Photo by Amy Cantrell.
Growing up in West Virginia’s capital in the 1970s, Victor George observed firsthand the never-ending class struggles and racial challenges faced by citizens of color striving to attain equal rights and coal miners contending with disease and dangerous working conditions.
It showed him the law’s power to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I gravitated toward the profession at a young age, primarily through empathy for people,” says the Pepperdine University Law graduate who went on to build a plaintiffs’ firm in Los Angeles known for winning multimillion-dollar jury verdicts in against-the-odds cases involving both catastrophic personal injury and employment discrimination.
“My mom was a very liberal Democrat, I too was always a liberal Democrat as well, and I realized early on that the law can do so many helpful things to protect the people that need a hand,” he says.
George – who went for 10 years without losing a single jury trial – won the 2005 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award from the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles and has been nominated for that honor in 11 of the past 17 years. Among his jury successes was the wrongful death case of Mason Zisette, who died in a tragic party bus accident for which George won $26M – the largest wrongful death jury verdict awarded in United States history in a minor’s death.
“Any time a plaintiff gets a terrific verdict, it lifts everyone’s boat a bit higher, making corporate entities, insurance companies, government agencies, whomever, more aware that you can’t put people at risk,” he says. “As lawyers and trial attorneys, we can really help make the world a better place. Certainly, a safer, more equitable place.”
In his own practice, George has taken on many gender discrimination cases, attributing his passion on the issue partly to four of his five children being daughters.
“I did all these #MeToo types of cases way before #MeToo was ever imagined,” he says, “which is why I was so pleased when the movement arose.”
That viral social movement, which has brought to light claims against powerful politicians, corporate executives and entertainers, was born in 2017 out of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, who has since been convicted of criminal offenses in New York and charged in California.
“I met with so many women who share their story, and I’d explain: ‘You have a strong case. You certainly should do something about it,’” George recalls. “And they would be reluctant, worrying that they would be ostracized in their industry. I definitely understood, but it was such a shame. Now, hopefully, women aren't going to be necessarily precluded from potential employment because they brought a prior action.”
Lawdragon: You’ve built a career taking on difficult cases, often when the moral calculus of right versus wrong that was very clear to you didn’t match the social mores of the time. You’ve been willing to buck the system. Were you always interested in plaintiffs’ law?
Victor George: I began in defense law. After Pepperdine, I worked for two firms and defended corporations and insurance companies, and I was beginning to get some jury verdicts.
LD: How did you feel about that?
VG: You know, there was a kind of emptiness, and I thought, “Gosh, if I could help real people, humans that are really victims, whether it's of discrimination or severe personal injury, that would be much more impactful.” I knew I would get a lot of secondary gain from that because I would pull so passionately for my clients and be truly inspired to work non-stop for them. So I founded my plaintiffs’ firm and that's what I've been doing ever since.
LD: That takes a lot of courage. Tell me about that decision.
VG: I always knew I'd like someday to be my own boss. My dad was an entrepreneur, and I was concerned that my trajectory would be limited if a boss was telling me what I could or could not do. I'm a self-starter. I was always self-motivated. So I advised the defense firm I was with that I was going to switch sides of the aisle, and I sold my house so I suddenly had some money. This was the early ‘90s.
Before I began my new firm, I wanted to take a trip around the world, just myself. I took some profit from the house, put everything I owned in storage, and then I bought an “around-the-world” airplane ticket through Pan Am, which used to offer this amazing deal where you could get an around the world air travel ticket for $2,800, and as long as you flew in one direction, it was good for 12 months.
Once I returned to L.A, I was refreshed and decided, “Now, it's time. My mind's very clear. I'm done with defense. I'm ready to focus and work really hard in a new arena.” So I sent out one thousand announcements to all my friends and contacts from everywhere, and people would send over the cases they didn’t want. And when you're brand new, you’re like, “Oh, sure. I'll take that case,” if it had real damages and I thought maybe there was some liability angle that I could show.
LD: Did you ever envision reaching the level that you have?
VG: Well, I was very competitive growing up – academically, extracurricular, sports-wise, really wanting to do well. I knew I would bring those traits into my jury trial career. Also, I greatly enjoyed people and was always very curious and greatly enjoyed learning and reading.
LD: While you were growing up in West Virginia?
VG: Yes. I lived in Charleston, which was the state capital and had the largest population, about 80,000 people. I thought that was big, but when I moved to Los Angeles, I learned that it was, in relation, very small. I had four other siblings, and my dad owned a hotel. He eventually became an entrepreneur who imported and exported toys from different countries, traveling a lot. My mom was a stay-at-home mom with we five kids, but she was exceptionally active in the Democratic Party, the Junior League, March of Dimes and with Catholic Church women. Her volunteer activities were non-stop.
LD: No lawyers in the family?
VG: Plenty of arguing, but no lawyers.
LD: Interesting. So how did you make the transition from West Virginia to California?
VG: After my sophomore year in college, my best West Virginia buddy and I took a trip across the United States. We drove.
LD: You drove?
VG: We did and picked up odd jobs along the way. We worked in Reno, Nevada, doing the swing shift – from 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. – at “Harrah’s” as “Jackpot Payoff” boys, where we wore big belts full of money paying off slot machines. Being on the swing shift meant we could go to Lake Tahoe during the day because our shift didn't start until 6:30 in the evening. And Reno is one of those towns that’s open all night, so after work, you could go out, party, hang out with your coworkers, or whatever. We built up some money, went to Mount Rushmore, the Great Lakes, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park. After going out to San Francisco, we got a job selling vacuum cleaners for Kirby, going door-to-door in Monterey, California. Then we worked our way down the coast to Los Angeles, where we got a gig serving food and building props on the set of a movie called “Com-tac 303,” with Billy Dee Williams and Henry Fonda.
Then, while I was in Southern California, I saw Pepperdine. It’s a gorgeous, breathtaking campus. I remember thinking, “If I can get into Stanford, that's superb. If I can't, but I get into Pepperdine, that'll be great!”
LD: That's amazing. So once you were out here, settled into plaintiffs’ litigation with your own firm, what were some of your early victories?
VG: The ones that made my reputation initially were employment discrimination cases. An early 2000s trial was one named Bruce Hope vs. California. Bruce Hope worked as a cook in the California prison system and he contracted HIV, which at the time frequently caused ostracizing by coworkers. His bosses didn't know what to do with him when the word of his HIV got out, and the youth detention center population was really hard on Bruce. His bosses finally said, “Should we put you on some kind of disability? Should we let you go? Do you want to find another job?” And he said, “No, this job is close to my home. I rented my apartment because I work here. Nothing's wrong with me. I have HIV, but it's not contagious.”
When he was eventually forced out, he came to me and said, “The state wasn't going to offer me any money because they said, ‘Oh, it's fine what we did.’” So I tried the case downtown for a few weeks. He was making $22,000 a year at the time, and the final award on the discrimination jury verdict was $3.4M. This was back when $3.4 million was still a lot of money, a huge jury verdict. And then the state lost on appeal and paid.
One interesting thing that happened during that trial was when my mom came to visit. She frequently visited L.A. from West Virginia, and when I’m in trial during her visits, she enjoys watching, and so she saw part of the Hope trial. It was probably a month long or so, but the first day that she was there, she saw me carrying in my trial boxes and setting them up in the courtroom. Afterwards Mom said, “Gosh, that is such a good idea, what you're doing, subliminally.” I didn’t know what she was talking about, and she said, “You’re carrying in all these boxes in front of the jury with the word “H-O-P-E” on them in big black letters. That’s so smart.” I told her, “Mom, I wish I was that smart, but that’s my client’s name.”
LD: Funny how the universe works sometimes. What was his reaction when you got the verdict?
VG: He just cried. He fell on the table, crying, in shock. Because back then, you remember, a lot of people thought that HIV was a death sentence, and that if someone had it, their life was ruined. There was still a tremendous amount of prejudice against gay people, too. Even during jury selection for that case, prospective jurors would say, “No, I can’t be neutral. The Bible says homosexuality is bad, and you said your plaintiff is a homosexual. I think, unfortunately, his lifestyle has brought this on.” We saw that from a lot of jurors back then.
LD: It was such a different world, in many ways. And the change in attitudes on LGBTQ+ have been wonderful – and long overdue.
VG: Now, we have gay marriage approved by the Supreme Court in 2015. But 20 years ago, for a gay person with HIV, it was absolutely a tough row to hoe. I don’t think many attorneys back then would have taken Bruce’s case.
LD: You’re really going up against not just the system, but against the culture as a whole, in a case like that.
VG: So true. I also handled a case for Tarik Omari, a Palestinian Muslim who had a really good kidney dialysis business equipment contract with Kindred Healthcare. A couple of years after 9/11, he traveled to Palestine on vacation, and the corporation basically usurped his equipment while he was away and gave the contract to a contact of one of the local Kindred executives. Tarik came back to L.A. and realized, “Gosh, I've lost my job and business, I've lost all my dialysis machines, which were worth a lot of money.”
We sent letters warning Kindred there was no justifiable reason for what they had done, and before trial, we obtained correspondence between executives, with my letters attached, that said, “More fan mail from Omari and his attorney.” So we put that in front of the jury. I had the CFO on the witness stand and asked questions like, “You think you're a funny guy?” “No.” “You think you're a comedian? You entertain the big CEO with your smart-ass comments?” He said, “What do you mean?” And I put up those “more fan mail” exhibits, so the jury crushed them. Kindred hadn’t offered any settlement money in the case. The verdict was $7M, and they appealed. And of course, they lost and paid.
LD: That really goes to show how much of a difference the law and juries can make for people who are at the mercy of powerful individuals or businesses.
VG: That is so true. As time went on, I continued facing very powerful entities. I recently finished a big sexual harassment case involving a third-party vendor with a helicopter contract for the FBI. The FBI contact for the business was a very high-level FBI manager, living in Quantico, Va., who was married with three kids, but he started hitting on this sales rep at conventions. They had a relationship, and she broke up with him after finding out he was married. This FBI executive was a unit chief for the Hostage Rescue Team and he could go online and find out the manifest of any person on an airplane, traveling anywhere. He could (and would) often show up, unannounced, when she got off a plane, flashed his badge to the Transportation Security Administration and take her away. She was petrified, and when she threatened to report him, he would ask, “Who are you going to tell? I’m the FBI. Are you going to the local police?”
LD: That's terrifying.
VG: She asked her employer, Helinet Aviation Services, to take her off the FBI account, but the harasser didn’t want that, so they refused. So we took them on, and (after a $300,000 settlement offer was refused) our jury returned a $4.25M verdict!
LD: Hard cases are evidently your specialty.
VG: Certainly not by choice! No one's really calling me with easy ones. But, you know, you look at the cases and you try to do an analysis. And it’s very inspirational knowing that you’re on the right side. In all of these cases, I know my client was totally wronged, often because the defendants thought that the victim was someone who couldn't fight back.
For instance, Doreen Mackey, the client in the FBI case, is a single mom of two kids, one of whom has special needs. I can't imagine the FBI honcho ever thought she would say, "Don't touch me. You can't touch me,” and then aggressively pursuing justice.
LD: And now, you’ve taken on the Malibu shooter case, which is also such a tough one.
VG: That’s such a tragic case. The family of Tristan Beaudette, who was shot to death at Malibu Creek State Park while on a camping trip, sleeping between his two- and four-year-old daughters, is seeking $90M from Los Angeles County and the state of California. The alleged shooter had seven separate shootings near the site within a 16-month period, and neither the county nor the state publicized it because they didn’t want people to get upset or anxious. Of course the moment Tristan was killed, they instantly closed down the park and notified the public of all the prior shootings.
So many times it takes a horrific tragedy to have the people in charge decide, “Oh, we'd better do better.” But if you had told Tristan of the unsolved shootings before, he would never have brought his two-year-old and four-year-old there. That’s the last thing he would have done.
LD: And, of course, no matter how large the verdict is now, it doesn’t bring him back.
VG: Exactly. It’s like the Starline Tours case, where Mason Zisette died during a friend’s Sweet 16 party on the bus. I don’t know if you can have a much sadder situation: Thirty 16-year-olds get on a double-decker bus, there was some alcohol distributed, and kids were on the top level of the open-air bus, standing and dancing, not using seat belts, just enjoying themselves.
LD: Doing what kids do.
VG: Exactly. And the bus driver kept driving, jumped on the 405 freeway and as he's traveling south, Mason, who was the tallest kid, was looking toward Malibu as the bus traveled southbound. His head hit a low freeway overpass, he lost consciousness and never awoke.
So we took it to jury trial. His parents could only seek damages for what’s called “loss of love,” as Mason was only 16, so he had no lost earnings because he wasn't working. He had no hospital bills. He was just alive long enough to allow all of his organs to be harvested so someone else could use them. That jury verdict came in at $26M, the highest verdict in U.S. history for the death of a minor. But his loving parents, in a heartbeat, would a thousand times rather just have Mason home alive.
LD: Of course.
VG: They were in their late 40s, and he could easily have been part of their lives for another 35 years. You know, jurors often ask me in wrongful death cases how money will cure the problem. I have to explain that it's the only remedy we have. No one's going to go to prison. It wasn't an intentional act. But it's a way to somehow, in a tiny way, alleviate some of the pain, and hopefully the jurors can feel all the things you lose with a child’s death: love, relationship, potential support. It’s not just a loss at one moment in time, because the child arguably would have been with you the rest of your life. When you become older, that child would have been there to help you, as life comes full circle.
LD: In March 2020, as the pandemic was unfolding, you won another against-all-odds case for Patricia Samson, who was terminated from Wells Fargo in 2015 after taking a medical leave. You won that literally as courtrooms were shutting down because of coronavirus.
VG: I told our jurors that justice delayed is justice denied and my client had already waited far too long. Her case had been dismissed, then reinstated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The jury awarded her not only compensatory damages but also made a finding of punitive damages against Wells Fargo.
She went on medical leave for endometriosis, and within a week of her going on leave, management decided to displace her. They did not tell her she was terminated until she returned from leave. I showed the jury an email with the subject line “Samson Displacement Conversation” where her supervisor told his boss he wanted to “run an idea by you re: Patricia Samson.”
I told the jury she was like her biblical warrior namesake “Samson” and discussed the story of David versus Goliath to help the jury understand how brave she was in standing up to Wells Fargo. We sent a powerful message to employers thinking they can terminate workers who must take medical leave for whatever reason, including coronavirus and its effect on employees and the repercussions to their families. You can’t fire them just because they are sick, and it’s highly likely a jury will say your behavior is malicious if you do.
LD: What kind of cases are you seeing arising from the pandemic? It must be tragic.
VG: Since my practice is both personal injury and employment issues, the Covid cases are sadly non-stop. Employers are using Covid as an excuse to discriminate against workers by firing and blaming the virus. Regarding personal injury, so many people are sick and dying with inefficient protection or care in the workplace, putting profits over safety.
LD: This might sound like an odd question, but you really do convey an innate goodness. Do you think that’s one of your strengths with jurors?
VG: I hope so. I have always loved people. I’m an eternal optimist. I don't think anyone has ever perceived me as slick or deceitful. I try to be entirely honest and transparent with my jurors. During jury selection, I share all the bad facts and warts with the jurors. I want to make sure they know everything negative that they’re going to hear during trial and give them the opportunity to say whether they can still be neutral with that set of facts.
I think it's essential for the plaintiffs’ attorney to get in front of the process with absolute truth and credibility. It’s the best thing I can do because what I really want is for the jury to understand that I'm trying to shepherd them through this entire trial with pure integrity. We get to speak first. There is only one chance to make a first impression. When they hear me speaking or asking questions, I want them to understand that I am really seeking the truth through cross-examination and showing them the way. And by the time we reach the closing arguments, hopefully, they understand, “OK, this is the trial attorney who’s been honest with us every step of the trial.” For me, that’s essential. Integrity is everything.