Photo by Josh Ritchie.
“Here, I just want you to see this beautiful photo from the wedding that I received yesterday morning. How can I send it to you?”
When renowned litigator Stuart Grossman of Grossman Roth Yaffa Cohen asks this, he’s glowing with pride – not for himself or a family member, but for a quadriplegic client who had gotten married just days before. A preeminent personal injury and medical malpractice lawyer with nearly 50 years of experience in the courtroom, Grossman has won billions of dollars for his clients. His cases have ranged from a historic multidistrict litigation against major banks to infant deaths to a wrongful death suit in a prominent police brutality case.
That success has seen him become a prominent member of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and receive the Florida Justice Association’s highest honor, the Perry Nichols Award. Most recently, Grossman earned a place in Lawdragon’s Hall of Fame. A gladiator in and out of the courtroom, he is also known for his charitable work with organizations such as United Way, the American Jewish Committee and Margaux’s Miracle Foundation, an organization he founded at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in honor of his daughter, who was a victim of childhood cancer.
Though he has already received lifetime achievement awards for his years as a top trial lawyer, Grossman continues to fight for new clients, with recent cases including wrongful deaths from the Surfside condo collapse to representing families of victims from the Parkland shooting. And, every day, Grossman receives more photos like the one he shared of his former client’s wedding – evidence of the ways in which he continues to change lives for the better.
Lawdragon: You’ve talked before about your belief in instinct — how has instinct shaped your career?
Stuart Grossman: Well, in life, we often find ourselves in situations which cause us to make instinctive decisions. Unquestionably, one of those was when I was just out of boot camp during the Vietnam War.
They were drafting upwards of 100,000 folks per month then. I had just started my freshman year of law school at George Washington, and my draft board told me not to make any plans after January 1st. So, I nosed around, and my dad, God love him, got me into the two-year active duty program with the Coast Guard.
But, just after boot camp, my dad died.
LD: Oh, no.
SG: Instinctively, I knew then that I had to get this service behind me and get back home, help my family in their business and re-enroll at Miami Law School.
So, that's what I did. I got stationed at the search and rescue base on Miami Beach and fulfilled my two years of active duty. Towards the end of it I went in to see the commanding officer and asked to work from midnight to 8:00 AM so I could take classes at Miami Law School during the day. He said, "Grossman, you've done some good work here, go ahead."
So, I went back to the law school admissions office at Miami. I'd been previously accepted there, but declined, so they should have still had me on file. But, when I got there, there was a big box of trash on the floor. The administrator working said, "You know, we're throwing out old files," and she opened the trash, fished my file out of the bag, looked at it, and said, "Okay, you can start in September.”
So, what happened after my dad’s death, winding up there that day before the garbage man came – is that instinctive? Who knows?
LD: It seems like it.
SG: Yes. And that choice continued to play out well, because after that two-year delay in my career I started working for the best firm in Miami under the auspices of JB Spence, who was a legendary trial lawyer. By the time I was ready to graduate they had room for me. It was perfect timing.
And, instinctively, I knew I had to fight for that position, too. Initially, they had said, "Stuart, we don't want to expand." I came back the next day and I said, "Mr. Spence, you made a terrible mistake. This is where I belong." I hadn't even applied for a job anywhere else. That instinct made all the difference.
I stayed there for 15 years and was a named partner, until Neil Roth and I opened our own firm in 1988. So, I’ve only had two jobs. I just knew.
LD: Wow. So, instinct has really shaped the direction of your whole career. What about in trial? How does instinct come into play there?
SG: Well, I view jury selection as the most instinctive thing I do. I'll tell you one story that says it all.
I was trying a major case, and I was questioning a jury box full of people. In the back there was a housekeeper who worked in a hotel at Miami Beach and lived in a poorer neighborhood, and I selected her. When I sat down my young partner said to me, "Stuart, you didn't ask that lady any questions." I looked at him and said, "I don't have to."
I never use professional jury selectors or anything like that. You, the lawyer, have to be the person who feels out the jury one way or another. I knew that lady would go with me, and she did.
LD: That’s fascinating. Speaking of your past cases, you were responsible for getting the chokehold banned in Miami-Dade County after a police brutality case you successfully tried over 20 years ago. In that case, the chokehold was used against an unarmed Black man, resulting in him living in a coma for the next decade.
The last time we spoke with you was in early May 2020. Since then, the news about George Floyd broke and the Black Lives Matter movement exploded. How does it feel, given your experience, seeing this kind of case happen again, and as such a major part of cultural consciousness?
SG: Right, so, I got rid of the chokehold in the city of Miami and Dade County, and that gave me a good feeling. They put my picture up in the training room of the police department, with a sign saying, “Apply the chokehold and you have to meet this guy.”
But since then – honestly, I’ve been disappointed. I saw this week that a state trooper in Louisiana used a flashlight to beat up a fellow who was already on the ground. His body camera, which he had managed to obfuscate for about two years, finally came to light. I’m truly afraid of those kinds of stories.
I think we've made very little progress outside of the legislative arena, and I think that we've done next to nothing in terms of becoming a society that accepts differences in terms of race – and, lately, race, religion and politics.
I mean, these issues go back to the beginning. The history of America – colonizing a foreign land that had indigenous species of people, plants, animals – is just unpleasant. Then, building it with slaves added to that. I’m not trying to say all white people are bad. Not at all. I'm simply saying that we should be honest about the circumstances in which the country was born and developed. And, if we’re really committed to building a free society, we should act like it.
LD: What, in your opinion, are some initial steps to help us build that kind of society?
SG: I would say the first step is stopping these anti-voting fairness bills that are being introduced throughout the United States. To me, they're bald-faced attempts at navigating around the constitutional principle of the right to vote. When you deprive an individual or a class of people of their right to vote, their stake in our society is diminished entirely.
LD: Absolutely. It makes sense that you’re passionate about that topic, as your legal career was inspired by the wrongs you saw during the Civil Rights Movement, right?
SG: That’s correct.
LD: And, since then, you’ve fought for justice against major corporations like banks and large hospitals. What has been your most challenging case in terms of getting justice for somebody against a major entity?
SG: I would say the case against Florida Power and Light.
Florida Power and Light operates throughout the state of Florida as a lawful monopoly. There’s no competition, and they set their rates. They’ve always been able to do what they wanted.
Well, one stormy day a power line came down in a lady's backyard and singed her lawn. So, the power company had to raise the line, which they determined would necessitate killing all the power in the neighborhood, including traffic signals. The police came by and said, "Do you need our help?" Florida Power and Light said, "No, we don't."
So, they killed the power, including the lights at an extremely busy intersection. Right then, these two mothers were each driving their kids home from school. Because of the lack of traffic lights on this stormy evening, they collided at that intersection, and one little girl was killed. All Florida Power and Light said was, "Sorry. It was in the execution of our duties."
We took on Florida Power and Light to get justice for that little girl and her family, and we prevailed. It was the largest verdict in the United States for the death of a child at the time. Then, it went onto intermediate appellate court, where we won three to zero. But, for reasons I’ll never understand, a judge there decided that he wanted the whole court to sit en banc. Once the whole court came in, we lost four to three.
LD: Did you ever find out why that judge did that?
SG: No, I didn’t. But luckily, we went up to the Supreme Court and won seven to nothing. We made sure justice prevailed.
As a society, we’ve learned to tolerate major companies acting with callous indifference, like Florida Power and Light did. But we want to stop anything like what happened to that little girl from happening to anyone else. So, every time we win a case against a company like that, we make a dent in their power by fending off the best they have.
LD: Absolutely. That’s such important work. Did that case lead to any major policy changes like your chokehold case did?
SG: Well, it’s now mandatory to have police present at Florida Power and Light construction sites. They don't get to ignore their responsibility to the public any longer. And, strangely enough, it’s probably benefited the economy of law enforcement because they get all of this off-duty time being present at construction sites.
LD: You really have created positive change in a material way. But I’m sure it can be difficult trying cases involving so much suffering. Which case would you say has affected you the most personally?
SG: One case a few years ago impacted me profoundly. To tell you how much, this past weekend, we were invited to the client’s wedding.
The client was a young man who was rendered quadriplegic when he visited Miami for the first time with his girlfriend, his girlfriend's sister and her fiancé a few years ago. They landed at the airport, got a rental car, and drove over to the Ritz-Carlton hotel on South Beach.
They went to the beach, sat out on the lounge chairs, had something to eat and later in the afternoon they decided to go for a swim. So, the young man ran into the water, dove in headfirst and hit a sandbar, breaking some of the discs in his upper neck and severing his spinal cord. As a result, he can no longer move his arms or legs. He battled through rehabilitation, but to say his life changed would be an understatement.
Now, the hotel knew this sandbar existed, but there were no warning signs about it. So, I sued the Ritz-Carlton. He got a mammoth settlement out of them, which sent a message to the hotel and to the Miami tourism industry.
That wasn’t the biggest case of my career, but that doesn’t matter so much to me. What matters is the fact that throughout my career I've been blessed to make a difference, and that is what my life has been. When my partner attended this young man’s wedding, he said that they were still talking about the case and what it meant to them all these years later. That is so rewarding.
LD: That's wonderful. Is seeing the difference you make in people’s lives what you love most about your job?
SG: Without a doubt. Hands down.