insurance defense lawyer

89 – Michael M. Guerra – From Guts to Glory

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with McAllen, TX trial attorney, Michael M. Guerra, to discuss his multiple 7 and 8-figure verdicts & settlements, recent “monster” settlement in a “legally tough case,” and advice on how to achieve verdicts like these in your cases.

Cowen and Guerra begin the episode by discussing Guerra’s background and how he got into doing plaintiff’s work. Guerra begins by explaining that he had an Allstate defense firm job waiting for him after law school and was “quickly terminated,” citing that his heart was not in it. Seeing as he was married right before starting law school, had a baby on the way and a mortgage to pay, he quickly took a job as a court-appointed lawyer; a position leading him to over 100 jury verdicts.

In 1995, Guerra was appointed Guardian Ad Litem in a death case in Plainview, TX, where he would meet Mikal Watts. This meeting would ultimately lead to Guerra opening Watts’s McAllen office, where we would work alongside Watts before going off on his own.

“Pushing trials and then just going in there and watching good defense lawyers do what they did. I learned a lot [from them].” – Michael M. Guerra

Guerra then goes into a harrowing story of a case he took on just after going off on his own; a case involving the death of his friend’s father, a high-ranking Sergeant Major in the Army who was killed after his RV exploded when he lit his morning cigarette. The explosion was due to a gas leak in the RV trailer.

Guerra began the case by enlisting the help of several experts; namely Mike Schultz (Illinois) to look at the trailer and Tim Dunn (Georgia) to investigate the gas system. Shortly after beginning the case, a call from a Sheriff’s deputy would change everything for Mike. “He [said], ‘Hey, Guerra, I’ve got to tell you. When we got into the trailer…we found the [gas] burner in the ON position.’” Understanding that the Sergeant Major had most likely left the stove on by accident, Mike’s original thought of a defect or leak causing the explosion was called into question. He couldn’t believe it.

Continuing past this unfortunate revelation, Mike began researching the trailer and oven manufacturers and came upon an interesting, and ultimately crucial, piece of information: the company sold the exact same trailer in Australia with one key difference, their stoves contained a “flame failure device.” This device, which automatically shuts off the gas once the flame goes out, was absent from American models of this trailer; a safety feature that would’ve cost the company only 99 cents per burner to install.

That case consumed me for 10 months, [as] we got it set for trial.” – Michael M. Guerra

The case was settled a week into trial for an amazing result and, more importantly, saw the trailer manufacturer agree to include the “flame failure device” safety feature in all future models.

The two then move on to discussing Guerra’s latest case out of the Port of Brownsville; a case involving “ship breaking,” the process of dismantling a ship to reuse parts or extract materials, a flash fire, and 2 men who suffered significant burns (one who was burned on over 80% of his body and passed away).

After discussing details of the case including the ship owner filing a Limitation of Liability Act, getting removed to federal court, and then returning to state court, the two begin to discuss Guerra’s invaluable 2-day, 36-person mock trial, which gave him the confidence to ask for huge numbers ($250-$300 million) in voir dire; a task that, Guerra confessed, scared him.

“It took a lot, for me personally, to [ask] for that kind of money; knowing people would throw hand grenades at me.” – Michael M. Guerra

When everything was said and done, calmed and confident from his meditations, prayers, and with some last-minute motivation from a Nick Rowley CD in his car on the morning of trial, Guerra couldn’t wait to get started. The jury was selected on Friday, presenting evidence was scheduled to begin on Monday, yet they would not have a chance to begin, as the case was settled on Saturday evening.

Cowen then shifts the conversation to what Guerra did to pressure the defense in the case. Guerra responds, “most jurisdictions from coast to coast have laws that create a duty for insurance carriers to use good faith when settling cases. In Texas, we call it the Stower’s Doctrine, which says that if an insurance company refuses to settle a case, that reasonably should have been settled within policy limits, the insurer can sue that carrier and they can be on the hook for the entire amount of verdict even above their policy limits.”

“It’s an everchanging, very dynamic area of law, in my opinion” – Michael M. Guerra

Guerra closes the discussion by talking about how he hired several different policy lawyers, including coverage lawyers specializing in reading insurance contracts, to help draft a demand to the carrier. “That really paid off in the end,” he says as he reflects on the impact of hiring those lawyers, including a quick note on the defense commenting on how expertly done the demands had been.

This podcast episode also covers the importance of working with and learning from great lawyers, advice for handling “monster” cases, why you should give your cell phone number to everyone, and much more.

Guest Bio

Michael M. Guerra was born and raised in McAllen, Texas. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas A&M University in College Station and a law degree from Texas Southern University in Houston. While at A&M, he was a member of the Corps of Cadets. In law school, Mr. Guerra was an American Jurisprudence Award recipient in Constitutional law. Mr. Guerra has been licensed to practice law since 1993. He is certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Personal Injury Trial Law and has served as a member of the Exam Commission. Mr. Guerra began his career by successfully trying dozens of criminal trials to jury verdict. He transitioned his practice to representing plaintiffs in civil litigation, including representing hundreds of landowners in an aquifer contamination case and representing the Plaintiffs in America’s first Ford Explorer – Firestone tire case to reach a jury. Since then, his efforts have been instrumental in compelling safety improvements in product manufacturing and premises management. Over his almost 30 year career, Mr. Guerra has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in recoveries for his deserving clients. His efforts have achieved astonishing results, including a $33 million injury verdict which was the record verdict in Texas for a case of its type, as well as multiple settlements of more than $20 million.

Mr. Guerra has been featured as a speaker in numerous civil litigation seminars and his articles have been featured in national publications. His cases have been profiled by, or he has been quoted by numerous major news organizations such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Fox News.

Mr. Guerra is a fellow in the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA,) as well as the Attorney Information Exchange Group (AIEG). He has been named Texas Monthly – Texas Super Lawyer in multiple and consecutive years and he was named to The National Trial Lawyers – Top 100 Trial lawyers. Mr. Guerra is on the Advisory Board of the Texas Agriculture Lifetime Leadership (TALL) program and is on the Advisory Board of the McAllen Pregnancy Center. He is also a member of the President’s Board of Visitors for the Cadet Corps at Texas A&M University. Mr. Guerra was selected as the 2018 Ronald D. Secrest Outstanding Trial Lawyer Award recipient by The Texas Bar Foundation. The award recognizes a trial lawyer who, in his or her practice, has demonstrated high ethical and moral standards and has demonstrated exceptional professional conduct, thus enhancing the image of the trial lawyer.

Michael Guerra is married to Mindy Guerra and has three children.

 

58 – Nick Rowley – Brutal Honesty

In this long-awaited podcast, Michael sits down with renowned trial lawyer Nick Rowley. They discuss Nick’s journey to success, how he came up with “brutal honesty,” his book “Running With the Bulls,” the secret to settling high value cases, saying “no” to the defense, and Nick’s advice for how to become a better trial lawyer.

The conversation begins with Nick sharing his path to becoming the record-breaking trial lawyer he is today. Nick describes himself as a “juvenile delinquent” when he was a child. He was bullied a lot in school and expelled from every school he attended. After graduation, he decided to join the military to “kill bad guys,” but ended up becoming a medic. It was this role that fueled him with purpose. Using his GI Bill, Nick finished his bachelor’s degree and attended law school to continue his desire to help others, which he describes as an addiction.

Nick was never afraid to take tough cases to trial and losing, because he grew up getting beat up. He adds that even if he does lose, he learns more from his losses than his wins and they help make him a better lawyer. Michael echoes this sentiment and agrees that losses hurt in the short-term, but don’t bother him in the long run.

The conversation shifts when Michael shares how he’s noticed most top trial lawyers weren’t “born with a silver spoon in their mouth,” to which Nick wholeheartedly agrees. “It’s about life experience,” Nick states. He goes on to explain how if you’ve never had to work hard, experience failure, been afraid, or gone without, you don’t have the same “hunger” as someone who has. Nick emphasizes the importance of inner drive and notes trial lawyers who grew up without anything know if they don’t put in the work, no one else is going to do it for them. Michael also explains how it’s easier to feel comfortable in a client’s home when you’re used to the environment most of them live in. Both share stories of getting to know clients on a personal level and how this translates to a successful jury verdict.

Michael then transitions by asking Nick which case he is most proud of in his established career. Instead of talking about his largest verdict, he shares a story of a smaller verdict on a particularly challenging case. After being called upon by a lawyer having severe health issues the day before his trial was set to begin, Nick flew out to Santa Monica to help get the case continued. The defense lawyer was uncooperative and lacked the slightest bit of sympathy for the attorney, so Nick decided to try it without any prior knowledge of the case. His description of voir dire and addressing what he saw as the pain points of the case with brutal honesty is riveting and concludes with a $1.5 million verdict based solely on non-economic damages.

Nick is highly regarded as a trial lawyer for many reasons, but he is probably most famous for coining the term “brutally honest” in jury selection. Nick shares the story of how he came up with the term and explains why it works so well. He emphasizes the importance of asking jurors to define “brutal honesty” themselves, then asking them to please be brutally honest with you. This strategy has made a huge difference in Nick’s jury selection process. As an example, Michael role plays as a juror who doesn’t believe in money for pain. Through this example, Nick shows how he would address a juror with these views. Michael and Nick both agree stereotyping jurors immediately is an ineffective strategy and should be avoided.

The conversation shifts into a discussion of Nick’s book, “Running With the Bulls.” Michael inquires as to why Nick decided to write a book about settling cases when he is most famous for trying cases. Nick answers simply, “I do settle cases.” Nick insists the secret to settling cases for high value is “having the balls to go to trial.” He describes his frustration with not getting paid after a jury verdict and started thinking of ways to preemptively strike against this, so as soon as he gets his jury verdict he is “able to collect it immediately.” This resulted in Nick crafting a process to “expose the bullshit” and the insurance company puppet masters, a process he shares with fellow plaintiff attorneys to help raise the bar for everyone.

Michael shares the chapter of the book which resonated with him the most, “The Power of No.” He explains how he still feels bad for saying “no” to the defense, even though he knows better. Nick believes most trial lawyers are gentle, accommodating people by nature. He shares a strategy for re-framing this mindset when it comes to the defense, ending with, “They are the enemy, because they’re working for the enemy … be kind and accommodating. But when it comes to money, don’t hold anything back.”

The two transition into a discussion of criteria for accepting cases. Nick states there aren’t criteria. For him it is asking himself – Do I feel something inside? Is there something I can do for this person? Can I imagine myself standing in front of the jury? He notes that in an ideal world, he would only work on large cases, but argues the small cases are just as important, stating “If I’m not willing to take these cases, who else is?” For example, a case where a child was killed in a state with a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages is still a case worth fighting for. Nick emphasizes the need for industry leaders to set an example for other lawyers by taking on these worthy cases, even if they don’t lead to a huge payout.

The conversation ends with Michael asking Nick what he thinks a lawyer needs to do to be the next Nick Rowley. Nick states, “I want the lawyer who has the drive to do whatever it takes.” He emphasizes the importance of learning everything available from industry experts, listing off a multitude of names including Keith Mitnik, David Ball, Randi McGinn, and many more. He adds that having the guts to try difficult cases, learning from your losses, and breaking the mold are incredibly important in the journey to becoming a successful trial lawyer.

If you’d like to learn more from Nick Rowley, subscribe to the Trial By Human and Trial By Women list serves, attend his seminars, or visit his website to find more information about bringing Nick in on a case. You can also support Nick’s political efforts to fight the $250,000 cap on non-economic damages by visiting fairnessact.com.

This podcast also covers taking care of yourself during trial, lifting state caps on non-economic damages, the pain of trying a wrongful death case, where Nick is trying to improve, and so much more.

 

BACKGROUND ON NICK ROWLEY

Many consider Nicholas C. Rowley to be the most accomplished trial lawyer of his generation. He has extensive courtroom experience representing victims of serious injuries and medical malpractice, especially those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, spinal injuries, and chronic pain. In 2009 and 2010, the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA) named Nick as a finalist for its prestigious “Trial Lawyer of the Year” award. Nick was also recognized by the Los Angeles Daily Journal for winning a “Top Verdict of 2010” for his $31.6 million jury verdict for the victim of a traumatic brain injury. In 2012, Nick was a finalist for the “Consumer Attorney of the Year” award, given by CAOC (Consumer Attorneys of California). In 2009, the Consumer Attorneys of San Diego awarded Nick its “Outstanding Trial Lawyer” award. In 2013, Nick was honored with the organization’s top award – “Outstanding Trial Lawyer of the Year“.  Also Some of Nick’s other recent successes include a record-setting $74,525,000 verdict for a victim of medical malpractice, a $38,600,000 jury verdict for a young man who fell from a hotel balcony while intoxicated, a $17,000,000 win for woman who suffered a mild traumatic brain injury caused by a fall from a hotel window and a $13,860,000 win for a mild traumatic brain injury caused by an automobile crash.

Nick has served as an instructor at Gerry Spence’s famed Trial Lawyers College and delivers keynote addresses nationwide on his revolutionary approach to voir dire and damages. Other lawyers, faced with low settlement offers from insurance companies, frequently bring Nick into their cases just before trial. Nick is a relentless warrior who has prevailed in the courtroom time and time again. He prides himself on his caring and empathetic approach to working with his clients and their families, and his ability to help juries find the truth and deliver justice to the injured.

Nick is on the Board of Directors of the Imagination Workshop, which is a non-profit theater arts organization committed to using the unique power of the theater to provide life-changing artistic opportunities to the mentally ill, homeless veterans, senior citizens, and ‘at-risk’ young people. IW programs give troubled people, frequently alienated or overlooked by society, a safe way to express themselves and gain insight that often helps make their lives more successful.

Nick is also on the Honorary Board of Governors of TLC, Los Angeles Trial Lawyers’  Charties, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to make a positive difference in the quality of life for people within the greater Los Angeles area, focusing on issues related to education, children, battered women, persons with disabilities, and homelessness, by providing financial assistance to needy persons and groups in the greater Los Angeles area.

Nick is the author of the book Trial By Human, where he candidly shares his approach that brings brutal honesty and humanity into the courtroom.

 

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