When Neal Roth was just 15 years old, his leg was crushed by a vehicle. A lawsuit was filed and ultimately settled. His experience as a personal injury plaintiff then propelled him into a career in which he has won hundreds of millions of dollars for others who have suffered similar circumstances. Co-founder of prominent medical malpractice and personal injury firm Grossman Roth Yaffa Cohen, Roth has been recognized as one of the top personal injury and wrongful death attorneys in the state of Florida. In 2015, he was awarded the Al J. Cone Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes attorneys who have devoted their lives to fighting for consumers in Florida.
Roth’s case results over the last four decades have not only yielded significant financial compensation for his clients but have saved lives through policy changes that ensure negligence cannot be repeated. A leader inside his firm and out, Roth has also been highly active in the Florida Justice Association throughout his career. A past president of the organization, he continues to be involved in the FJA’s political and legislative efforts. In 2003, the FJA awarded him the Perry Nichols Award, the highest honor the body can bestow. More recently he was inducted into the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.
Lawdragon: We spoke with your co-founder, Stuart Grossman, a while back. He talked about the founding of your firm as instinctual. What was your experience with the founding of your firm?
Neal Roth: I had practiced law with one of the finest personal injury lawyers in Miami, Stanley Rosenblatt, for about six and a half years. I gained a great deal of experience there, but I decided that it was time for me to strike out on my own. I opened up my own law practice in 1985 and was, fortunately, fairly successful.
Stuart and I met when I first started practicing. The firm he was with at the time was recognized as one of the finest in the state. From having worked against him, I was able to witness firsthand the kind of person he is and how skilled a lawyer he is. I said to myself, “If I'm going to make a significant change in my life and start a partnership, it has to be with someone who has the character, skills, competency and compassion that are important to bring to clients.”
He calls it instinctual. To me, it's also a fit. It's not that we have identical personalities. The truth is we're probably opposites.
LD: How do you complement each other?
NR: Stuart is a great trial lawyer and a fabulous rainmaker. While I'm perfectly comfortable with all my skills as a trial lawyer, I bring a different strategic view to handling cases. He likes to mentor on a one-on-one basis. I like to mentor across the spectrum of the lawyers that have been here and I have the patience for the business side of the practice.
LD: It makes sense that you're the firm’s managing partner.
NR: It became clear at the beginning that the skill set he had was different from the skill set that I had. And, to run a successful firm, you need both. To me, it was just a natural fit.
LD: Did you expect the firm to grow in the way that it has? How is it similar and different from your original vision?
NR: Well, my original vision is nothing like what it's become.
My vision at the beginning was to create a small firm, be highly selective in the cases that we handle and keep our advance case costs reasonable. As it turned out, the concept of, “If we build it, they will come" turned out to be much greater than either of us had anticipated.
LD: To what do you credit the firm’s success over the years?
NR: I think success comes from picking the right cases and representing the right clients. Having the energy, the concern, the passion and the compassion to let them know that we care about them – that's one critical component.
The other is that we don't cut corners when handling cases. When you're going up against defendants with unlimited resources, both in terms of lawyers they can hire and how they can finance cases, you have to know you can compete on equal footing. If we didn’t, we would get swallowed up. So, we made the commitment that once we take a case, it gets all of the resources that it needs.
At my core, I really care about the individual people and their needs and rights. That's why I made the switch to the plaintiffs’ side.
LD: Looking back even further, tell me about how you first became interested in the legal field after you suffered an injury at the age of 15.
NR: My family moved to North Miami Beach in 1956, when I was four years old. My mother and father came here with my brother and me, and they didn't have two nickels to rub together. When I was old enough to have a job, I went to work at this combination car wash/gas station that my father partly owned.
While working there on a Saturday, pumping gas in the era of rear gas tanks, an elderly gentleman came up behind me and did not put his car in park. His foot slipped from the brake to the accelerator. He pinned me between the two cars and pushed the car about 10 or 15 feet before somebody could dislodge his foot from the accelerator. I suffered a terrible crush injury to my right leg.
LD: That’s awful. How did that incident lead to your interest in the law?
NR: I was in the hospital for four and a half months. I really developed this affinity for the medical profession after seeing how dedicated they were to me, both in their concern and their expertise. My first thought was I'd go into medicine, but my aptitude was not really tailored to the sciences.
Then, a lawsuit grew out of my case. It was successfully settled by a very good lawyer here in Miami. As I came to the realization that medicine was not in my future, I thought of my interest in politics, history and English. I just naturally gravitated to the law. Then, combining the law with my interest in medicine, medical malpractice, too, was a fit for me.
Some may think, "Well, your leg and life were saved by doctors. Shouldn't you be on the side of the doctors and hospitals?" To them I say, I was for a year and a half, but it just didn't feel right. At my core, I really care about the individual people and their needs and rights. That's why I made the switch to the plaintiffs’ side.
LD: One of your first major cases was a medical malpractice case involving a misread pediatric EKG. Tell me a bit about that case.
NR: That's the Chantelle Berman case. Chantelle, interestingly enough, was born exactly two months after my older daughter. I would look at what happened to her and envision that there but for the grace of God would've gone Melissa, and subsequently our daughter Lori.
Medically, it was as challenging of a case as I had seen up until that point in my career. She had an abnormal hole in her heart that wasn't picked up on an EKG. The hole wound up shunting blood into her lungs over a long period of time and did irreversible damage to her lungs.
The legal issues were also very challenging. The statute of limitations became complicated, because by the time the diagnosis was made, she was already six years old. Ultimately, as complicated as the case seemed, we learned that it came down to the fact that an EKG performed on her when she was three months old had been read by an adult cardiologist.
You may have heard the expression: "Children are not little adults." Their EKGs don't look the same as adults’ do. The doctor did not pick up on the fact that at least one of the paper strips that they put on the chart was actually pasted upside down. If you turned it right-side up, you would see what the abnormalities were on the EKG, which would suggest a congenital defect.
We took the case right up to jury selection. The last condition of settlement with the hospital was that they would require every EKG performed on any child under the age of 12 be read by a pediatric cardiologist – to which they finally agreed. It is rewarding knowing that while I can't quantify the lives of children that have been positively altered by that change in policy; I just know that there have been. I know that EKGs have since been read correctly by pediatric cardiologists, which then allowed for diagnosis, treatment and long lives.
LD: It’s wonderful when cases have those real-world effects. Which other cases in your career have you found personally impactful?
NR: One of those cases happened two or three years ago. The case involved a 32-year-old woman who was pregnant. She went into a local hospital for reduced fetal movement, and it turned out the fetus had died in utero. They made the decision to deliver the deceased fetus, but events took place while she was in the operating room which resulted in a major cardiac event with resuscitation. Unfortunately, while they revived her, she was left with massive brain damage. She had, and she still has, a husband and two children.
We knew that something was amiss because, when we asked for the records, they never produced a code blue sheet. Whenever there's a cardiac arrest, a “code blue” is called in a hospital, and someone is designated to be the scrivener, to make sure everything that happens is recorded. That includes the sequence, the timing, drugs, compressions – everything that occurs.
In Florida, there's an evidentiary matter involving spoliation of evidence. If you prove that the record should have been maintained and it wasn't, then the court can tell a jury that they can infer that negligence took place because they couldn't produce the record.
The hospital had a view of the case, and we did try to resolve it early on, but their lawyer did not see the case the way we did. Their defense was not that they lost the record, but they never created the record. It was just an oversight. But, while my partner Natasha Cortes and I were taking depositions from everyone who was in the operating room, we got to one witness who said, "Oh, absolutely, there was a code blue sheet. I know who was filling it out, and I know where they were standing."
From there, it was like a floodgate opened up. I can tell you that the hospital wound up settling the case for 50 percent more than they otherwise would have had they been reasonable with us at the beginning. On the other hand, it was an incredibly rewarding case to work on. We learned a lot about how hospitals operate. And, my client, who was brain damaged, was able to move out of the hospital and back home to be reunited with her family. She's being cared for, and there's absolute financial security for her husband and children.
LD: That’s a wonderful result.
How would you describe your style in trial?
NR: I think preparation is what makes me successful. If the other side knows that you're going to be prepared, that's important. However, though preparation is key, you cannot dig your feet in so deeply that you're never going to figure out a way out. Things change in cases. What may be a good fact for you today may turn out to be bad for you in three weeks or three months. Or, there may be something that comes up that you didn’t know about or didn't anticipate.
Then, you have to make sure the other side knows that if the case doesn’t settle for an appropriate amount, the case will go to trial – but that doesn’t mean beating up on the other side. You have to be respectful.
How are you going to get to the other side of the chessboard? How are you going to capture the queen?
LD: You mentioned how rewarding those cases are – what do you find most inspiring about your work? Has that answer always been the same, or has it shifted throughout your career?
NR: I think the most rewarding part of the work is knowing that you're helping people in need. Some may feel that going to a courtroom and getting a verdict is the most rewarding thing. I think it's good to have experience doing that. However, I ascribe to the view that a really good settlement is often better than a verdict. There's certainty, and it brings closure to the litigation for clients.
The rewarding part of my work that has developed over time is the role I play as a mentor in the firm. My colleagues look to me for strategic help, which is always rewarding.
LD: As a mentor, what's the most common piece of advice you find yourself giving to younger attorneys?
NR: When they come to me with a problem in a case, I always start with, "What's the goal? What is it that you're trying to accomplish? What is it that the client needs? What is it that the client wants?"
In anything that you do, you have to have a vision of where you want to end up. It's like playing chess. When you start out, everybody's pieces are in the same location; the question is, how are you going to get to the other side of the chessboard? How are you going to capture the queen?