Photo by Josh Ritchie.
Stuart Z. Grossman is a celebrated personal injury attorney based in Florida who has spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of injured individuals and their families. He is the reason police in Miami-Dade county no longer apply the chokehold to citizens, and his work for infants who suffered brain damage during labor has led to safer OB-GYN practices.
With a fierce heart and boundless energy for the work, Grossman has secured record settlements and jury verdicts for his clients over the years, including many in the 8- and 9-figure range. In the landmark multidistrict litigation against more than 30 banks regarding overdraft fees in checking accounts, he has secured more than a billion dollars for consumers, and counting.
The first in his family to graduate college, Grossman served in the Coast Guard while he went to law school, and co-founded his firm in 1988. He is asked to lecture regularly in law schools and CLE programs, and is increasingly being honored with Lifetime Achievement awards, even while he maintains a full caseload — including currently representing several families in the Parkland shootings.
Lawdragon: You were in college during the height of the civil rights movement. Did that have an impact on your decision to go to law school?
Stuart Z. Grossman: Without a doubt. I got an award last year, [the Al J. Cone Lifetime Achievement Award from the Florida Justice Association], and I brought some pictures to the event that I thought had molded or at least directed my life into the law. The first was of some Alabama African Americans being jumped on by police dogs and sprayed by fire hoses.
The next one was a picture of Bobby Kennedy after he'd been shot. He was lying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, in his suit, on the ground, with people around him. I think Kennedy would've been a nominee, because he was part of the anti-war movement that was so prevalent at the time.
I also brought a picture of Nazi female and male prison guards lounging on chairs outside of a death camp getting sun. My comments to the group at that time were, “These aren't prehistoric beings. Their brains were molded just like ours. From a highly educated country.” It shows what we're capable of doing. The mindlessness of it. Could you sit outside of a death camp and get sun?
There's no question that it struck a responsive chord in my heart and made me care about justice.
LD: It’s inspiring that you saw these harrowing images and decided to be a part of the change you wanted to see. Was there a certain professor or course that helped you realize you could make a real difference in the world by going into the law?
SZG: I had a Humanities professor, Dr. Helmick, who thought there was something about me that was intriguing. We had a great relationship, and she mentored me to where I was able to take graduate-level courses in English and Literature. At that point I thought I would probably teach, perhaps at a university level. But then a fellow from my high school basketball team was walking across campus, and he had an LSAT book under his arm, and I said, “What's that, George?” And he said, “Well, that's the LSAT.” And I said, “What's that, George?” He explained it to me and I said, “You know what? I may take that test.” It was sort of serendipity, but I had a lot of motivation to keep academics going because of Dr. Helmick.
LD: Will you walk us through your career path after law school and up to the founding of your firm?
SZG: Immediately after graduating from the University of Miami, I went to George Washington University Law School, and in my first year - two months into it - I was advised by my draft board back in Miami not to make any plans past February.
Back then, because the Vietnam War was raging, they were taking 100 to 1,000 kids a month and putting them into the draft, and I was physically fit and I wasn't going to play any games. So I started looking at programs and I was fortunate enough to get into an active duty program in the Coast Guard, a six-year overall commitment. I got assigned to search and rescue, and I was still in the service when my commanding officer said I'd done good work, and asked if I would come to the base at midnight to work till 8:00 a.m. He let me go to law school during the day, which I did.
LD: Wait. When did you sleep?
SZG: I wasn't sleeping much then. I finished my first semester, both in the military on active duty and as a student. Then I caught this enormous break when Miami's premier trial lawyer, J.B. Spence, his firm offered me a job as a clerk. I wound up clerking there my freshmen year then getting hired as their only associate. After four or five years, I became a name partner, and then stayed there until I formed my own firm.
LD: What led you to want to found your own firm?
SZG: I think that a younger lawyer views the world differently than a senior veteran lawyer. I was at least 12 years younger than my youngest partner, and my senior partner was 25 years older than I was. I just had a vision of doing things my own way, which was not radically different than theirs, but it was different enough that I wanted that freedom.
They were very fair to me financially. It was nothing like that. I just thought about certain steps, certain sacrifices I would make that senior partners weren’t interested in. They'll put so much effort in and that's it. I've always been, even to this day, extremely enthusiastic about the practice. I just don't slow down, and I view it as you're either all in or you're not in. That's just my own personal belief.
So Neal Roth, who became my partner, had practiced law with Stanley Rosenblatt, who was a very famous Miami trial attorney. I knew that his training had been excellent. He knew that mine had been excellent, and it seemed like the next generation was going to hatch, and we did. I have a slogan saying, “The good ones always leave,” because they really feel that tug to do it themselves.
LD: Your firm has full-time medical investigators on staff, which is not true for every plaintiff or personal injury firm. How did you come to that decision, and how does it affect your workflow?
SZG: We actually have two full-time non-medical investigators that are former homicide police or DEA policeman, retired, fully vested. Then we have about six or seven full-time medical investigators.
That evolved because, in my original job, we had an investigator, and he had no medical background, but I began to realize that if you didn't farm this work out, you had a lot of consistency in terms of getting a product done. You could walk down the hall and talk to that person on a daily basis.
We decided that even though we don't bill for their time, we think that we get an enhanced value out of it because we know our people. We know what they're working on. We know where in the pipeline the cases are, and they know how we behave and what it is that we're looking for in terms of bottom line results and the hiring of experts, the scheduling, all the appropriate steps.
This is particularly true in the complicated field of medical malpractice in Florida, which has pre-suit requirements. You simply can't sue a healthcare provider in Florida as you could a motorist. You have to obtain affidavits from experts in advance of any filings, and then you go through a pre-suit period of, normally, a few months. You have to give the defense the opportunity to get the records, to interview your client, to talk to their own experts and whatnot before deciding to move forward with a settlement or litigation. Since the process is so front-end loaded, we found that the investigators just make sense to have. They do the work beautifully. We’ve had no turnover. These folks stay with us and we're very glad to have them.
LD: Is there one case from throughout your career that stands out as a highlight or particularly memorable?
SZG: At different junctures there were a lot of memorable cases, but early on I handled a case for the family of a baby, named Richard Sanchioni Jr., who suffered brain damage during the labor process. It was a landmark case for a few reasons, including being the largest jury award in Palm Beach County at the time, for nearly $7 million. It was also really the case that thrust me into obstetrics malpractice, where I've done a great deal of work.
Through that case, I met Dr. Imanuel Friedman, the chairman of OB-GYN at Harvard, who developed the Friedman Labor Curve. When a woman progresses in labor, her cervix expands and the fetal position moves down, which gets graphed on your medical chart. It’s still used in every delivery to date to show the progress being made, because if there's no progress, then they know to intervene. Friedman took me under his wing, and we’ve done a lot of successful cases together since then.
Then about 15 years ago, I tried a case called Goldberg vs. Florida Power and Light, in which a child was killed coming home with her mom in a car. They went into an intersection where Florida Power and Light had disabled the traffic signal, intentionally, to put out a small wire that had fallen and charred a lady's lawn several blocks away. It was a stormy afternoon, and there was a terrible collision, and this child was killed. I discovered that the police had offered Florida Power and Light help, such as watching the intersection or controlling traffic, and they rejected the entreatments of the police.
That resulted in a $28-million verdict, which was the largest verdict in the United States for wrongful death of a child at the time, and that stood for many years. Her name was Jill Goldberg, and she was 10-years old at the time.
We also had a police brutality case against the city of Miami in the early ’90s. A young African American man, Antonio Edwards, was eating lunch in his car outside of a public park, waiting for a mechanic. The police saw that the car was on a one-way street but facing the other way. So an officer gets Antonio out of the car, and claims he noticed a firearm on the floor of the car and that Antonio was reaching for it. He put him in a chokehold.
A chokehold is considered deadly force. After maybe a minute or so, your oxygen content is low and you become limp, unconscious. At this point the police officer should lay the person down carefully. Instead, the officer slammed him down to the pavement and choked him for several minutes. He was deprived of oxygen to such an extent that he had a massive heart attack and suffered severe brain damage. And by the way, no weapon was ever found in Antonio’s car.
We achieved a multi-million dollar settlement and Antonio received $1,000 dollars a day for the rest of his life, which was only ten years after that point. People in comas don't live a normal life expectancy, as you can imagine.
As a result of that case, they no longer implement the chokehold in Miami-Dade County. And my picture was in a police training office with a warning saying, “Don't apply the chokehold or you've got to meet this guy.”
LD: That’s incredible. I wish that was national policy and not just in Miami-Dade. Would you say we have made progress as a nation when it comes to police brutality? Or at least, from the legal side, do we have more tools to fight it?
SZG: Absolutely, we do. We went through a period in this country when the police could basically get away with murder. Now you see almost monthly two or three prisoners being released as innocent because of DNA testing, originally convicted because an officer took the stand and related some misconduct, often with little to no evidence nor credible witnesses. And these people spent decades, half their lives sometimes, in prison.
We’re all under stay-at-home orders now [with the coronavirus pandemic], which has been challenging and frustrating for some individuals. But we have our flatscreen TVs and our spouses and pets and backyards. Imagine spending decades locked in prison with clanking cells and screams all night long? For no justifiable reason?
I thank our lucky stars for trial lawyers for having expanded that horizon. Attorneys General can put the brakes on these cases, or try to, at the state and at the federal level. Generally speaking, they align themselves with law enforcement. If it weren't for the constant probing and prodding and picking that courageous civil trial lawyers have undertaken, none of this would have been advanced. Thanks to these lawyers, we have constitutional protection given to you to sue the state. We've had to overcome a lot of terrible legislation, bad laws, and bad people in power. And we’ve made tremendous progress.
LD: What do you have on your caseload currently?
SZG: I have a number of cases involving the Florida International University bridge collapse. Last month I got retained in a case on Fisher Island, which is off of Miami Beach. It’s an exclusive community that you have to get to by ferry, and the ferry deposited a car off the end, and the drivers drowned in the middle of our shipping channel. I’m also representing four families out of the Parkland Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
LD: What's going on with the Parkland case?
SZG: We believe we have a superb case that shows that the Sheriff's department was ill trained and that the person that they had as a ... let's just call him a school security officer, failed to respond appropriately when he heard gunshots. In essence, he didn't run towards the shooting, he stayed out of the building, and you could hear 20 shots fired in different locations. He made no effort whatsoever.
Their response to send additional backups was late, and other governmental agencies also mishandled early warning signs as to the propensities of this student, who had actually been expelled. He had given off more than enough warnings that he was crazy, dangerous, and homicidal. It was no surprise that he showed up that day. He was not supposed to be on campus. They let him on campus. I can't begin to tell you how distorted the facts are.
LD: I’m glad they have you fighting for them. Now let me ask you this. Your clients are often going through the most challenging times in their lives. What self care practices do you have outside of the office so that you can keep showing up for your clients?
SZG: I try to stay in terrific shape. I train three days a week with my trainer, even now, we just broadcast it in. I’m lucky to have a home gym so I haven't given up on that. I walk a great deal. I fly-fish, I've got a boat, I'm on the water as much as I can be.
Up until just a short while ago, I had a horse, and I would ride pretty regularly. His name was Champ. I lost my 15-year-old daughter to cancer in 2001, and I really credit the horse with getting me through. I just rode him by myself and imagined she was with me, and the different things you go through as you try to make sense out of something for which there is no sense to be made. I'm a big believer in the power of animals, and the outdoors.
LD: I feel the same way. Nature is a great healer. I'm so sorry to hear about your daughter. Do you have any other kids?
SZG: I’ve got a son, Joe, who's a lawyer. He went to law school, but he's now doing standup comedy in Manhattan. He’s a looker, too. He’s done some modeling, and he's taking acting classes and other stuff. He's learning the ropes. He goes on stage two, three nights a week at various different clubs. He's taking his craft very seriously. He's behaving like a young lawyer in a comedian's world, meaning he's doing it right. He's spending the time to get it done.
LD: I’m sure you’ve been a great influence. How would you describe your style as a lawyer, Stuart? Or how do you think other people would describe you?
SZG: I'm very big on saying, “Be yourself.” I seek to be able to communicate, and hopefully come across as sincere and knowledgeable about what I'm talking about. I don’t blame a defendant for everything under the sun. I try to focus in on the important things and not nitpick, and then communicate it in a language that people can relate to and understand.
I think a lawyer should be himself or herself, and then make the most of it. Certainly polish it and work at it, but yourself has got to come through. You can't change every day of the week, depending upon the circumstance. Consistency, I think, is important because that leads to reliability which leads to believability and credibility before a jury.