Episode

54 – Michael O’Neill – Delivering Justice: From UPS Defense Attorney to Plaintiff Trial Lawyer

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with former defense attorney for UPS and current plaintiff attorney, Michael O’Neill. This show covers an array of topics, including the defense’s advantages in catastrophic injury cases, why O’Neill switched sides of the courtroom (and why it made him such a good plaintiff attorney), what companies can’t defend against, and why referring out cases can make you more money.

The episode kicks off with Cowen asking O’Neill why large companies use the same defense firm for cases around the country. O’Neill says the lawyer needs to know a very specific field, know the company well, and have a consistent defense. O’Neill would receive a call in the middle of the night or on a weekend and would need to travel immediately to the scene of a crash. UPS would refer to this as “boots on the ground.” He emphasizes that marshalling evidence while it’s fresh is pertinent to the success of any case. O’Neill shares a story of a time where he went to the scene and pointed out a detail the police missed which would have hurt their case on liability. He was also there while the police were writing their reports and describes how he could influence what was written. Cowen and O’Neill discuss the defense’s role in shaping the narrative of the case from the start, the role of psychology with the first responders, the defense’s advantage in this, and what plaintiff lawyers CAN (but most DON’T) do to combat this.

Cowen then asks what everyone’s thinking; why did O’Neill switch to the plaintiff’s side? O’Neill replies that the curiosity has always been there. He then describes a scenario, not uncommon to him, where he had a defense verdict on a case he believed “that’s an easy 7-figure case that should have been won and we zeroed them.”

The conversation shifts to what companies CAN’T defend. Both agree on exposing poor training programs as the key to winning “nuclear verdicts” in commercial vehicle and trucking cases. They discuss this and other factors which make the case about the 3 months before, as opposed to the 5 seconds before the crash. O’Neill then brings up a defense trucking podcast by FreightWaves which recently discussed the defense’s fear of “the second lawyer” and the impact of referral attorneys on the insurance industry. As a “second lawyer” himself, Cowen shares a recent example of an insurance company who learned once he became involved all prior negotiations at a much lower number were out the window.

One of the most important details for a successful catastrophic injury lawyer to accomplish is to make the case about the company, not the individual. Cowen shares a story of a case where the CMV driver was high on meth at the time of the accident. The case against the driver was already strong, but when asked by a colleague why he was working so hard on the case Cowen replied, “It doesn’t take much money to teach a meth head a lesson. It needs to be about the company and what it takes to teach the company a lesson.” O’Neill echoes this with another great example of a strong case that he made even stronger by putting in the work.

O’Neill and Cowen then praise trucking trial lawyer Joe Fried and how instrumental he has been on creating the current “abundance mentality” of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys (ATAA). The ATAA abundance mentality encompasses the idea that there are plenty of trucking cases to go around, and we all perform better when we share information and establish good law. “The tide raises good ships,” O’Neill eloquently responds. When comparing this to the defense bar, O’Neill says the difference is night and day. Information on the defense side is kept from one another because there are fewer clients and essentially everyone can be your competition. He goes as far as to say that the way the plaintiff’s bar shares information “terrifies the defense.”

They then move into a discussion on the transition process from defense to plaintiff lawyer. Cowen asks O’Neill what it has been like changing into a role where he works at a firm that now funds cases and isn’t paid by the hour. O’Neill discusses some transitional difficulties, but insists he has been made confident through his experiences as a defense attorney, stating, “You start giving big checks to mediocre lawyers and you start to wonder, why am I not on the other end of this conversation?” Cowen then describes his history of funding cases by sharing his expertise in finance management and smart firm growth.

The conversation concludes with a discussion on package car cases- What makes them different from trucking cases? Why can they be so complicated? O’Neill highlights the necessity for specialized knowledge in this area, stating, “There’s a million ways to skin a cat, but you have to know how to skin the cat.” Because shipping companies usually work with subcontractors as delivery drivers, it can be difficult to make the case about the company. O’Neill shares valuable insight into how he’s overcome this barrier.

This podcast also covers efficient docket size, the order of your depositions, networking, direct to public marketing versus B2B marketing, and much more.

 

ABOUT THE GUEST

A northeastern Pennsylvania native, Attorney Michael O’Neill handles catastrophic injury litigation, including representing those who were in motor vehicle and truck accidents, medical malpractice, product liability, and premises liability. A former senior litigation associate at DLA Piper LLP, and a founder partner at a national litigation boutique law firm, O’Neill has served as first chair trial attorney in over 25 jury trials, or their equivalent, in ten different states. All of these complex litigation matters involved disputes of seven figures or more and resulted in successful verdicts or settlements.

With more than 20 years of complex litigation experience, O’Neill has appeared multiple times on NBC-10 television in Philadelphia, numerous radio broadcasts and national podcasts as a legal expert and to discuss cases he is handling on behalf of catastrophically injured people.

O’Neill is admitted to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of New Jersey, and the Supreme Court of New York, as well as the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Middle District of Pennsylvania, Western District of Pennsylvania, District of New Jersey, and the Northern District of Texas.

O’Neill also has a distinguished military service record as a veteran of the United States Army. He is an honors graduate of the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School and the U.S. Army Aviation and Warfighting Center, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and trained to fly helicopters for the Army and the Pennsylvania National Guard. He remained active in the National Guard until 2005 and is a member of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, one of the oldest recognized organizations in the United States military.

O’Neill earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Scranton and received his Juris Doctor from the Villanova University School of Law in 1998. While at Villanova, he focused on litigation-related curriculum and after graduation taught trial advocacy for seven years as an adjunct professor. A lifelong athlete, he played collegiate football and baseball and was inducted into the Wayne/Pike County Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2018. He also has held a civilian aviation license for more than 30 years.

Michael O’Neill joined the offices of Fellerman & Ciarimboli in Philadelphia on March 1st.. He can be reached by phone at (215)776-5070 or by email at mjo@fclawpc.com.

 

53 – Malorie Peacock – The Verdict Is In! Post Trial Discussion

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen talks with his law partner Malorie Peacock about their recent jury verdict. (In Episode 51 they discussed trial prep and included how they were preparing for an upcoming trial.) This time they will be discussing their $3,420,000 jury verdict, what worked well, how they overcame the challenges of this case, and the power “of a trial to heal.”

Malorie starts by sharing the background on the case. This was a construction site incident where their client was working when a trench collapsed and killed him. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) found the company did not provide the required trench protection. (For our listeners outside of Texas, Michael explains that in Texas there is optional workers comp, so the company did not have workers comp at the time and he was able to directly sue the employer.)

At face value, this may seem “like an easy win.” However, there were challenges in the case. The first was the lack of eyewitnesses, which was an obstacle for liability, so the case required the use of witness statements. OSHA keeps their witness statements anonymous, so the ambiguity made it more difficult than using a live person. Because of this Michael and Malorie knew there would be doubt in the minds of the jurors, so Michael had to use Keith Mitnik’s philosophy “doubt is not an out” in order to address the issue of anonymous statements that didn’t answer all of the questions in this incident.

Another challenge on the case, which related to damages, was the client being undocumented and working under a different name. This was “the elephant in the room,” which Michael and Malorie discuss in detail explaining why they chose to share this information in trial (even if most lawyers fight to have this excluded). Michael also points out his absolute shock with the defense alleging this was a sham marriage just for papers and provides insight on how a lack of photos and the appearance of the widow was used to argue this.

After sharing the challenges of the case, the topic shifts to jury selection and how a large portion of their jury panel knew about OSHA. Michael also shares his disappointment to his question “who would like to be on the jury,” but Malorie felt differently and was very impressed with the response. In this trial Michael used Sari de la Motte’s inclusive voir dire, shares how it was received by the jury panel, and the result of it making the defense “be reactive instead of proactive.”

Using visuals to educate the jurors was also important, but this doesn’t happen overnight. They discuss how they planned the visuals, why you need to show them to your experts, and talk about how they can be used in an expert testimony. When you use PowerPoint in trial it forces you to stick to a visual plan, but with poster boards you can decide IF you want to use it AND when. Malorie loved when a juror would ask one of them to “move a little bit over” so they could read a poster board. And Michael loved that the jury felt comfortable enough to ask them to move out of the way. This showed them the jury wanted to understand the information and knew why it was important to see it.

The podcast ends with an emotionally raw and incredibly honest conversation about the power “of a trial to heal.” Malorie shares the moment when the jury put money in the blanks the client “started sobbing uncontrollably” and how powerful it was for both her and their client. Trial is “the last stage of closure” in a death case. It is extremely significant and impactful for your client.

This podcast also covers the interesting questions the jury asked and how those questions were answered, feedback from the two alternate jurors, what you can learn from the defense voir dire, dealing with spacing issues in the courtroom, the surprising link between OSHA and high school theatre sets, the process of building trust with your client, the differences between an injury case and a death case, as well as other trial details you will want to hear.

 

52 – Karonnie Truzy – Iron Sharpens Iron: How Practicing in a Tough Jurisdiction Makes You A Better Lawyer

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with attorney Karonnie Truzy from North Carolina. This show covers everything from contributory negligence, to gross negligence, making your case about the company, 1983 civil rights cases, and the simple things attorneys can do to help with diversity and inclusion in our industry.

The conversation starts with a discussion on how to maintain a work-life balance, as it is certainly a big issue for the legal industry. Simply put Karonnie believes, “people make time for things that are important to them.” He shares how hard his paralegals work to make sure travel takes place in the middle of the week so on weekends he can be with his family. His law firm is also supportive and will proactively tell him to take some personal time when he’s spent long hours at the office (a rarity you hear about at big firms). And he shares a great example of their care for him when he injured his Achilles last year.

Contributory negligence is the next topic discussed and an important one. North Carolina is 1 of 4 states with contributory negligence, essentially stating if you are found to be ANY percent at fault and responsible in ANY way for your injury you cannot recover damages. It is a complete bar, which is different from other states with a comparative negligence between the plaintiff and defendant. “Wow. So how do you deal with that?” Michael asks (clearly the same thought on everyone’s mind). It starts by accepting cases on a case by case basis. But it’s also incredibly important to do a lot of investigation work at the very beginning from talking with witnesses and law enforcement, to gathering video evidence. And while contributory negligence is difficult Karonnie also discusses “last clear chance” and “gross negligence” as ways to get around it.

Michael and Karonnie then discuss what can be done to make a case about a company and not just the driver in order to make it a bigger case. To begin Karonnie shares why it is important to have everything you need in discovery from employee handbooks to training materials. JJ Keller is often referenced, so Michael adds why these materials can be useful to plaintiff attorneys by giving an example of how his law partner Malorie Peacock is using the JJ Keller training to learn what the rules are and what people should be trained on for a unique explosion case. Karonnie then explains how he organizes his depositions and uses 30(b)(6) to know he is deposing the right people in the case (30(b)(6) is discussed in detail in episode 30 with Mark Kosieradzki).

Karonnie also handles 1983 civil rights cases, which leads to a discussion of qualified immunity with police officers. You’re usually not the attorney riding in on a white horse and most jurors already believe your client did something wrong. So how do you handle juror perception? In most cases like this the police department will hold a press conference and news stories will be shared, so Karonnie will use this footage to ask whomever made those statements “was this truthful, was this actually what happened?” He does this in front of the jury, so they can see how these statements before a proper investigation can skew their perception because the information was inaccurate. The same inaccurate information also aids in mean comments on media articles, which Karonnie purposely does not read. However, the conversation comes full circle when Michael shares he reads those mean comments to learn about hurdles he has on a case and Karonnie states he does this with focus groups whether it’s a civil rights case or a trucking case.

Explaining the dynamic of a family after they lose a loved one is critical in our industry. But sometimes we as attorneys have to explain to a jury why the value of life is the same no matter who it is. If our client was not the perfect person and lost their life, “we take away the opportunity for redemption” Michael poetically states. Karonnie responds with a heartfelt example of a case where in deposition the daughter of a deceased client describes why she is upset about the loss of her father when her relationship with him was not great. It’s a story that will undoubtedly resonate with everyone and may bring some to tears as they realize just how precious every day is in life.

The topic of “diversity and inclusion” is often discussed in the legal industry. Karonnie recently finished his 3 year role as Chief Diversity Officer for the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and shares how this role was created to work to on this issue. But change doesn’t just happen, it has to be real and not “just words on a paper” he explains. Michael shares his simple, yet effective, way of simply inviting new people to join a group. This leads Karonnie to describe the impact cliques can have within an organization, or when attending a CLE, and why it’s important for attorneys to realize when this happens you leave people out and it can create a problem. It’s a truly honest and open conversation on what can sometimes be an uncomfortable topic to discuss.

This podcast also covers sudden emergency defense, how the AAJ Trucking Litigation Group helps with industry standards, using the commercial driver’s license manual to show what is reasonable in adverse weather conditions, and so much more.

 

ABOUT THE GUEST

Karonnie Truzy is a North Carolina attorney where he practices as a Partner with the law firm of Crumley Roberts, LLP. Karonnie has been licensed to practice in the state of North Carolina since 2001 in both state and federal courts and he concentrates his practice on handling
complex injury cases, commercial motor vehicle cases, and wrongful death claims throughout the state of North Carolina in Federal and State Court. Karonnie earned an undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg (Upstate) where he played basketball and further earned his Juris Doctorate from the Wake Forest University School of Law. He is dedicated to providing quality legal representation to each of his clients has helped his clients obtain successful results throughout North Carolina.

 

Karonnie is an accomplished attorney and has received a 10/10 Superb AVVO rating. He is listed in the Best Lawyers publication and serves on various boards on legal associations in North Carolina. Karonnie has most recently served as the Chief Diversity officer for the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the state’s largest Plaintiff’s bar. Karonnie has a passion for the practice of law but more importantly providing legal guidance to clients in need of assistance.

 

Karonnie is actively involved in his community and church. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his family, working within his church, basketball and more basketball! Karonnie is married and has one daughter and twin boys.

 

Education

• Wake Forest University School of law, Juris Doctorate, 2001

Order of the Barristers for Excellence in Trial Advocacy

• University of South Carolina Spartanburg, B.S., 1998

Professional Affiliations
North Carolina Bar Association
United States District Court for the Eastern, Western, and Middle Districts of North Carolina
United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
American Association for Justice
Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys
North Carolina Advocates for Justice

51 – Malorie Peacock – Preparing Yourself and Your Case for Trial

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen talks with his law partner Malorie Peacock to discuss trial prep. Trial prep has been a topic many of our viewers asked to hear more about, so this episode covers everything from file organization, to witness prep, opening and voir dire, visuals, your exhibit list, and the mental toll trial can have on you personally.

To begin, Malorie starts with how important it is to be organized. She begins her organization process 30 days out by putting her exhibits together, printing out the jury charge and witness list, then looking at everything and thinking about the game plan. Her goal from there is to create a 1 or 2 page “order of proof for trial” with exhibits, list of witnesses, and the key points to be made in the trial. Michael agrees and shares a common mistake he sees a lot of lawyers make when they “put every possible piece of paper from the case on their exhibit list.” He suggests lawyers ask themselves: A) is this an exhibit necessary for the jury to see, or B) do I need this to protect the record? Then review how many exhibits you have and what is their order. “If the focus of your case is trying to get the medical bills in your case, then your first exhibit is a summary of all of the medical bills and the medical treatment in the past … so the jury knows when they open the binder ‘this is what we’re focusing on and this is the focus of the case.’” Malorie continues.  Michael also shares how he organizes his complete list of exhibits on his laptop, so if at any point in trial he needs to pull up an exhibit on the fly he can quickly find it.

It takes a lot of time and energy to write a good opening and prepare for voir dire. Which is why Michael and Malorie discuss how changes in your story throughout a case, can affect the opening and voir dire work you do early on. Michael gives an example of this on a case he will try in February with Malorie. Months before trial they worked with a consultant on the case, had a theory on the case, graphics already prepared, then after they developed all of the evidence they decided it wasn’t the best story to tell. Creating a new story and theory may be extremely difficult to do after investing lots of time, money, and energy, however it’s an important part of the trial preparation process.

Which leads to a conversation on storyboarding, creating visuals, and how Sari de la Motte helped Michael rethink his use of the phrase “a simple case” when talking to the jury and using visuals. Malorie brings up just how important it is to tell your witnesses where they should be looking when they answer questions. We as attorneys may think it’s obvious a witness should talk to the jury when answering a question, but in reality it’s normal for you to look at the person you are talking to. “I think people believe that trial lawyers are natural public speakers, but if you’ve ever been to a conference you know that’s not true,” Malorie explains. You might think “it’s only 12 people,” but when your entire case relies on those 12 people, on a really important matter, and your client is watching you, the nerves start to creep in so you have to practice. And practice does not apply simply to speaking, Michael shares his reasoning for adding several solid black slides in his PowerPoint in order to command the attention of the jury when visuals are involved.

Michael then transitions the conversation by expressing his opinions on why every case will have a different order of witnesses. You should determine the order of witnesses based on each case, start strong, think about a witness who can prove the defendant did something wrong, think about when a witness goes on (time of day and when the jury has low energy), and be sure to end with a message of the harm that was caused but a hope of what a verdict can do to help. But emergencies happen and people are late to court, so Malorie reminds you to be flexible.

And the only way you can be flexible is when you are mentally and emotionally prepared for trial. Malorie suggests you spend time with family and decompress the day before trial. Which Michael agrees with because you “spend so much time during trial staying up until 2 am” preparing for that next day, you cannot risk the exhaustion and mental fog and need to be in bed at a decent hour and fully rested.

Being aware of your energy after trial, is equally important whether you win or lose the case. You need to take a day off and recognize it is not possible to be 100% on every day. Or maybe you come in to work and just talk to people in your office. But Michael very bluntly shares “it’s hard because when you’re in trial all the other shit piles up” so when you’re out of trial you feel like you need to play catch up. “It’ll wait a day you need to take care of yourself,” he adds. After each case you should re-evaluate the parts that went great and where you can improve in your next trial, but again it’s important to give yourself space. Michael’s NFL quarterback analogy for this is spot on and reminds attorneys not to value yourself differently after a trial, instead focus on the work you put in.

This podcast on trial prep truly is detailed and also discusses: thinking about your clothes, glasses, how to prep lay witnesses, saving money on images by using Google and Adobe, thinking about the Rules of Evidence, and trying cases with other people. And with Michael and Malorie’s jury trial (mentioned in this episode) resulting in a 7-figure verdict, podcast listeners can expect to hear another episode discussing trial soon!

50 – Sari de la Motte – Voir Dire & Opening: Forming The Best Jury Possible

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen invites Sari de la Motte back to the show. Sari was one of our top episodes in 2019, so to celebrate 50 episodes and over 100,000 downloads we invited her to be our first returning guest. This show will cover voir dire, opening, the concept of group communication, and how all of these concepts help you form the best jury for your case.

To start things off, Sari shares that her book “From Hostage to Hero: Captivate the Jury by Setting Them Free” is now available for purchase. She reveals how her desire to help trial lawyers understand why jurors “don’t want to be there” (summoned for jury duty), how to deal with this, and then lead them from their “hostageness – their inability to say no to this process” to choosing to be a part of the jury, was how the idea for the book began. Michael adds how initially this reminded him of Carl Bettinger’s book “Twelve Heroes, One Voice” in that both Carl and Sari believe it is important to help your jury become the hero in the case. But after working with Sari, Michael sees how she focuses more on the hostage aspect, shows you how to release the jury panel from this, works to help you understand how important nonverbal communication can be, and gives practical tips to use in the courtroom.

Jumping right in Michael introduces the highly debated topic of “inclusive voir dire” versus “exclusionary voir dire.” He reveals how in the past he has used exclusionary voir dire to find his bad jurors, but understanding Sari’s thoughts on the “hostage mentality” has made him rethink his voir dire technique. Putting it bluntly Sari gives the example of “when you come in with the mindset of ‘who here is out to kill me and how do I kill them first’ that is like a poison and a disease” which then spreads and has your potential jurors wanting to find a way to get out of being selected for your jury.  A different mindset where you find the people who want to help you can change this and Sari’s analogy involving hiring a new paralegal and sorting through resumes helps put everything into perspective.

Michael pivots the conversation into how important mindset is for trial lawyers. Sari truly believes “how you’re thinking, affects how you act, which affects your results” and explains how the CTFAR model can help. Michael gives the example of his mindset before his upcoming jury trial and how he is reminding himself “jurors are good people and want to do the right thing and help my client.” This example leads to Sari sharing just how useful the mindset of “the jurors love me” was for a client of hers and how the success of this led to a $10 million dollar jury verdict. And if you are thinking “this is bullshit” Sari explains the communication science behind it and why it works.

Moving from mindset back to voir dire, Sari and Michael discuss how frustrated potential jurors are in the jury selection process. When jurors are not sure why they are there and what is happening it’s critical to get to the point and say what they are in court to do. The next step is to then think about voir dire as a group process and not an individual process, because you are there to create a group and you want a group to reach a verdict in your case not 12 individuals. Michael adds how equally important it is to think about the information you share with the group, the order in which you share it, and how you shape the conversation. The order in which you share your information is crucial and your timing is too, which leads to Sari explaining how jurors will immediately think whatever principle or fact (good or bad) you bring up first is the most important part of your case.

Michael wraps up this episode with a discussion on managing energy. He shares his experiences as a trial lawyer by describing his energy level as a young attorney as being extremely high energy at all times, but then when he tried to slow down he came across as “low energy and passionless,” and now he has learned about “managing energy” to keep the jury engaged and never bored. “Ringing the bell” is an engaging way for attorneys to keep the jury on the edge of their seat and is described as a tool for great storytelling in your opening. However, these techniques are not natural and as Michael points out you have to practice before you do this in front of the jury successfully. Practice should not be confused with scripting an opening, so Sari reminds listeners this is for “the ease and the delivery of information not rehearsing it word for word.”

The podcast is filled with additional great advice ranging from the importance of videotaping yourself, why it is imperative to rehearse saying the dollar amount you want a jury to award, thinking about the principles in your case, how journaling can help you in your mindset, using devils advocate questions, thinking about voir dire and how it connects jurors to you in your opening, and so much more. It’s truly a show any attorney will want to listen to more than once.

 

BACKGROUND ON SARI DE LA MOTTE

Sari de la Motte is a nationally recognized coach, speaker, and trial consultant. She has trained extensively with an internationally recognized authority in nonverbal communication and is an expert in nonverbal intelligence.

Sari specializes in helping trial attorneys communicate with jurors.

Sari speaks to audiences of a few dozen people to audiences of over a thousand. A sought-after keynote speaker, Sari is often asked to headline conferences across the United States.

Sari consults with trial attorneys all over the country, assisting with trial strategy, voir dire and opening statement. She conducts mock trials in her studio in Portland, Oregon and assists with jury selection on-site.

Sari has spoken for, and works with, several members of the Inner Circle of Advocates, an invitation-only group consisting of the top 100 trial attorneys in the United States. She’s has been a featured columnist for Oregon Trial Lawyer’s Magazine, Sidebar, and has also written for Washington State Association of Justice, Oregon Criminal Defense Attorney, and other legal publications. She provides CLEs for various state association of justices around the country.  Because of her unique ability to help attorneys communicate their real selves, she has been dubbed “The Attorney Whisperer.”

Sari is regularly interviewed on TV, radio, and in print, and has appeared in the Atlantic, Huffington Post, The Oregonian, Willamette Week and other publications. Her book, From Hostage to Hero: Captivate the Jury by Setting Them Free was released by Trial Guides in November, 2019.

For more information on Sari de la Motte you can visit http://www.saridlm.com/

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