Lawyer Limelight: Andrew Yaffa

If you walk into the office of Andrew Yaffa, the first thing you will notice is the collection of photos. Faces of people young and old, from myriad backgrounds, all with one thing in common: They came to Yaffa for help at the worst times of their lives. And he delivered.

A highly effective advocate for plaintiffs, Yaffa has personally won over $500M for his clients, in cases that range from medical malpractice to product liability to personal injury and catastrophic death. 

“Every picture has a story that goes with it,” says Yaffa of Grossman Roth. “It's the fight to help these people that keeps me going.”

His father is a surgeon, and he almost went to medical school himself. He pivoted at the last moment to law school, but maintained his interest in medicine by diving into malpractice suits.

In a sign of the type of respect that his approach to the practice engenders, Yaffa regularly lectures to doctors and other health care professionals on med-mal cases.

“I often tell nurses and physicians when I'm speaking to them: I would much rather prevent a malpractice from occurring than get new cases in, because the whole key is making this world a safer place.”

In a string of high-profile cases in his home state of Florida, he represented a handful of families whose children had been forgotten and died in overheated vans during day care. He was also involved in cracking down on what USA Today described as “medical tourism,” with shoddy plastic surgery clinics causing damage and even death to patients.

Currently in his cross-hairs are a network of bogus medical clinics touting miracle cures via unproven uses of stem cells, with several patients suffering complete blindness after falling victim to the claims.

Yaffa’s effectiveness is underscored by his humility, which he maintains despite being increasingly recognized as one of Florida’s top tier trial lawyers. Among his many and growing accolades, Yaffa is a member of The International Academy of Trial Lawyers and of the 2020 Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyers.

Lawdragon: Will you walk us through your career trajectory, Andy? How did you decide to go to law school, and what happened next?

Andrew Yaffa: It’s crazy, but this is the only job I've ever had. I've worked with Stuart [Grossman] and Neal [Roth] my entire career.

I was pre-med. My father is a general and vascular surgeon. For as long as I can remember, my dream was to follow in his footsteps and work in the operating room. As I was getting ready to graduate college, I took the MCATs and the LSATs within a couple of months of each other. My father told me at the time that he's not sure medicine is the same as when he went to school, and he would think twice about going into the profession.

I ended up going to law school with the specific intent of defending doctors at hospitals, because I had seen the worst of what medical malpractice litigation can bring. There were two suits I didn't think had merit that were brought against people I knew and loved, and it was heartbreaking to see what it did. When I started clerking for Stuart and Neal, my first year of law school, it was initially with the intent of defending these physicians in hospitals that I thought were being sued without merit, without an appropriate basis.

I fell in love with the practice. I saw the tremendous amount of agony that some of these physicians and hospitals were causing. These were righteous cases that would lead to very interesting dinner conversation. I was able to get the best of all worlds, helping people who got hurt, while still working in the medical field, which I so desperately wanted to be a part of for as long as I can remember.

LD: Beyond your medical malpractice practice, you’ve handled some incredible personal injury cases, several of which have resulted in the prevention of future harm. Can we talk about the case against Ag-Mart Produce? You represented a child who was born without limbs, as a result of his mother’s work in pesticide-sprayed tomato fields.

AY: That case will always especially stand out. If you were to walk in my office, you would see photographs across the top of the wall of Carlito [Candelario-Herrera, the plaintiff in the case], as he's grown. It’s still amazing to me that we were able to do what we did for him at the time, and he's growing into a great young man.

LD: It’s no exaggeration to say you changed the course of his life with that case. It also exposed poor working conditions in the agricultural industry, as detailed in the 2011 book, “Tomatoland.”

AY: That book makes me blush.

LD: What part? When they say you have movie-star good looks?

AY: [Laughing]

LD: I thought it was a fascinating profile of you. I like how the author describes how the case came through a recommendation, and that when you took on the case, the plaintiff and his family “had just caught what might have been the first break they'd ever received in their hard travelled lives,” because, "If you're injured in a car accident or hurt on the job or the victim of a negligent physician, you can do no better than getting Andrew Yaffa to represent you.”

AY: Oh no, don’t tell me you’re reading directly from it now.

LD: Indulge me for a moment. It’s just so good. 

"In his early 40s at the time of Carlito's birth in 2004, Yaffa was widely recognized as one of the top lawyers in the state. He's won many multi-million dollar settlements and cases tried before some of Florida's toughest judges. One of Yaffa's competitors in Florida described him to me in an email as a great lawyer, a solid person, equity partner in a fabulous law firm, creative, innovative, bright, ethical, the works.”

And here’s where it gets really good: "Yaffa is tall and has the sort of telegenic good looks that make him a shoe-in to play the role of a leading man if someone ever does a movie version of his life as a crusading lawyer.”

AY: What would happen if I just hung up on you?

LD: I’m almost done torturing you. It gets better. "His short, dark hair is brushed back and moussed neatly in place. And I caught the merest whiff of cologne. His handsome face is tempered by a kind, Midwestern earnestness. He's actually a Virginia native. Yaffa establishes an instant rapport, speaking with a soft and wavering voice.”

This next part gave me chills: “When I asked him why he chose to take on such a long shot of a case as that of Carlito's, he eyed me in the way he might stare at an uncooperative witness and said, 'I see a lot in my work, but when I see a child or a family that's been harmed or in distress, I don't need a whole lot more motivation than that.'"

AY: Well that last part is absolutely true. The rest…. [laughing]. Humility is a huge part of who I am. I never give myself the type of accolades or credit that this gentleman decided to give me here. Or others try to give me in other areas. So it's humbling.

LD: The truth is, with the work that you're doing, you really do have a chance to make an outsized impact, which you have done. You changed Carlito’s life, gave his family some measure of justice for their suffering, and beyond that, you saved countless others from a similar harm by exposing the dangers of working with pesticides. Your career tells the tale of how much a lawyer can really do.

AY: I like to believe that is true…. I try to tell myself that, because it's really easy to get lost in the minutia and the day-to-day fighting that goes on, because there's a ton of it. It can be difficult to do what we do and stay positive. To see the big picture, if you will, as opposed to getting lost amongst the trees.

LD: Yes, how do you do that? How do you keep showing up for these clients that are in the worst times of their lives? Is it the results that keeps you going?

AY: Honestly, I don't know that I can say it better than that author. You show me a child or a family that's suffering, and I don't need any more motivation. It's the fight to help these people that keeps me going. Believe it or not, as much as I love helping them, once a case resolves, whether it's by way of jury verdict, or God willing, a huge settlement, I go into a post-result funk, if you will. I get depressed, because I need something else to sink my teeth into, to fight for, to focus on.

There's a deep-seated passion in me to fight for those in need and to help them. When I don't have that, I really find myself lost, for lack of a better word.

LD: Interesting, so it's the process itself that keeps you going. It's not even the results, necessarily. It's the desire to get there.

AY: Correct. To make their lives better, to ease that financial burden, to get them the care that they need. We can't fix the vast majority. In fact, I would tell you 100 percent of the cases we handle, we can't fix what's been done or what's been lost. So if I can bring any sense of justice, any sense of peace, where these people can attempt to move on, then I've done my job.

LD: With Carlito’s case, how did you decide to take it on? And when did you realize this was bigger than just one family’s suffering?

AY: I knew as soon as I met this young boy that this was a case I had to handle. I'll never forget pulling up to the trailer. There were mattresses that were standing up against the wall, there were strings going across the room with meat hanging on the strings, no air conditioning, no refrigeration. I don't think they had any power in there.

Francisca, his mother, was outside of the trailer with Carlitos. Carlitos was sitting in one of these little baby bouncy seats, this beautiful little boy, and there were flies buzzing around. There was a trailer park dog that had recently had a litter of pups, and one of the pups came over and nipped at the child. He started to wail, and that was just a picture that I couldn't swallow. This little boy couldn't move away. He didn't have the ability to swat at the dog. He couldn't even swat at a mosquito, because he didn't have any limbs. I felt viscerally in that moment that this child would never be able to help himself. And I knew, if we can draw a link between the exposure that his parents and everybody else had in the fields, and this child being born with tetra-amelia, then I could help this young boy and his family.

The more we dug into these farming practices, the more we found a picture of modern-day slavery. That's what it is. It’s not limited to the pesticides that are well-known to cause birth defects. There were all types of other ailments. It went far and wide into kidnapping and prostitution. All kinds of awful things that unfortunately are happening right under our noses in modern-day society.

LD: And right here in the U.S.

AY: That’s right, they were working in a farm in Immokalee, Florida for a large company called Ag-Mart, which was the largest processor of cherry tomatoes in the United States at the time. Just like most of these migrant workers, they were smuggled in illegally through Mexico and Texas. They're given fake IDs through coyotes, smuggled in, and charged for transportation and housing.

They're brought in, basically as indentured servants because they're working off this debt, which continues to mount faster than they can pay it down. So they're never free. And they're terrified because if they speak up or do anything to advocate for themselves, their safety, or the safety of loved ones, they risk being arrested and deported. This was a threat that was commonly used by the farm bosses: “Keep your mouth shut and move on, otherwise something bad will happen.”

LD: Such a horrifying situation, particularly given the scope. You must have had such incredible pushback as you started to dig into these things. How did you even begin to tackle something of that magnitude?

YF: We took it step by step, knowing we had an important case, and knowing we needed to find the best angle to approach it. In the U.S., as you know, we have these workers' compensation laws in place to protect employers for injuries that happen to their employees while on the job. As I began to dig into this, I started to fear that workers' compensation might be a bar to my ability to help this family. A light bulb went off when I realized that this child was not an employee. Although this parents couldn't sue, because they were employees, I could certainly sue on his behalf.

LD: That's a smart move.

AY: I tried to take a very complicated case and make it simple. Can I prove that the mother was exposed to these specific pesticides, which are known to cause birth defects, at a critical time in her pregnancy? Can I prove definitively that was the cause of Carltios’ missing limbs?

I asked myself, "How can I make this simple?" I thought, why not just bring it as a straight premises liability cause of action? That is, the property owner, or the people in control of the farms, created a zone of danger that was foreseeable to cause harm or damages…. They had to be aware that women were working in the fields, and that some of these women may well either become or be pregnant. So they've got to put in appropriate safeguards to make sure that these women are not exposed to the pesticides that are known to cause birth defects.

I brought that cause of action on behalf of the baby, and despite their efforts to get it dismissed, on workers' compensation and other grounds, we got passed that motion. Next, I brought in a world-renowned geneticist to help me prove that this was not a genetic cause, the child genetically was perfect, and so exposure from the environment at a very critical time in his development caused him to not have arms and legs.

We also found three or four other women who had given birth to children who were either stillborn or born with similar deformities, or other types of defects, who were exposed in the same fashion as Carlito's mother.

Once I'd put those pieces in place, it became an all-out war for me to go ahead and push. It was a very straight line, and in the end it became a very easy case to prove, especially when, a), you had people on the other side that were very poor record custodians, and b), there was so much prejudice and dirt on the other side in terms of how these people were treated, with the smuggling and indentured servitude. It had all of the pieces needed to paint a vivid picture.

The company tried to say that they warned these workers about the exposure, but most of them lacked a second-grade education. They couldn’t read, they could not communicate and additionally, the warnings that were given languages they did not speak…. It was a complete mess.

The communication just wasn't there. The warning wasn't there. Still to this day, I'm very passionate about that case and wanting to help that family. I was ecstatic to be able to help them.

LD: I love that you still have Carlito’s picture on your wall, too. Are there any other clients or former clients up there?

AY: I have a picture up of every plaintiff I’ve ever worked with.

LD: Wow, that's amazing. Must be a full wall at this point.

AY: If you walked into my office, you would see so many pictures. Each picture has a story that goes with it.

LD: What’s catching your eye right now?

AY: Haile Brockington. She was a two-year-old child who died when she was forgotten in a day care van on a swelteringly hot day.

LD: How awful.

AY: I went through a cycle of these cases, where I had five or six children that were forgotten in the vans in the day care setting. They baked to death in the Florida sun. That was a big focus of mine for a while, and we tried to get special laws passed that would require an alarm to mandate the driver walk through the van to make sure all the children were removed, in order to turn the alarm off. Sadly that amazing opportunity was lost because of political infighting amongst the Democrats and the Republicans at the state level.

LD: I know you’re involved now in some really interesting litigation surrounding stem cells. How did you get involved in that work?

AY: I sort of stumbled my way into the stem cell litigation. One of my partners on the West coast got a phone call from a referral lawyer as a potential medical malpractice client, and the lady who had age-related macular degeneration, which is a disease where you basically lose your central vision.  There's really no cure for this. There's a couple of drugs they can give you to try and stop the progression, if you will. But if the drugs don't work, there's really nothing they can do. If the disease continues to progress, you may lose your central vision, but you'll always have your peripheral vision.

This one lady tried the traditional therapy and it didn’t work, and she ended up falling victim to this adipose stem cell therapy, which is stem cells that are captured from your fat. Adipose tissue is fat tissue. There are corporations that are developing this practice around the world.

These companies are touting modern-day snake oil. They are capitalizing on the use of the term “stem cells,” which is exciting, cutting edge and truly may hold the key to curing many illnesses for which there is currently no cure, but we are not there yet. There's a lot of work and research that still has to be done.

You can get stem cells from your bone marrow, you can get stem cells from the umbilical cord and many other sources. When my wife and I had our children, we subscribed to something called the Cord Blood Registry. They get blood from the umbilical cord, harvest the stem cells, and store it. God forbid you or a loved one develop some kind of cancer down the road, maybe science would have progressed and they can use those stem cells to treat you or a family member.

You can get these stem cells from bone marrow, the umbilical cord, fetuses, embryos, you can get it from any type of muscle tissue. You can get it from fat. There are many clinics and corporations that are doing these mini-liposuction procedures and basically using digestive enzymes to allegedly isolate these stem cells, and then they're touting these stem cells as being the end all and be all cure for everything you might have. They are taking advantage of those that are most desperate and most vulnerable!

In this case, they told our client that this would cure her macular degeneration. For $15,000, we will get your fat, harvest the stem cells, and we will inject it into your eyes. That's exactly what they did, and this poor lady ended up going totally blind.

She ended up being one of three that were treated the exact same day at the exact same clinic by the exact same people, and all three ladies ended up going totally blind. Two of the three ended up contacting me. One of the ladies ended up losing the eyeballs themselves because they began to wither.

LD: That is horrifying.

AY: The story gets even crazier. As a result of those cases, the New England Journal of Medicine did an article on these women, and I was contacted by yet a fourth lady treated at the same clinic. Even from France,  she was duped exactly the same way. They are advertising their services as a clinical trial on a website that is owned and operated by the National Institute of Health. It's called ClinicalTrials.Gov. They get listed on there, and just by being there, they've got this air of authenticity.

This lady from France found the clinical trial on that website. She flew in from France, had the same procedure, and she lost her vision in the one eye that was injected as well.

LD: This is so scary, because as a layperson, not overly familiar with stem cells, I just know they are seen as this potential miracle cure. The science needs to evolve, but it would certainly be easy to be drawn in by the promises being made, especially, as you say, with the authenticity of a site like that.

AY: That’s exactly right. After those ladies, I got contacted by yet another that was treated through a California defendant in Georgia. Her name is Doris Tyler, and like the others, she had age-related macular degeneration. It wasn't responsive to the medicine, and a family friend gave her a book called the Stem Cell Revolution.

There’s also a website called Stem Cell Revolution, and if you visit it, you’ll see something called the Cell Surgical Network.

Now, Cell Surgical Network is the brainchild of the founders, Drs. Elliott Lander and Mark Berman. Lander is a urologist, and Berman is a plastic surgeon. These guys have decided that they are going to train and create a network of physicians around the world, and develop a clinical trial that will study a variety of different things. If you look at this website, you’ll see there's nothing they won't treat. Urology, cardiac, orthopedics, neurology. Parkinson’s. Autoimmune, ophthalmology. Everything. Crohn's disease. Lupus. They talk about treating things for which there is no cure. Lou Gehrig's Disease. Any problem you might have….

LD: That’s infuriating, they’re preying on desperate people.

AY: It really is. So Doris Tyler got this book and she reached out to these people, and she was told that the closest clinic in their “Physician Network,” to where she lived, with somebody that could treat her macular degeneration, was in Georgia. This clinic is run by Dr. Jamie Walraven, an emergency room doctor who got tired of emergency room medicine and not making enough money. So she opened up the Stem Cell Center of Georgia. She went and took the course put on by Drs. Berman and Landers, and became the local affiliate.

Unfortunately for our client, the protocol, if you will, had been changed, but not communicated. Others in the network had removed intravitreal injection, which is where they take a needle and stick it into your eyes, from the protocol several months before my client was injected. They had stopped doing it because of the other cases we handled in south Florida where these women went blind. But because there was this huge breakdown in communication, the people in Georgia weren’t told to stop doing this, so Doris Tyler ended up going blind as well. She went blind as a result of injections into her eyes that she never should have received!

LD: This is maybe a ridiculous question, but have they ever done this successfully?

AY: No.

LD: That is just so frustrating, that this would be able to keep happening.

AY: Yep. It will continue happening unless and until the FDA and the other policing bodies crack down and make this illegal.

LD: That, and the good work you’re doing in the courts.

AY: We are certainly working on it. There was an injunction that was brought against the Florida defendant in federal court, and the court presently, got them to shut down. So in Florida, we have made substantial progress in preventing this from ever happening again.

In California, the same case in federal court out there is being allowed to go to the jury. So it remains to be seen whether or not it's going to be declared illegal out there. The Florida case is on appeal. California is still moving forward.

LD: Meanwhile, more people could be falling prey to these totally unproven methods…

AY: They’re treating people like guinea pigs. There's zero proof that any of this stuff is effective nor safe at this point. We're not there yet. The only medical treatment that's been proven to work is for a very few blood cancers, like leukemia, with stem cells taken from bone marrow. Beyond that, the patients are guinea pigs. These people are engaging in research on human subjects.

LD: And charging them for it.

AY: It’s for profit. That's exactly right. And nine times out of 10, if you're injecting a joint and it doesn't work, you're not going to cause any damage. I had a case where a lady went in to avoid a total knee replacement, and they ended up pulling somebody else's stem cells that they had on ice. She had previously made a donation of her own stem cells when she had a treatment years ago. The benefit wore off, she wanted to get redone. She goes in to have it done again, and they ended up pulling somebody else's stem cells, injecting her knee and infusing it intravenously. She had a reaction and she ended up brain damaged as a result of it.

This is cutting edge stuff and we're just now starting to talk about the tip of the iceberg in terms of the cases that are going to be coming out. It's really sad, and they are doing damage not only to patients, meaning my clients, as I've illustrated, but also to the industry as a whole, because they're going to squander and squelch the real scientists that are doing real research, and kill or squander what could potentially be the key to many illnesses for which there is no cure.

LD: Do you have any other cases from throughout your career that stand out as particularly memorable? Any other pictures that are jumping out at you right now?

AY: There are so many. Early on in my career, I had a psychiatric malpractice case, where they were discharging patients in need of care. This one lady was discharged for purely financial reasons, meaning, the health insurance carrier did not want to pay for inpatient treatment. So after the doctors wanted to admit her, the carrier sent a psychologist, a non physician, to discharge her. Well, she was married to a police officer. After being discharged, without getting the help she needed, she got a hold of her husband's gun and attempted to kill herself. She did tremendous damage but thankfully  missed her brain, and she ended up surviving, and I represented them through that case.

Another one that stands out is a little boy who was born with cystic fibrosis. CF is a pulmonary disease where you develop huge and horrible thick mucus production in your lungs and your digestive tract, which prevents digestion and impedes your ability to breathe. It’s a brutal and deadly disease. Up until recently, the oldest that anybody would be with this disease was in their early 30s. It would take their lives.

This little boy’s mother was known to be a cystic fibrosis carrier. If both mom and dad are carriers of this gene, then chances are very good the child will get it, as well. She had lost her bother to CF, and her parents were devastated over the loss of their child. She wanted to give her parents a reason to live, and she wanted to get married and have a baby.

She was dating a young man, and it appeared to be serious, and she said to him, "Listen, this can't go any further unless you get tested, and we confirm you're not a carrier of this gene. If you are, we can't have children naturally."

His test was negative, so they got married, and had a baby, who was born prematurely. The first thing the doctor says after evaluating the child is, "I think this child may have cystic fibrosis."

The parents said, "That's impossible.” The mother is a carrier, they knew, but the father said, "I'm not a carrier. I got tested and here's my results." But the problems were there. They tested the baby, and sure enough, the baby had cystic fibrosis.

We went back to the lab, which is a national lab, to find what happened during the testing of the father. What we found was that this national lab knew they had a genetic hole in the testing. But they were making almost a million dollars a week doing this testing, and to shut this down and fix this hole would cost way too much money. They figured it would be cheaper to just deal with a problem should it ever arise.

We ended up in litigation. I went to the parent lab and questioned these scientists. It happened to be one of the largest cases of our career. I have a picture of this young boy, who is now 13 years old, on the wall. I still maintain a relationship with his parents.

The mother’s brother's name was Charlie, who died of cystic fibrosis. She named her son Charlie in honor of her brother, before she knew that he, too, had cystic fibrosis. She's in the process of writing a book called A Tale of Two Charlies.

LD: Did the clinic get shut down?

AY: That clinic is still operating, but we got them to fix the problem.

LD: I assume it’s a confidential settlement. But I can’t help but ask: did the case cost them more money than if they had just shut it down when they first recognized the flaw in their testing?

AY: I will say, they should have been proactive to avoid this damage and the devastating effect that it's going to have on this little boy and his extended family. The right, ethical thing to do would have been to shut this thing down as soon as they knew they had a problem, as opposed to making a financial decision to keep doing this and operating at a risk.

So many of our cases have that same underlying theme. Whether it's a genetic mutation case or a negligent security case, where they fail to make appropriate changes out of financial decisions. Penny wise and pound foolish.

LD: Did you have any mentors when you first got started as a lawyer?

AY: Stuart and Neal have always been the ultimate mentors. I've always felt as though I sort of stumbled my way in and I really wasn't worthy to have this opportunity to be their protégé, if you will. Do you watch that show Suits?

LD: I’ve seen a couple episodes.

AY: All right, so the way that young man gets started in the legal field reminds me of my own beginning. Very different, but – the guy in Suits stumbles into an interview process. He’s brilliant, but he was running from the police in a marijuana deal gone bad. You find out he hasn’t gone to law school, hasn't taken the bar, but he interviews and gets the offer. He goes in and weasels his way through the process to get his credentials so that he can go and practice law. He becomes very, very successful doing it.

LD: I am very curious to hear the overlap with your own entrée into law…!

AY: Obviously I started working with Stuart and Neal in a very different way. I didn't stumble in through a marijuana deal gone bad or anything else, but our relationship has been nothing but working on the highest level cases, very exciting stuff. Hopefully we're making a difference in society. And I just love working with these guys. They have both been incredible mentors to me. Our relationship goes far deeper than just a mentor-mentee; They are my closest friends, partners, and family at this point. I just love these guys to death.

LD: That’s so great. Do you mentor anyone now?

AY: My oldest son, Ryan, is getting ready to take the bar. He's clerked with us as well, and the firm extended an offer to him. It's really going to be neat to see him progress, because he's been to a number of these mediations that we've talked about, and he has a passion for it. He is smart, good-looking, well-spoken, and he wants to help people. He is empathetic and is going to be a tremendous success. I am also lucky enough to be surrounded by several other brilliant and talented partners and young lawyers that all share the common goal of wanting to help our clients and to make this world a better place!