At first glance, the phases of Alex Arteaga-Gomez’s career seem contrasting. Right out of a federal clerkship, he was a defense lawyer at White & Case. Then, he focused on white collar criminal defense work at the Law Offices of Scott A. Srebnick. After that, a desire to represent indigent clients moved him to the Federal Public Defender’s Office. Finally, in 2018, he came to Grossman Roth Yaffa Cohen to focus on advocating for victims of medical malpractice and catastrophic injury.
But, Arteaga-Gomez points out, these distinctions are ones that lawyers make – not victims.
“From the client’s perspective, there are no criminal problems or civil problems. There are just tragedies they need help recovering from,” he says. “The family who suffered a sudden loss in a catastrophic accident and the one facing the full force of the federal government are each in crisis. I have always wanted to be a counselor and advocate for people that find themselves there.”
Arteaga-Gomez has successfully been that advocate for victims in mass tort, medical malpractice matters and more in high-profile litigations that help real people. Since he joined Florida-based GRYC in 2018, he has been involved in cases like those arising out of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. His involvement helped achieve compensation for the families of seventeen victims who were killed, and seventeen others injured, in the shooting, including a $127.5M settlement with the Department of Justice and a $26M settlement with the Broward County School Board. Other mass casualty events he has worked on include the crisis at the Hollywood Hills nursing home after Hurricane Irma, and the Florida International University Bridge and Champlain Towers South condominium collapses – all tragedies that occurred within the last five years.
His commitment to helping individuals and families in crisis is what brought him to his current practice, and his work with his clients at GRYC has exceeded his expectations. “I’ve found it even more fulfilling than I expected I would,” he says.
Lawdragon: How did you first become interested in a career in the law?
Alex Arteaga-Gomez: I’ve always been motivated to do what I can to advocate for people who cannot advocate for themselves. That motivation has led me throughout my career, from representing indigent individuals ensnared in the federal system as a public defender to what I do now, representing victims of catastrophic injury who are trying to live a dignified life given the tragedy that hit them.
LD: You were a defense lawyer at White & Case first – how did that come about?
AAG: At the beginning of my legal career, I wanted to focus on, to borrow a sports analogy, the “blocking and tackling.” In legal work, that is the research and writing. Those are, in my view, the foundations of our practice.
I wanted to work at a firm that would teach me those core skills at the very highest level. So, I’m very grateful to White & Case for doing that for me. I think I would’ve been perfectly happy and fulfilled if I’d spent the rest of my career there. I still keep in touch with my mentors from those years, who have gone on to leadership positions in that firm.
I had a specific interest in criminal defense practice, and I took the step to work for Law Offices of Scott A. Srebnick, where I worked on some fascinating white-collar cases. I helped draft a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed me to sit at counsel table during an argument. In those arguments, you’re literally within 24 inches of the Justices.
But I had a burning desire to represent indigent defendants. So, I had the chance to work at the Federal Public Defender’s Office. After doing that for several years, I reached a point where I wanted to decide about the rest of my career. After some soul searching and conversations with people I trust, I settled on personal injury and medical malpractice work on behalf of victims. I couldn’t be happier doing this work.
I’ve always been motivated to do what I can to advocate for people who cannot advocate for themselves.
LD: What drew you to Grossman Roth Yaffa Cohen?
AAG: Our firm has decades of experience advocating for victims of catastrophic injuries and events and taking on some of the most complex cases that arise in our community. It was the challenge associated with the cases and the seriousness in which they took them that I felt was the perfect fit.
LD: When you came over in 2018, a number of tragedies took place locally, and the firm began working on cases arising out of them. How were you involved in those cases?
AAG: Within a couple of months of joining the firm, I was wrapped up in what were at the time three large community disasters – the Parkland massacre, the Hollywood Hills nursing home case, and the FIU bridge collapse. We had the honor of representing people in each of those cases, and I did the very best I could for our clients.
LD: What did you learn from working on all those major tragedies at once?
AAG: I learned that often the solutions to these multi-plaintiff, multi-defendant mass casualties are reached by working towards consensus. I learned that not every defense attorney is looking to fight – that there are attorneys on the other side who are looking for a solution and recognize the gravity of the problem. So, I learned to work productively with people who are typically an opponent.
LD: Do you feel like your experience as a defense attorney helps you see where the other side is coming from?
AAG: I think so. I understand that we all took an oath to represent our respective clients zealously, so I don’t take it personally if someone’s trying to defend their client, even when they know that their client is responsible for a terrible event.
LD: And where do the Parkland cases stand now?
AAG: There is still a pending case against the Broward Sheriff’s Office and several individuals who were responsible for safety on the campus.
LD: I know you did a lot of the “boots on the ground” work on these cases, particularly against the school district. Can you tell me about that process?
AAG: We settled with the school district for a total of approximately $26M, and that was a remarkable result given that the school district is generally protected by sovereign immunity for state law claims. I commend the school district for doing the right thing and creating a fund to compensate the victims.
It is not nearly enough money. Any one of these parents deserves many multiples of $26M because they will never be able to walk their daughter down the aisle, hug their son at his college graduation, or kiss their grandchild in the hospital. But it is at least some measure of compensation for them.
Looking back over your career, what other cases stand out to you as memorable?
AAG: I’d say some of my cases as an assistant public defender office stand out.
I represented multiple people who were ensnared in the federal system, facing decades of prison time for offenses for which there was marginal evidence, and we prevailed at trial. Many of our clients had no family or loved ones in the courtroom to support them. Being their support system in those moments was very rewarding.
LD: I’m sure. What kinds of cases did you work on most often?
AAG: Practicing in the Southern District of Florida, we saw everything from the most minor immigration cases to the most complex mortgage and health care cases.
My last trial at the office was particularly interesting. In our district, hundreds of people a week are charged with visa fraud offenses at the airport. They arrive, get arrested, and go to the jail. Then, they meet their lawyer, plead guilty, and within four days they're a convicted felon and back on a plane to their home country.
It never makes sense for any of these people to contest the charge. If they ask for a trial, it will get set 30 days away and they will have to sit in jail waiting for it. And even if they win the criminal trial, they will still get deported. But if they plead guilty, they'll be back in their home country within days. Why would any rational person, no matter how innocent they are, ever insist on a trial in those circumstances?
But my last trial was a gentleman that didn't care and insisted on a trial. So, we went to trial, and we won.
LD: That's amazing.
AAG: He just wouldn't say, “I intentionally lied to the U.S. government to come into the country.” And he hadn't. I presented all the facts to the prosecutor to explain that to them. It didn’t move them. The man waited weeks for his trial and was found not guilty within a matter of hours.
Any one of these parents deserves many multiples of $26M because they will never be able to walk their daughter down the aisle, hug their son at his college graduation, or kiss their grandchild in the hospital.
LD: Outside of the Parkland cases, which I know are ongoing, are there any matters keeping you particularly busy right now?
AAG: We're currently representing a client who purchased contaminated eyedrops here in south Florida. These eyedrops are the subject of an FDA recall and, so far, we know of at least 55 similar victims across the United States. The number is just going to continue to grow.
This is an extremely antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It resulted in permanent damage to our client, so we are very actively trying to get to the bottom of this problem and seek justice for people who are purely innocent victims.
LD: Recently, you spoke at the House Subcommittee on Civil Justice in opposition of House Bill 837. What did that entail?
AAG: Right now, there is a full-frontal assault by the insurance industry to reduce their responsibility solely for the purpose of profit. There are bills in our legislature that will not protect small businesses, will not reduce premiums, and will only make our roads and community less safe. I traveled to Tallahassee recently and was honored to testify alongside crime victims in advocating against this bill.
LD: Are you seeing aggressive tort reform as a recent trend?
AAG: I think that the insurance companies always try to take a shot at it, but right now it is more aggressive than ever.
LD: I’m sure that takes a lot of time and energy to fight. When you have time outside of work, what do you do for fun?
AAG: My wife and I love to travel. We've made multiple trips to East Africa primarily to trek the Virunga Mountains to see mountain gorillas. We've visited with wild mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. It is, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful experiences that any human being can have. Right now, there are only about 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild, but the population has been steadily increasing due to the tourism-related conversation efforts. I encourage everyone to make the trip because it will only help preserve this majestic species.