legal course. Looking forward, our goal is to continue to build relationships with other attorneys and firms to collaborate for the good of our clients.
LD: There are many high-quality personal injury firms out there. What do you try to “sell” about Altair to potential recruits – how is it unique?
JW: Our firm is acutely aware of the vast number of stellar law firms in our practice area, and we accept representation as both an honor and a duty. We are always honored when chosen to represent someone, an honor we do not take lightly. We strive for personal connections with our clients, with the goal that we will ultimately become like family to each other, and promise that we will work tirelessly on their behalf.
LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?
JW: I am an avid cyclist. Years ago, I started cycling as an alternative to more traditional sports that aren’t as kind to the body. I immediately fell in love with it. While the release of endorphins it provides is addictive, for me it’s much more than that. The bike is freedom. I can be on the top of Mt. Tamalpais in a little over an hour, and although it's only about 20 miles from my home, it takes me thousands of miles away mentally from the daily tasks that consume all of us. I also love the sense of community cycling provides. Many of my best friends are cyclists, and when I’m not riding either alone or with them, I regularly participate in group rides including century and charity rides, which have introduced me to some of the most interesting people in my life. I cycle with lifelong friends and new friends, and love the magnetic connection cycling provides when meeting a fellow cyclist for the first time.
LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?
JW: I am actively involved with the Consumer Attorneys of California, an organization that represents and safeguards the interests of 39 million Californians. As a member, and one of CAOC’s Board of Governors, I strongly align with the organization’s mission to protect consumer legal rights and seek accountability from those who harm others. The work of the organization is vital, and while it often goes unnoticed and underappreciated, it helps form the legal underpinnings to protect the most vulnerable of our society.
LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?
JW: The home I grew up in was an interesting mix of farming, athletics, and music. My mother was a singer during the '60s, and had a hit song that earned her a gold record. Her story, and how her record label stole the rights to her master recordings, which she was able to recover decades later, was what first piqued my interest in the legal profession. With music as part of the fabric of my personal experience, I have always been fascinated by the real people who create it, what their motivations are and the stories they tell through it. If I wasn’t an attorney, I’d be involved in the music industry in some capacity, perhaps as a music journalist.
About the author: Alison Preece (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Associate Editor at Lawdragon, with a focus on Lawyer Limelights and interview features. She has nine years of experience in strategic communications and content marketing for top-tier law firms, along with nonprofits and arts organizations. She is based in Brooklyn.