Lawyer Limelight: Christian Searcy

Sixty years have passed since the car crash that killed Christian Searcy’s brother and he can still describe the details as though it were yesterday: The sudden, violent impact; the family’s Cadillac Fleetwood spinning crazily around; and checking the pulse of his older sister, who had been thrown to the curb.

He was just 12 years old that June day in 1960, young enough that he didn’t follow the details of the litigation that followed but old enough that what happened would drive a fierce determination to obtain justice for his clients in a record-setting career as a trial lawyer.

“I was the oldest brother, and my dad worked all the time so it was my job to take care of my brothers and sisters,” says Searcy. “I know, intellectually, that as a 12-year-old kid sitting in the car there was nothing that I could have done. Still, to this day, I feel ashamed and I feel guilty that I failed to protect my little brother.”

“Being able to go in as the advocate, the representative, the champion of people that have had that same kind of thing happen to them makes it feel like I'm now no longer powerless to do something about it,” Searcy explains. “It’s very fulfilling to me.”

Embarking on his career, ironically, meant going against explicit advice from his father, himself a trial lawyer in Jacksonville, Fla.

“He told me, ‘Chris, whatever you do, don’t become a trial lawyer,’” Searcy recalls. “But I worked for him a couple of summers, and I noticed that Dad and the other plaintiff trial lawyers were a whole lot more fun to be around than most grownups.”

So Searcy decided to adopt that career track, at least temporarily.

He never got off of it, graduating in the top 10 percent of his class from Stetson University College of Law and becoming at age 29 the youngest lawyer in the U.S. to win a $1M verdict in a single personal-injury case in 1977.

The amounts have only grown higher since. Now president of the law firm that bears his name, Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, he has amassed accolades including the War Horse Award from the Southern Trial Lawyers Association and the prestigious Perry Nichols Award from the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers. Searcy is a Lawdragon Legend and in our esteemed Hall of Fame.

He has also served as president of the International Academy of Trial Layers, an invitation-only group limited to just 500 members worldwide.

When he reflects on his career, Searcy said, the cases that stand out are largely tragedies, horrible life-changing events in which “I’ve had the good fortune to be able to help other people.”

One was the death of 6-year-old Jasmine Jenkins in a car crash in West Palm Beach in 1997, a collision blamed on defective road design that prevented her mother, Kathy, and the police officer whose car broadsided them from seeing each other.

Jasmine’s 3-year-old twin brothers, Landon and Jordan, suffered catastrophic injuries that would require millions in treatment and care for the rest of their lives. The family rejected a $15M settlement offer in trial, and Searcy won a $256M jury verdict at trial in 2001.

“You know the old saying that you need to have professional detachment? I don’t think that’s true,” Searcy says. “I had no professional detachment in that case. I felt like I was representing my family, who I was so powerless to help. It was 41 years later, and I was on fire with righteousness.”

Lawdragon: You’ve been able to accomplish so much for people. Can you talk about a few more of the cases that were most meaningful to you?

Christian Searcy: One was in 1989, involving Gerry and Donna Michaud, a couple from Bridgeport, Conn. They had flown to West Palm Beach with their three children, 8-year-old Dawn, 6-year-old Stephen, and 3-year-old Michael, for a vacation at a Stuart hotel that was hosting a circus for the summer. On their way, they pulled off into the emergency stopping lane of the Florida Turnpike and while they were there, a tractor-trailer going about 75 miles an hour drifted off the road and ran over their car, which burst into flames. Witnesses, who couldn’t get close because the flames were so hot, said they were shooting 20 to 30 feet into the air. They thought everyone inside was dead. After about two minutes, though, they saw a woman crawling through the broken windshield of the car. As she started to regain her senses, Donna tried to run back to it, screaming, “My life is in that car.”

When I first met Donna in the burn unit at the Shands Teaching Hospital at the University of Florida, I was afraid she was going to commit suicide. She had lost her entire family, and almost lost her life. But it turns out her husband, Gerry, who was the dean at Fairfield College Preparatory School, was good friends with a detective on the Bridgeport police force named John Berger.

The two of them had started teaching a martial arts class in their spare time to make a little extra money, and unbeknownst to Donna, Gerry and this fellow John Berger had made a pact with each other, that if anything ever happened to the other one, the survivor would take care of the other's family. So, John Berger came down and visited Donna at Shands and investigated the accident himself. When she was released from the burn unit several months later, she went back to Bridgeport where she lived in a burn suit in her sister's upstairs bedroom for about a year. Berger, when he would get off work, would get them a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and come sit and talk with her. Their friendship grew into love and several years after Gerry's death, John and Donna got married.

She wanted to have children then, but despite efforts including in vitro fertilization, she was unable to get pregnant. The first time we had taken her case to court, it ended in a mistrial. The second trial was scheduled a year later, and about two weeks before it was to start, she called and told me, "Settle the case. We’re not going to trial."

I said, "Donna, we can settle this case for a lot of money, but not what we're going to get if we try this case. This is one of the most powerful catastrophes I've come to know about in my adult life." And she said, "Settle the case, we're not going to trial." I said, "Why are you doing this?" She said she and John had been out to California visiting a world-famous physician in reproduction who had done all this testing on Donna and told her, "The reason you cannot get pregnant is because of your level of stress. The only way you're going to get pregnant is for you to tremendously reduce your stress level."

When she learned that, she decided she wasn’t going to have the stress of the trial or any of that. She was going to relax. So, I settled the case, and 10 months later, she had twins, Christian and Meredith. She named the little boy after me. He graduated from law school at the University of Virginia last year and is now practicing law in New York. He worked three summers in our firm. Meredith received her graduate degree in business/commerce, marketing and management and is working at Amazon in Washington, D.C.

LD: That’s such an amazing story. You've said that you view your wins as proof that the trial-by-jury system in this country is working. During the pandemic there’s been this move towards remote civil jury trials. Some jurisdictions are even doing pilot programs. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think something gets lost with a remote jury?

CS: One of our leaders once described the jury trial as “the canary in the coal mine” of our democracy, which I believe is true. In coal mines in the old days, when they didn't have oxygen sensors, they'd take a canary down with them, and if it died, they knew they had to rush everybody out because they were running out of oxygen.

When our ancestors founded this country, they knew they wanted a jury trial, because if they didn't get one, it would be political. If they were going to be in front of a judge who was a servant of the king, they were never going to have a chance against the system. If they could summon a jury from amongst the citizens of the community, though, nobody would have had the opportunity to gain control over those people. They could have their cases decided by their peers, instead of someone beholden to somebody higher up in the system who wasn’t going to give them a fair shake.

So my answer is that if we want our country to continue to be a democracy, the right to a jury trial must be sacrosanct. We cannot sacrifice that for anything.

Now with this Covid virus, you don't want to have more than 10 people together in a room, so you can't very well get a big group of people together from which to select a jury. So the pandemic is causing delays in people getting their jury trials, but I do think that's something we'll be able to solve. If we've got to have delays, I think we need to have them rather than lose that right.

LD: That makes a lot of sense. The jury trials going remotely is not the same experience of course, and there's a lot of non-verbal communication that happens between people in any circumstance, and certainly when you're in trial. Some of those things might get lost when you're talking over a screen.

CS: I think the remote thing is fine as long as it's voluntary for all the parties. I don't think we ought to try to substitute an in-person jury for people at home on Zoom, because you don't know what is going on in the environment that they're sitting in.

I don't think that they ever should take away the right of an individual to not be deprived of their life, liberty or property without an in-person jury trial. That’s what has made our country so special.

LD: Can we talk about your firm for a bit? You’re one of the founders, right?

CS: Well, it all depends. If you're talking about the firm that bears the name of Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart & Shipley, yes, I'm one of the founders. But our firm morphed from earlier firms dating back to one called Howell & Howell in 1901 that eventually grew into Howell, Kirby, Montgomery, D'Aiuto & Dean; one of their partners, Bob Montgomery, offered me a job after law school. They were doing mostly defense work, though, so I turned him down to go to Frates, Floyd, Pearson & Stewart, which was handling mostly plaintiff work, which is what I wanted to do.

I tried some plaintiff cases there as a young lawyer, got real good verdicts on my first three plaintiff cases, and Bob Montgomery came down and hired me away. He made the offer to double my salary and I turned him down. Then he learned about my car, an old clunker from law school. My wife, Priscilla, was pregnant at the time with my son, Henry, and she was having to, every time the gears stuck, get out of the car, open the hood, lean down and manually unstick the gears with her hand. So, a few weeks later, Bob Montgomery called me back and said, "Chris, I admire you being loyal to your firm. That's one of the reasons I want you to come to work for me. I'll not only double your salary, I'll give you a brand new Cadillac." So, I sold out for the car.

Of course, he also told me he was trying to transform his firm into a plaintiffs’ firm and that I had more plaintiff experience than anybody there except for him, so he wanted my help. I didn’t get many plaintiff cases in the beginning because they had mostly insurance matters and I didn’t know anyone in town. The cases I did get were mostly the ones nobody else wanted.

Fortunately, some of those, even though they were very difficult liability cases, had some big damages. This was way back in the early '70s. There had only been three $1M verdicts in Florida, and in 1976 or ’77, I got the fourth, for a young construction worker from Vermont who had lost both his legs in a train accident.

The next year, I tried two cases. One was another train case in Fort Pierce that took a week, where I won a verdict for $2.5M on a Friday. The following Monday, I started a trial in Sanford, Fla., with an elderly gentleman who had been hit by a young lady driving to school. The elderly gentleman had been cited for failure to yield the right-of-way, and he was paralyzed. I got a verdict for $1.95M the following Thursday. Those were the sixth and seven $1M dollar verdicts in the state of Florida; I had won them within a week of each other, and all of a sudden, here I was, a baby trial lawyer and I was famous in Florida.

LD: That must have really increased your confidence level.

CS: I’m not sure about that; they were very difficult liability cases. What I did decide, though, was that I could never let my fear of getting up and taking a chance on losing it all govern my behavior. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t scare me, because it still does. But I believe if a case should be tried, it’s important to go on and try that case and not be governed by fear. I’ve been trying cases for 46 years now, and to this day, when I'm driving to the courthouse to start a trial, I have this little voice in my head that says, "Is this the time everybody's going to figure out how stupid you really are?"

LD: Imposter syndrome. I’d never have guessed you had it.

CS: I think it's just called worrying that you're not smart enough. Because with these cases we try, and with the adversary system, you can never be in total control of all the variables. And you want to be in control of all of the variables.

LD: Right.

CS: But you can’t. And you know that showing up, you're going to be up there in the well of the courtroom with nobody to hide behind, and what if they come up with something that you’ve got no idea about? What are you going to do? Did you prepare long enough? Should you have done this or done that?

Once trial starts, all of that goes away. It's like the player on the football field. You're waiting for the kick off, and you get butterflies. I think it's that concern about whether you’ll be prepared enough that makes you prepare hard, and makes you do well.

LD: It seems like all the lawyers at your firm have an ethos similar to that. Everyone seems really dedicated to justice, but also very humble. You’ve also said you don’t believe in handling cases dispassionately, that it’s important to bring your passion in. Is that across the board there?

CS: I think so. What would be the best way to put it? Number one, we're a trial firm. We're going to go in and try our cases, and I want every lawyer I hire to become a lead trial lawyer. I want every lawyer in our firm to be able to handle any case, because that's how everybody's the most helpful. I think it's just the way we are. When we have something we believe to be wrong, we're not going to do it, no matter how profitable it might be to do it, because I mean, how many times can you go out to dinner and how nice a car can you buy, and so forth? Nothing makes up for doing something that you believe to be wrong, or something that you'd be embarrassed about, or something you'd be ashamed of, something you'd want to hide.

We've had a number of times where we've turned down a lot of money because it didn't seem right to us. I think if you do what you believe to be the right thing, whether it's convenient or profitable or not, then life is a lot more comfortable to live.