James Gustafson, Cameron Kennedy and Carter Scott

James Gustafson, Cameron Kennedy and Carter Scott

When James Gustafson was brought on board to start Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley’s Tallahassee, Fla. office in 2002, it was something of an experiment. The well-known plaintiffs’ firm had been operating out of its West Palm Beach location for more than 20 years at that point, and Tallahassee – the political and legal center of the state – seemed a natural next step. Most importantly, “we came here to be good neighbors,” Gustafson says. “We came here to work on important matters that other people might not want to risk money on – complex work that's expensive to manage.”

Twenty-two years and many high-profile victories later, it’s safe to say the experiment has been a success.

Today, the Tallahassee team consists of three attorneys: Gustafson, along with partners Cameron Kennedy and Carter Scott. The trio work seamlessly with the West Palm Beach office, forming a firm that spans the whole of Florida. Kennedy joined the team in 2011, coming from his own practice. He had seen Gustafson’s successes and reached out to him when he needed help on a case. The two became friends, and Kennedy was brought on board. Scott, the newest member, has been with the firm since law school at Florida State University, when he emailed the firm as a 1L and snagged an internship. He was named a shareholder in 2022. Though the three joined at different times, they create a tight-knit group with complementary styles – a team that describes themselves more as family than as coworkers.

The office’s practice mix is similar to Searcy Denney’s other office – standout personal injury, products liability, medical malpractice and wrongful death work. Gustafson has developed a particular niche in tobacco cases, which have been his primary focus for years. He is known for his work on the Engle progeny litigation, where he has tried many of these tobacco cases with an impressive list of verdicts over $10M. Kennedy and Scott have also returned multimillion-dollar results, including resent cases involving a $10.5M settlement on the eve of trial for the negligent care of a senior citizen at an assisted living center; $9.4M for negligent design and construction of pedestrian boardwalk that caused their client to suffer a spinal cord injury; $10M for the family of a victim of an interstate truck crash; and $16.5M for a child who suffered paralysis caused by a defective car seat during an auto collision. Scott is also a member of the Georgia bar, and the team handles cases around the country.

Outside of cases, the trio have impressive resumes in the industry: Gustafson is a member of the elite International Academy of Trial Lawyers and the American Board of Trial Advocates and is a past president of the Florida Justice Association. Both Kennedy and Scott are Eagle members of the FJA and serve on the Board of Directors.

We sat down with the trio to discuss memorable cases, emerging trends and the synergy that makes the Tallahassee office thrive.

Lawdragon: Which cases have been standouts in each of your careers at Searcy Denney?

Cameron Kennedy: When I first joined the firm, one of the cases that I handled was a complicated case involving a brain-injured baby. I think there were 20 defendants in the case. I spent two years flying around the country taking the depositions of the world's foremost experts in pediatric medicine, neurology, obstetrics, neonatology and pulmonology. It was like getting a PhD-level education. I remember coming into Jimmy's [Gustafson’s] office at one point and saying, "If they’re all like this, I'm not sure I can do this." But every step of the way, Jimmy just gave me confidence. Ultimately, the case went to trial. Our senior partner, Chris Searcy, was set to try the case with me, but his wonderful wife was very sick with cancer. The weekend before the trial started, Priscilla suffered complications and Chris did the absolute right thing and went home to be with her.

LD: Oh, no.

CK: I was there with 20 or 30 defense lawyers and before the day ended, one of my law partners from West Palm Beach dropped what he was doing and came to my rescue. When we got through the first week of trial, all of the defendants in that case settled. The settlement was a profoundly good thing for our clients, who I became very close with. I still get birthday invitations from the family to come celebrate our client’s birthday, who now, gosh, is 19 or 20 years old. It was a baptism by fire in terms of how difficult the case was. But it was also the first experience I had of feeling that, when the chips were down, there our firm had the resources for our clients, no matter what, to secure the justice they deserve. I felt like I could take on anything because the firm was going to be behind me every step of the way.

LD: That’s beautiful. Mr. Gustafson, how about you?

James Gustafson: Cam just told you the story about somebody that had to go home because of a family emergency and then a bunch of people step up and help when you really need them in a time crunch. It's a lot to ask of someone who doesn't know the case; you're asking them to cram, to be fluent in the language of that case, understand the issues and, in a short period of time, get in front of people and be persuasive. That's a big ask.

LD: Huge.

JG: Our firm is full of people who are willing to do that. So, I'm thinking about my first real tobacco trial. I was going to go to trial with my old law partner, Bill Norton. A couple of months before trial, Bill’s dad died. Then, the Wednesday before trial, Bill’s mom went into the hospital. She was very sick. Bill was worried about his mom. He's worried about the trial, but he knew where he needed to be. I said, "Bill, you only get one mom."

So, then I knew I had to get a continuance of the trial. But I'll never forget – the judge talked to another judge that I tried a malpractice case in front of and that judge told my tobacco judge, "Oh, Jimmy can do it on his own." So, the judge comes back the next day and says, "We're going be starting trial on Monday."

I felt like I could take on anything because the firm was going to be behind me every step of the way.

LD: Oh, wow.

JG: Now I'm picking up all these witnesses that I didn't have before. And just like what happened with Cam, my law partner David Sales showed up on Sunday and we started picking the jury on Monday morning.

LD: Wow. What stands out to you about the trial itself?

JG: A lot of people don't know the story of what the tobacco industry did. The companies knew, of course, because it was their business model to lie about what they knew about the dangers of their product. They documented everything, and they wrote beautifully. But I was largely unfamiliar with a lot of those internal company documents before that trial, because I was handling the medicine and the fact witnesses, not the witnesses who would tell the story of what the industry did. In one industry document presented to the jury, the author writes, if we do this, “all we will need is a bigger bag to carry the money to the bank." It was shocking. I hadn’t seen that document before it was presented in the trial, so I was seeing it like the jury was seeing it. The eventual foreperson was sitting about six feet from me, and I think we both had the same look on our faces, jaw agape, like, "I can't believe this." I remember she turned her head and looked right in my eyes with that look on her face.

The jury was out about an hour and 15 minutes, and then they knocked and had a verdict. When they knocked that soon I remember telling David, "We lost." And he goes, "Oh no, we didn't." We went back in there and the jury had awarded twice what we asked for. We went right into the punitive damages phase, and they awarded another $72M that afternoon. And that was my first tobacco trial.

LD: That's amazing. What inspired you to do that work?

JG: My father died from lung cancer caused by smoking cigarettes. He had been a long-time smoker who died years after he was finally able to quit, and he was just like these people. I remember thinking, "I can't make this personal. It'll be too emotional for me to make it personal." But that first one was personal. It was a great, great feeling to win.

LD: What do you find most fulfilling about the tobacco cases?

JG: It’s well-documented what these companies did in their effort to continue to sell cigarettes – knowing that a lot of people were going to die as a result of what they were doing – and they celebrated how much money they made doing it. No one should get away with that. That's what those cases are about: accountability. Those companies live forever. They were in existence when our grandparents were children and they're going to be in existence long after you and I are dead. And if they aren't held accountable, they're just going to keep doing the same thing over and over.

LD: Absolutely. And Mr. Scott, what cases stand out to you?

Carter Scott: One case that really sticks with me is one of my first trucking wrongful death cases in federal court. It was a tough one, with some complex legal issues. We had to dig deep into the books to find a unique 'exception to the exception' in the law, which was key to our case. It wasn’t just the legal challenge that made it memorable. It was the young child involved – his grandparents, who were raising him, died in the terrible crash. He was in the vehicle too and witnessed all of it. Afterward, his aunt and uncle took him in. I still hear from them a couple of times a year, which is always nice. The child was just a little guy when I first represented him, and now he's around 12 or 13, and he's doing amazingly well. It’s cases like this, where you end up with a connection that sticks with you, that remind you why you do what you do.

Recently, we had a products liability case that really got to me personally. It involved this incredible little girl who ended up paralyzed, and we were taking on the child car seat manufacturer. As a parent of three little ones myself, all still in car seats, it was tough. The courage of this girl was just amazing, facing life with such a tough challenge. It's one of those situations that really makes you think and sticks with you.

That's what those cases are about: accountability.

LD: How old was she?

CS: She was six when she was injured and now she’s fourteen. About a month before the trial was about to start, her mom died of a heart attack right in front of her.

LD: Oh, my gosh.

JG: Yeah, that little girl had been through a ton.

CS: She’s got an awesome grandmother who rallied the troops. She's just a tough, tough lady, who has made numerous sacrifices to step back in as a full-time parent for her grandchildren.

LD: Looking more recently, are you seeing any trends in your practices right now?

JG: Gun violence is really prevalent. And I’m a gun owner and a hunter. We're working on a shooting case right now where somebody wandered around a resort property with a pistol, waving it and threatening people for nearly an hour before anything was done. He shot at 14 people and killed our client's son, who was just trying to leave after his shift was over and got shot while he was driving.

LD: That's awful. Mr. Kennedy, any trends that you're seeing?

CK: I would say the trends that I have seen in law mirror the challenges that we see in our nation right now. In some respects, we are as divided now as we ever were. What has separated the United States of America from all other nations is the rule of law, entrusted to a fair and impartial judicial system, presided over by nonpartisan objective judges not swayed by political ambition. The two hundred-plus-year experiment of this great republic will not survive if we allow special interests and money to infiltrate our judiciary and the judicial branch of government. The founders realized that there has to be someplace where being right is more important than being powerful and wealthy, a place where fairness trumps strength. In our nation, that place is supposed to be the courtroom. A place where it doesn’t matter how powerful or wealthy you are – the same rules apply to everyone. The deck is not supposed to be stacked. The question for the next generation of lawyers is going to be whether justice is for sale.

LD: What do the three of you enjoy most about working together?

JG: I'd be friends with them if we weren't law partners. They're those kind of people. It's nice working with people that you know can do the job. And that gives me a lot of confidence that I don't have to worry about micromanaging things and because I have equally, if not more, capable partners that are working on it with me. I think that's been a big part of our success – the fact that we work together and work well together.

CK: I'll give you a perfect example of how we are law partners as much as we are brothers. Jimmy and I were in court in Jacksonville and my wife and two young sons were in a car accident. I couldn't have my phone on in court. The first call she made was to Carter. Carter met her at the hospital, and he helped figure out how to get one kid to grandparents and get the other one checked out. By the time I got word of it, everything had been handled. My family was safe. Not very many people can say that about the people they work with.

LD: Would you say that you all have complementary styles as lawyers and strengths as lawyers?

CK: Oh, yeah. We are yin and yang. I would say Jimmy's the textbook field general, marshaling the troops to battle, no matter the odds and no matter the risk, never give up, never give in. I'm the guy, when you're in the scariest environment imaginable, that can find the silver lining of something funny and make you laugh. Although, they did nickname me the “big bear,” which I guess means I’m easy to get along with until I’m not. And Carter is the absolute definition of tactician. He is the guy that rolls his sleeves up, says, "I don't care what the issue is," and the next time you see him, he could teach a PhD-level course on that issue.

CS: They’ve been huge mentors to me. Jimmy's tried every kind of case you can try. He's handled every issue you can handle. I can ask him about anything, and he's got that kind of mind where he remembers it all. He’ll say, "I came upon this issue in a case back in 2006, go look at that, it's in the archives." Or I'll be banging my head against the wall on a technical issue and go to Cam. He has a great way of making things that are very complex, very simple. It's an incredible blessing to work with them. I consider Jimmy and Cam family. There's no other way to put that. If you don't have folks like these guys in your foxhole every day, it’s hard to find success in our profession. When you work with people you love, it really makes all the difference.