Lawyer Limelight: Karen Terry

Almost the moment Karen Terry graduated from law school, she applied for a position at renowned personal injury firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley. She knew she wanted to advocate for injured victims. She knew she wanted to get up and speak in court. And she knew Searcy Denney was one of the best firms in the state of Florida to fulfill those goals.

Twenty-seven years later and a shareholder at the firm, Terry remains as certain in her decision to join Searcy Denney as she was the day she started. That certainty carries over into her practice style: If her client has been wronged, Terry will get justice. If a settlement offer isn’t enough, she’ll invent a creative strategy or wage a prolonged court battle. In one case, she brought charges of false advertising as well as malpractice – a strategy that led to the first verdict against a medical concierge company in the U.S. Whether she’s working on a case involving medical malpractice, nursing home abuse, pharmacy negligence or automobile accidents, it doesn’t matter if the odds are stacked against her. She’ll fight. Whatever it takes.

Terry’s tenacity has yielded other noteworthy results: She sued Walgreens in a case involving a misfiled prescription, resulting in a jury verdict of $25.8M, which was upheld on appeal. Even during the worst of the pandemic, she had her foot on the gas fighting against negligent medical care, winning a $2.44M verdict last year. Despite the climate at the time holding healthcare professionals on a pedestal, she says, “My client wanted his day in court. I wasn’t going to be paralyzed by fear.”

Terry was recently selected to be a member of the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers (also serving on the Florida State Committee) and is past president of the Palm Beach Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates. She is also certified as a mediator. 

Lawdragon: I read that your dad was a lawyer, your mom is a paralegal and your sister is also a lawyer. Were you inspired by your family to have a career in law?

Karen Terry: Yes. My dad gave me three options: get an M.D., a J.D. or an MBA degree. He preferred two of the three. So, I selected a J.D., and I also got a master's in telecommunication while I was getting my J.D. and completed it all in three years.

We had a lot of spirited discussions in my house growing up, so in order to be heard, I had to get my law degree. 

LD: How did you come to this specific practice area?

KT: I knew that Searcy Denney was one of the best law firms in the state. My sister had clerked here one summer and loved it. She said the people were very warm, kind, compassionate, and cared about injured victims.

There wasn't any other field I was interested in. I didn't want to push paper. I wanted to get into the courtroom and have a speaking role. So, it seemed like litigation was a natural fit.

LD: Early on, many of your cases involved nursing home abuse and negligence, right?

I didn't want to push paper. I wanted to get into the courtroom and have a speaking role.

KT: That's right. I volunteered in a nursing home in high school, and I saw these poor elderly people. They were lonely and forgotten. I wanted to help. I was placed in charge of activities. So, I played bingo with them.

Initially as a lawyer, I worked on a lot of bed sore cases. The sores are excruciatingly painful, and if not properly cared for, can develop into a bone infection called osteomyelitis, which can be fatal.

Nursing homes are way understaffed, typically, and there are a lot of older people in Florida. Many do not get the attention they should. That was my passion. Later, I started doing medical malpractice cases.

LD: How did one lead into the other?

KT: Well, there's a lot of overlap. In nursing homes, you have healthcare providers who treat the nursing home residents. So, sometimes you end up suing doctors, nurses and the nursing home in the same case. Florida is unique in that it has a specific statute, Florida Statutes 400 and 429, which protects nursing home and assisted living facility residents, giving them special resident rights.

There are a lot of things about medical malpractice laws that are patently unfair. For instance, something that really must change is the concept of what doctors and hospitals call the "free kill."

A free kill is a patient with no surviving spouse or with no surviving child under the age of 25. If a healthcare provider treats the patient negligently causing death, no one has standing to bring a claim for the wrongful death in the state of Florida. So, the patient becomes a “free kill.” I was single for the first 46 years of my life. I didn't get married until late. I was a free kill, too. If something happened to me and I went to a doctor or hospital and they botched it, nobody could bring a claim for me – not even my mom and dad. But if I was killed by a car, my mom and dad would have standing to bring a claim. So, the law in Florida is patently unfair to victims of medical malpractice. 

That aspect of the law has troubled me since I got here, and it troubles me more every day. When new clients call, I have to explain the “free kill” concept to them, and you can only imagine how horrified they are when they hear that there's nothing they can do to right the wrong.

LD: That’s awful.

KT: The care can even be reckless and careless, and it just doesn't matter. There is no one that can bring the claim for them.

LD: And you've been trying to fight that since you started at the firm?

KT: We have. We've been trying to fight it in the legislature in Tallahassee, but the medical lobby is incredibly powerful.

LD: Looking at the cases you have been able to take on, are there any that stand out as particularly memorable to you?

KT: The verdicts are the ones that stick out because you live that case so long. It can take four to seven years to get the case to verdict and through appeal. So, just by the very nature of representing folks for that long, you get pretty close to them and they become family. I particularly love representing and fighting for children.

I have to explain the “free kill” concept to them, and you can only imagine how horrified they are when they hear there's nothing they can do to right the wrong.

LD: I can imagine. Tell me a bit about the Hippely case, where you sued Walgreens.

KT: That case stands out because the case was in litigation for a long time, and it was my biggest verdict: $25.8M. I represented a husband who lost his wife, Beth. They had three children.

Beth was given a prescription for Coumadin, which is a blood thinner. It was supposed to be 1.0 milligrams, and they gave her 10 milligrams. So, Walgreens disregarded the decimal point, or failed to see it. 10 milligrams would be excessive under any circumstances, so it should have stuck out like a big red flag.

She had a severe stroke from the overdose and lived for four years trapped in her own body. She had great difficulty communicating. But she would let you know if she was displeased with something. So, she was somewhat mentally intact.

We tried that case over in a really conservative venue called Bartow. Walgreens had given us low-ball offers because there had never been big verdicts in Bartow. Our clients were willing to settle for multiples less than the verdict, even up until before closing arguments.

So, we took a verdict and then it went up on appeal and was affirmed three years later. That was a victorious day.

LD: That’s wonderful. Are there any other cases that stand out?

KT: Well, I got a husband out of one trial.

LD: Oh, wow! Tell me that story.

KT: We were trying a case over the wrongful death of a nine-year-old boy, who died while riding a bicycle on a sidewalk with his father on a bicycle behind him. An older lady was pulling out of her housing development called Villas on the Green. Their hedges were too high, in violation of the code, so she couldn't see past the hedges to see the bicycles coming down the sidewalk. She ran over the boy with her front and back tire. The father watched the whole thing happen, right before his eyes, and his son died in his arms. It was excruciatingly painful to watch his parents’ grief.

In this case, too, we were willing to settle for substantially less than the verdict, but the insurance company for the defendant did not want to pay that amount. The jury awarded a verdict of $12M.

My husband represented one of the defendants, Villas on the Green.

LD: Really?

KT: Yes. So, we were in a three-week jury trial against each other. He and I never really talked to one another. There was no romance in the courtroom. After the verdict, the case went on appeal for three years. I didn't even know he liked me.

Before I knew it, three years were up, and we got paid. Days later, my work phone rang, and it was the defense attorney, Bill Price. I answered the phone and I said, "What do you want? I thought you already paid me."

He said, "I want to take you to lunch or dinner sometime."

I said, "What? Why?" I was caught off guard for sure.

LD: How long did it take before you went out with him?

KT: I thought about it for a while. Then, we ended up going out and it was the best date ever. We got engaged five months later and married nine months after that.

LD: Oh, that's wonderful. You haven't come up against each other in court again, have you?

KT: No, that's not going to happen again.

LD: That's great.

KT: Another case highlight, though, was the first verdict against a medical concierge company in the U.S. for $8.5M.

It was a little bit of a different animal because it was a medical negligence case against MDVIP and its doctors, but I also pled false misleading advertising, because they promised and guaranteed exceptional care and exceptional results in their advertising and failed to deliver.

LD: That’s a unique strategy.

KT: It was a fun case to try. My partner, Jack Scarola, joined me, and he's just a joy to have in the fox hole with you.

LD: Have you had any recent victories you can tell me about?

KT: I had the first medical malpractice verdict in Palm Beach County during the pandemic in 2021. During that time, a lot of lawyers on the plaintiffs’ side were scared to try a medical malpractice case because doctors and nurses were put on such a pedestal for saving lives. I said, “I'm not going to hold my case hostage to that."

I worked really hard during the pandemic. I came into the office every single day. I pushed this case and the judge said, "Okay, I'm going to let you try it. I'm going to give you limited time to pick the jury. You're going to wear a mask.” The pandemic conditions were not ideal, but my client wanted his day in court. I didn't want to run scared because of people's perceptions.

LD: Wow. What was the case?

KT: My client had a robotic prostatectomy. Unfortunately, it created a rectourethral fistula, which wasn’t recognized in a timely fashion. The urologist ignored the patient’s complaints. Then he tried to fix the fistula himself without calling in a colorectal surgeon to help him. It took four surgeries to fix. 

It was a zero-offer case, so there was no downside. The jury awarded our client $2.4M. It wasn't the biggest verdict in the world, but it was really satisfying because I put all my time into it during the pandemic. I wasn't afraid. Never let fear paralyze you.

LD: Other than fearlessness, how would you describe your style as a lawyer?

KT: You get more with honey than with vinegar. I try to be nice until I'm met with resistance. I try to treat everybody with respect. Whether they're on my side or against me, everybody has a job to do. And I really do work hard. I was raised with a strong work ethic. You don't have to be the smartest person in the room, but you have to be the hardest working person in the room.

Never let fear paralyze you.

LD: What do you do for fun outside of the law?

KT: I have a fantastic husband and the cutest dog. She's a white Golden Retriever named Elsie. My parents and my sister and brother-in-law live close by in Boca, so we are all close. 

We love to travel and see our kids and grandkids as much as we can in New York City. I also love yoga, tennis and running, which help with managing stress.