Lawyer Limelight: Robert Clayton

Robert Clayton has made a name for himself representing catastrophically injured plaintiffs in California, frequently securing multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements. Often, the cases he handles result in corrections and safeguards to the property or products at issue in the case, preventing future injuries and fatalities.

Clayton has developed a particular niche in transportation injuries, including car and motorcycle accidents as well as public transportation injuries: He recently secured a $5M settlement for a Metrolink commuter who fell from a moving train.

He wasn’t always on the side of the victim, however. Clayton spend the early part of his career working for insurance defense firms — an experience that has given him unique insight into how injury claims are evaluated.

Lawdragon: Robert, you represent individuals and families who have been catastrophically injured. What sorts of incidents or areas do you focus on?

Robert Clayton: I represents individuals who have been seriously injured in motorcycle and vehicle accidents, mass transit accidents (like planes, trains, and buses), assault and battery cases, product failures, construction accidents, and dangerous conditions on public and private property.  I also handle a large number of cases involving the tragic loss of a loved one which are called “wrongful death” cases.  Finally, I represent those who have been the victims of sexual abuse and assault.

LD: What led you to this type of personal injury plaintiff work?

RC: I spent the first six years of my legal career defending individuals and corporations from injury claims. However, my compassion for those who have suffered tragedy led to the inescapable conclusion that my true calling was to be an advocate for the victims. Since 2005, I have been exclusively represented individuals who have been catastrophically injured.

LD: Have you found more satisfaction with your work since making that move?

RC: Absolutely. I love that my career allows me to help people through some of the most difficult times in their lives. It has led to many long-lasting relationships. It is also particularly satisfying to see how a large verdict or settlement can force businesses and governmental entities to make changes to prevent future harm to others. The cases that I have handled which have resulted in positive change are always some of the most rewarding.

LD: Do you have a recent example of a case you handled that ultimately brought about some safety measures to prevent a similar accident from happening?

RC: I recently represented the wife and daughter of a man who was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident. The accident occurred at an uncontrolled intersection near a truck stop. On the date of the accident, a tractor-trailer made a left-handed turn out of the truck stop and into the path of my client’s husband. He unavoidably struck the trailer and was killed. In the litigation, we learned that the location had been the site of many prior accidents and deaths. We sued, in part, the State of California. The case ultimately settled on the eve of trial but because of our efforts, the State installed a much-need traffic signal at the intersection which undoubtedly saved future lives.  If not for our lawsuit, and the monetary payment the State had to make to resolve the case, it is highly unlikely a traffic signal would have ever been installed.

LD: An excellent result. I also know you recently represented a commuter who was badly injured by a Metrolink train. Could you tell us about that?

RC: Yes, I represented a 28-year-old woman who was in a train accident. My client was running to catch a Metrolink train at the station. The conductor stood in the door of the train yelling, "Come on! You can make it!" As she reached his door, the train began to leave the station. The conductor grabbed her hand and attempted to pull her onto the moving train. She slipped from his grasp, fell onto the platform, and then under the train. As the train passed over her, she sustained a significant knee injury and tissue damage to both legs. In the litigation, Metrolink claimed that the conductor told my client to wait for the next train but she attempted to jump onto the moving train. Of course, Metrolink failed to preserve the footage from the video cameras on the train. We later found out that three days after the incident, the conductor admitted to his employer that he tried to pull her onto a moving train. We also tracked down several eyewitnesses that confirmed our client's version of the events. At the end of the day, we were able to secure a significant settlement for our client.

LD: Wow. Sounds like you had some significant challenges to overcome to get to that result.

RC: For certain.  The key challenges in the case were locating unidentified eyewitnesses and fighting Metrolink's team of experts who did everything money could buy to try and prove their version of the events. It is cases like this that highlight the need for representation by a firm with considerable financial assets that can go toe-to-toe with big businesses, like Metrolink. Had we not had the resources to match Metrolink's numerous technical experts, we would have been unable to secure the settlement we did.

LD: Your client must have been grateful to have you in her corner.

RC: She spent two months in the hospital and another two years in litigation being told by the defense that she caused her own injuries. It was both physically and mentally devastating for her. To make matters worse, she did not have health insurance or the financial means to get the physical and emotional treatment she needed. In fact, after the incident, she would often curl up in a ball and start crying whenever she heard a train. However, after the settlement was reached, she was able to get the treatment and care she needed. She is finally on the road to recovery. This is something that could never have occurred without our civil litigation system.

LD: So true, lawyers have a unique ability to correct some of the injustices in our various societal structures. Can we back up and talk about your education? How did you first know you wanted to be a lawyer?

RC: I got my Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from California State University, Northridge. During my undergraduate studies, I participated in a semester-long externship with the California Superior Court where I was able to observe several jury trials. It gave me unprecedented access to the behind-the-scenes insights and observations of the trial judge. It was fascinating. That is when I knew I wanted to go to law school.

LD: How did you choose your law school?

RC: I applied to, and was accepted by, several different law schools. I chose Loyola Law School because of its reputation for producing top-notched trial attorneys. There are many law schools that teach theory, but Loyola has a very practical, hands-on approach to producing litigators. It was a decision that I have never regretted.

LD: So you know early on that you were interested in litigation?

RC: Yes. It was my earlier experience observing civil trials as an undergraduate that made me want to become a litigator.  I was able to watch several really good attorneys in trial. I was enthralled with the way a skilled trial attorney can connect with the jury and tell a story using one witness and one exhibit at a time. 

LD: Do you have any advice for current law school students?

RC: The best advice I can give to current law students is to get involved. Not only in law school but also in the legal community. Sign up for an externship that gets you out and among practicing lawyers. Reach out to local trade organizations to check on opportunities for law students. I know here in Los Angeles, the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) and the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA) both have great mentoring programs for law students. Start networking as soon as possible. The old adage is very true in the legal profession; "It's not what you know, but who you know." I have seen more doors open because of who I knew than where I went to school.

LD: Did you have any mentors in the early part of your career? If so, do you keep in touch with them still?

RC: I started with Taylor & Ring in 2005. Five year later, I became a partner at the firm. John Taylor and David Ring have been incredible mentors. The compassion and tireless advocacy they show for their clients, as well as their formidable prowess in trial, is impressive. They regularly put our clients’ interests above their own which, unfortunately, is not something most attorneys have a reputation for doing. They have been incredible mentors, and their dignity and professionalism have certainly helped shape the course of my professional career.

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

RC: In my twenty-years of practice, I have noticed many changes in this profession. From a technical standpoint, obviously, we have far more tools at our disposal. Lightning-fast cellphones have put the power of the computer in our hands. Video-conferencing, like Zoom and FaceTime, have opened up all new ways to communicate with our clients and even take depositions. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, we are even learning that it may change the way we appear in court or even conduct jury trials.

LD: Is there a particular case from your career thus far that stands out as particularly memorable for some reason?

RC: One of my more memorable cases from early in my career involved a man named Ricky Griffin. Mr. Griffin was 50 years old when he was rear-ended on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. He was a husband and father who loved exercise and coaching his children's sporting teams. He suffered a five mm disc protrusion in his neck in the accident that left him with chronic neck pain. Although he was a surgical candidate, Mr. Griffin did not get surgery because he feared a fusion would create more complications for him down the road. He had about $50K in past conservative treatment. Despite being fault-free, the defense would not admit liability. They also aggressively disputed his injuries, essentially calling him a liar. Ricky and his family were nice people. I was brought in at the last minute to try his case. The jury awarded him $1.2.M. Watching Ricky burst into tears as the verdict was read, knowing the jury believed him, is something I will never forget.  It was also my first seven figure jury verdict.

LD: That’s beautiful. How would you describe your style as a lawyer, Robert?

RC: Having come from a defense background, I am very mindful of the challenges that my colleagues on the other side face. With that unique perspective, I try to be respectful and understanding in all my dealings. I would describe my style as cooperative and professional while at the same time being protective of my client's rights and well-being.

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

RC: I enjoy playing golf, hiking, fishing, and spending time with my wife of 26 years and our two teenage daughters.  They are my life.