Lawyer Limelight: Thomas Giuffra

Thomas Giuffra exemplifies the pattern of excellence and personal dedication required for inclusion on Lawdragon’s guide to Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyers. The New York-based Rheingold Giuffra Ruffo & Plotkin name partner has amassed an impressive record of multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements across a wide range of personal injury, medical malpractice and product liability cases. Giuffra’s diverse caseload also includes sexual harassment claims; he is currently representing one of the victims of disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Giuffra was inspired to join the legal profession by his father, a trial lawyer on the defense side with whom Giuffra worked before realizing his passion would be to help plaintiffs. Giuffra excels by making personal connections with his clients and by bringing that same genuine approach to the courtroom.

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within your practice?

Thomas Giuffra: My practice encompasses all aspects of personal injury law including medical malpractice, general personal injury and environmental exposure. I also maintain a practice involving claims of sexual harassment and human rights violations. Essentially, I handle nearly every type of personal injury case imaginable which involves a catastrophic injury or a deprivation of a person's rights. While the cases are all different, the responsibility is the same, to seek accountability from those who have caused my clients harm or violated their rights and to obtain the best possible result for them.

LD: How did you first become interested in developing this type of practice?

TG: My father was a trial lawyer who handled product liability, admiralty and general personal injury defense. He enjoyed developing a strategy to try his cases. He liked to seek out the opinions of others and ask the "person on the street" about their feelings about certain issues that were involved in his cases. He would do this to try to identify issues that would resonate or not with jurors.

Our family would discuss his cases over the dinner table and debate the pros and cons of the case. Growing up with a father who was a trial lawyer inspired me to pursue trial practice. I worked as a clerk at my father's firm all through law school and for two years after I graduated. However, I discovered very early on in my career that I identified more with plaintiffs than I did with the big corporations and insurance companies that the firm represented. This led me to make the very difficult decision to leave my father's firm and pursue a career representing plaintiffs. I believe that this was the best decision that I have made in my career.

LD: What are some aspects about this work that you find professionally satisfying?

TG: My Grandparents were all immigrants. The arrived in this country after World War One when the United States was not particularly welcoming to immigrants from Italy and Ireland. Nevertheless, they persevered and through hard work and devotion to family they educated my parents and were responsible for helping them realize the American Dream. A large number of my clients remind me of my grandparents in that they work hard and are struggling to build better lives for themselves and their families. They come to me for help when they have been injured or their rights have been abused by those in authority and their ability to realize their dream has been limited. I believe that by acting on behalf of people who have never had anybody to speak on their behalf and to obtain justice for them is a tremendous responsibility.  I take great satisfaction in knowing that I have helped many catastrophically injured people and their families be empowered to live the best possible lives they can after a life-changing loss.

The type of work I do is very personal. As a personal injury lawyer, you get to know the client and their families and share the ups and downs of their lives. You become a friend and a confidant. I make an effort to get to know my clients and to try to understand their lives and what is important to them. I also try to fully understand how their problems have impacted their lives and to attempt to remedy them as best as I can. I do feel satisfied when I have handled a case that I know will take care of a person's needs for the remainder of their lives and that as a result they will be free from the worry and anxiety of knowing how they will take care of themselves.

LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?

TG: I think probably the most interesting case that I have tried is one that I handled a few years ago in Brooklyn. The case involved a woman who sustained severe neck injuries while riding the iconic Coney Island Cyclone Roller Coaster. This case was interesting because it involved attacking the safety of a New York City landmark which had been in operation since the 1920's. What I discovered about the roller coaster was that there had been many prior injuries but no successful plaintiffs.

Through very detailed investigation, I discovered that the operator of the roller coaster had been making repairs and modifications for years without filing for permits or having inspections performed. The repairs and modifications were designed by a man who did not even finish grade school and had no business designing roller coasters or determining necessary repairs.  I then retained an expert in roller coasters, which was difficult to find since most of them were beholden to the amusement industry. By working with him and other experts I put together the case which demonstrated that the first big drop of the coaster was extraordinarily dangerous. I tried the case and the jury returned a very large verdict. I subsequently visited the Cyclone and realized that the first drop had been completely changed and as a result the forces put on the rider were still thrilling but now safe.

LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in your practice in terms of the matters keeping you busy these days?

TG: My practice seems to have become more diverse in the types of cases that I handle. I have realized that the fact patterns that I am presented with are more complicated and require more creativity than in the past. I have also seen a big increase in sexual harassment and civil rights claims. My medical malpractice caseload has increased quite a bit while the less complex matters such as auto injuries have decreased. I attribute the latter to safer cars with more safety protection decreasing injuries.

I recently tried a lead poisoning cases involving a child who sustained brain injuries as a result of lead exposure in a New York City Housing Authority building (“NYCHA”).

NYCHA has had problems with lead in its buildings for years. It is the single largest landlord in New York City. However, it views its responsibility towards its tenants in a very lackadaisical way which impacts the quality of life of the people who reside in its properties. Unfortunately lead in NYCHA buildings is a problem that has gone on for years.

New York City banned lead paint in 1960. It was one of the first municipalities to do so. However, lead paint continues to be a big problem in NYCHA buildings fifty years after it was banned. I find this to be outrageous and recently the agency has been under fire for the way it handles lead paint.

I tried a case on behalf of a very nice little girl who was born with all the opportunities that life could provide her. She was developing well and flourishing in school until she was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Her apartment was inspected and lead violations were issued. However, once the violations were issued, NYCHA refused to abate and denied there was even lead in the apartment. My client had a very strong mother who rather than subject her child to further harm uprooted her entire family and moved into a shelter until a judge finally forced NYCHA to abate the apartment.

Sadly, the damage from the exposure caused my client to have significant learning problems and her bright future was no longer a possibility without extensive supports. I retained leading experts in the field and convinced the jury of the significance of the harm caused by the lead paint. The Defense attorneys were excellent and they put on a very strong defense. However, the college-educated jury returned a $58-million verdict in favor of my client.

LD: What were the key challenges of successfully representing the client in this instance?

TG: The biggest challenge in this case was that the building was constructed after lead paint was banned in New York City. The defense took the position that it was a false positive result even though there were multiple positive findings in this and other units in the building. I made the very simple argument that lead was not banned in New Jersey and the surrounding counties until after the building was constructed and that a contractor could have very easily just put it on the walls. I argued that NYCHA should have inspected the paint that was on the walls and failed to.

LD: What was the impact on the client or the industry?

TG: I have handled lead poisoning cases for most of my career. It has been a particular interest of mine because it is so easily avoided and the impact on children is severe. When I started working on lead cases, lead poisoning was defined as a lead level of 20 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl) or above. My firm would not take cases with lower levels. As time progressed and scientific knowledge developed, the CDC now considers a lead level of 5 mcg/dl to be lead poisoning and that it recognizes that there are no truly safe lead levels.

Shortly after the verdict there was a big controversy regarding lead paint in NYCHA buildings. There have been some, not enough, efforts to finally get the lead out of NYCHA buildings. I will be gratified when this is no longer an issue. The children deserve a safe place to grow up in and all the opportunities possible. They should not be deprived of this based on an ill-lead and poorly run government agency.

LD: Is there a specific lesson from this case or is there anything from it you will find especially memorable?

TG: One of the most memorable parts of this case was the client's mother. She was a very intelligent and involved member of her community and served on several community organizations. After the successful verdict, she worked with local legislators to develop a law named after her child to require all landlords to inspect and certify the absence of lead paint in their buildings. This law would eliminate a plague which has affected generations of children. This lady was so inspired by the justice system that she decided that she wanted to become a lawyer herself. I was privileged to write her a law school recommendation and thrilled when she recently told me that she was starting her first year in law school.

LD: Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?

TG: I studied History at Boston College. My area of particular interest was post-colonial Africa. In my studies, I learned how power and law could be misused to harm others. I recognized that in countries without a strong rule of law nobody can feel secure. B.C. encourages its students to live lives of conviction and service. I believed that being a lawyer would enable me to follow my convictions and also serve my community.

LD:  Why did you pursue a career in the law in the first place?

TG: The biggest influence in my life was my father. He was a trial lawyer and continued working until he was 80. He always enjoyed the practice of law and particularly relished the challenges and strategy of legal practice. My siblings and I grew up around the law. Three of us became lawyers and it was in large part due to the inspiration of my father that I chose the law as my career. When I realized that playing second base for the Yankees was not in the cards for me, law became the logical choice.

LD: Is there a specific reason why you chose your law school over another law school?

TG: I knew that I wanted to be a trial lawyer before I went to law school. I wanted to go to a school that produced outstanding trial lawyers. I decided to attend St. John's University School of Law because it was widely known for producing some of the finest trial lawyers in the United States. It was also one of the few schools at the time that offered a civil trial program as opposed to only a moot court program.

LD: What advice do you have for current law school students?

TG: Don’t just follow the money. You should pursue what appeals to you and find an area of practice that you will feel that you are making a difference and enjoy. A law career lasts a long time and you should do something that you feel passionate about.

LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?

TG: I always tell people that the best mentor that I had was my father. Every day I use things that he taught me in my practice - from writing to how to conduct a deposition.

LD:  How has your practice changed since the early part of your career?

TG: The responsibilities and challenges have become greater.

LD:  Is there a matter or client in your career that stands out as a “favorite” or one that is more memorable for certain reasons?

TG: I represent one of the victims of Harvey Weinstein. Of many people that I have represented, she stands out as a personal favorite. My client has gone through complete and utter hell. I admire her because despite this she is a wonderful person who is positive and moves forward despite the adversity she was subjected to. She is concerned not just about herself but about others who were similarly victimized. I have never seen such bravery displayed by one of my clients. Despite being attacked in the media by Weinstein’s henchmen, she continues to advocate for herself and others with courage and dignity.  I admire her determination to stand up for what is right and to make a difference in the future.

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer? Or, how do you think others see you?

TG: I think my style as a lawyer is that I do not try to “act” like a lawyer. In the courtroom, I try to be myself. Many lawyers like to use flowery language and SAT words to advocate. I tend to do the opposite and try to connect with the jury in a common-sense manner with logic. I think that jurors perceive me as a friendly person who is approachable and trustworthy. I think that enables them to connect with me and ultimately with my client. I have won several cases where the jury did not care for my client but found in their favor because they liked me and believed that my argument made the most sense. One of my early bosses, used to say that, “In order to win a case, a jury has to believe you and like you.” His insight is very true and is something I share with all my clients.

I think the practice of law is an honor and that an attorney should conduct themselves with integrity. I believe that I am perceived by the defense bar as an honorable and trustworthy adversary who will fight them to the ends of the earth, but will never do anything dishonorable. In fact, many of the cases referred to me come from former adversaries or members of the defense bar.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

TG: My favorite activity outside the law is spending time with my wife and son. We all share a love of skiing and we spend as much time as possible at our home in Utah skiing the many resorts of the Wasatch Mountains. I find skiing is a lot like trial practice, you have to strategize before each run and take into consideration all the hazards that will make a successful run possible. It is also liberating to be in the fresh air. However, there have been times when I have found myself discussing a case on the phone while on a chairlift in a snowstorm. Unfortunately, this is one of the problems of modern technology.

I also enjoy coaching my son’s little league team and trying to teach the younger generation the lessons I learned in the 1980s. My contribution to the local league will be the return of the cross seam/two seam fast ball!

LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities? Please tell us what you find meaningful about your time serving them.

TG: Every year I take on a small pro-bono case on behalf of people who cannot afford a lawyer to advocate on their behalf. These cases have included landlord tenant disputes and unemployment appeals and similar smaller claims. While many attorneys would view these claims as minor, to the people involved they are very significant life disputes. I get a great deal of satisfaction helping people who cannot afford my services or that of any other lawyer, and obtaining a favorable outcome for them. For me it is my responsibility to help those less fortunate gain access to the justice system.

LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?

TG: Hands down “The Verdict”!

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

TG: I think I would be either a History professor or ski bum!