negligence

90 – Sonia Rodriguez – The Trials of War: Tactics, Strategy & Mindset

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with Cowen Rodriguez Peacock partner and attorney, Sonia Rodriguez, to discuss Sonia’s rediscovered inspiration and lessons from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” and the strategies and tactics trial lawyers can utilize from it while still dealing with a pandemic.

Michael opens the episode by telling Sonia about his feelings of frustration about his upcoming case (which is less than a week away at the time of recording) being canceled due to Covid concerns. Sonia responds to this by saying this trend of “getting the rug pulled out from under you,” seems to be the “new normal” for trial lawyers during the pandemic.

The two then begin to discuss how this impacts your case outside of the courtroom, specifically having to invest time and money into a case multiple times due to cancellations, the need to find flexible experts, and the pandemic’s “giant wrench” in your damage evaluations.

“We all know that, even in non-pandemic times, the certainty of a trial date was never really that certain. But now, the prospect of having to prepare multiple times for the trial setting is going to multiply the cost.” – Sonia Rodriguez

The conversation then shifts to what trial lawyers can do in times like these to maximize the value of their cases. Sonia begins by discussing her re-reading of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and its impact on her successes in 2021.

“I’ve been practicing law for almost 25 years, and I’ve never made more money in a one-year period than I have during this pandemic,” Sonia says leading into her first citation from the book (with a notable twist for trial lawyers); “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without [a trial].” This, she notes, is similar to the modern-day strategy, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

Sonia then delves deeper into this concept by discussing how she prepares for war, or in this case trial, by hiring and preparing our experts, paying for exhibits, and (probably most important) laying plans and evaluating her cases strengths and weaknesses.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”– Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

Building on the subject of the importance of evaluating your case, Sonia presents one of her touchstones for case valuation: Remember torts 101, negligence has two parts. She presents that it’s easy to fall into the rut of evaluating your case based on your client’s damage model. However, if you look at your case carefully, based on liability factors you believe, and go to battle fairly evaluating both components, you will add value. Michael agrees with this, adding that if the defense did something really bad, you’re more likely to get a bigger result.

The two continue this conversation with Sonia explaining how mediators only want to talk about low property damage and pre-existing conditions; subjects to which she responds, “I spit on that!” Instead, she wants to talk about this trucking company, how they have no training protocols, how they’ve had the same types of crashes for the last 3 years, and so on; ultimately aiming to change the framework of the conversation to focus on liability.

“No one really knows what a case is worth. There is no magic formula … . If we, in our heart of hearts, believe it’s worth more, we can get more.”– Michael Cowen

Sonia then shifts the conversation to “attacking by fire,” or, in other words, always coming from a position of strength, even if you have weaknesses in a case. Regarding the weaknesses of the defense, however, Michael adds, “you always want conflict in the other room.” We want to add pressure to the other side to the point that they want out. Adding a final point to the subject of “attacking by fire,” Sonia hones in on her “fun” way to strategize; namely finding the pressure point of the defense and exploiting that weakness.

Moving on to discussing and evaluating the actions of the defense, Sonia cites Chapter 9 of “The Art of War,” entitled “Assessing Strategy Based on the Actions of Your Opponent.” Here, Michael and Sonia discuss how noticing aggression, “frenetic” activity, or threatening motions from the defense are clear signs of fear and, more importantly, weakness. “Especially when you respond with calm,” Michael says, “There’s nothing like that calm, quiet confidence.”

On that note of quiet confidence and taking power from the defense, Michael begins to take the conversation in a different route, breaking down his feelings about the results of cases and how that relates to his self-worth as a trial lawyer.

“It’s not that I don’t care about the result, it’s that my self-worth is detached from the result.”– Michael Cowen

This prompts the closing topic of conversation for the episode, mental health in the practice of law. Michael and Sonia discuss the trials and tribulations of their profession including starting and ending trials, letting go of trials (win or lose), the discipline required to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and being compassionate to yourself. “I think perfectionism is something a lot of lawyers struggle with,” Sonia says, “The struggle holds us back.” The two end the episode by sharing their own strategies for coping with the struggles of practicing law and close with a positive note of constantly seeking to be better in their cases, mental health, business, and practice.

This episode also discusses finding the weaknesses in your case and how to overcome them, the importance of obtaining key information during the initial client meeting, and trusting your intuition.

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

41 – Malorie Peacock – Resources, Doctor Referrals, and Process-based Focus

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Malorie Peacock, for another TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This episode focuses on resources for trial lawyers, doctor referrals, and the process behind highlighting what’s most important to your case.

The first question brought to the table is about what the best resources for newer lawyers starting out in the personal injury trial lawyer world. Michael notes his favorite books today would likely not be his favorites for someone just starting out. Having said that, he recommends starting with books like the AAJ Deposition book by Phillip Miller and Paul Scoptur, pointing to the reality in which 90% of cases are likely going to settle and this book focuses on taking good depositions, increasing the likelihood of a higher value settlement for your clients. He also recommends David Ball’s book, Damages 3, which breaks down how to argue a case in a logical and coherent format, avoiding holes in your story, as well as Rules of the Road by Rick Friedman and Patrick Malone, that focuses on simplifying cases. As a follow up to reading all these great books which are meant to help simplify cases, Malorie poses the question of why it is important for lawyers just out of law school (where everything is so complex)  to make the transition to presenting to a jury where you have to make things simple, and why it is so difficult. Michael explores this idea and feels that it takes a lot more work to make things simple, and the complexity is what we hide behind to mask our own insecurities. They both agree that complexity and confusion are great defense tools and by presenting a bunch of confusing ideas to a jury could end up playing right into the defense’s hands. To top off the discussion about resources, Michael adds several other courses, trial colleges, information exchange groups, and other programs that are offered and can help lay the foundation for up and coming trial attorneys and also suggests choosing an area to really focus on, since no one can really know everything about everything.

Beyond books and seminars, Malorie brings up the idea of going to trials and second chairing trials as another great way to gain real life learning experiences. Michael also describes his approach to pairing up attorneys with each other based on where they are in their career to gain practical experience in the courtroom. It’s also noted, in cases where your might be trying them on your own, it can still be beneficial to bring in other attorneys who have done what you are about to do, to strategize and help you prepare. Malorie talks about a specific instance of this coming up for her, where she plans to help a friend through voir dire in their upcoming case. Michael also reminisces about several times back in his early days, enticing friends to come over and practice voir dire and openings with pizza and beer in exchange for their feedback. Although, these weren’t professionals or experts, this practice did help him get more comfortable with talking to people while getting useful feedback.

Another question from our listeners is about lawyers referring people to doctors and the perceived issue that the people getting referred are not actually injured but are being sent to a doctor who will work up some medical documentation to make them look like they’ve sustained an injury in order to make more money for the lawyer. Michael describes his personal experience with this issue in that, he faces it head on and is upfront about it, thereby avoiding any awkwardness or perceived deviance on his part. For him, it basically boils down to having a client in pain, who asks for advice on what doctor to go see. They’re not sure what doctor to go see. They don’t know any specialists in this area. What should I do? Most people would say, tell them to go see a doctor and give them a name. In other words, if you own it, you’re not ashamed of it, and you haven’t done anything wrong and just talk about it, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. He also points out that he’s never lost a case on this issue. Malorie also notes, whatever you make a big deal about to a jury, is likely going to be what they think needs to be a big deal, and by confronting it in a matter of fact type way, people take your cues that it is not something to harp on but rather, just being human to one another.

The next question from our listeners is why is it so important for lawyers to make the case about the company and not the low-level employee, and how do you do that? Malorie digs right in, talking through how there are really two main reasons why the company is the bigger villain in a case: 1. The company is where the deep pocket is, and 2. Oftentimes, the individual that did something wrong is likeable. It becomes much “easier for people to dislike a company than it is to dislike an individual who made a mistake,” Malorie explains. Furthermore, “when a company puts an individual in a position where it’s inevitable that they’re going to make those mistakes, and it’s inevitable that they’re going to hurt someone, then it really is the company’s fault.” Michael expands on this idea with an example of a defendant driver, who is usually making a mistake over a period of seconds. Whereas companies that don’t have good safety programs and often make choices, not mistakes, over a period of months or years. So, “it’s just harder to forgive them, whereas it’s easy to forgive someone for making a mistake, for taking your eye off the road for a second, for being distracted for a minute, for driving a little too fast. It’s harder to forgive someone for knowing that you need to have a company safety program and you just don’t do it.” Malorie continues to explore the many types of negligence that can be aimed at companies in how they treat their employees (IE: negligent training, negligent supervision, negligent monitoring, negligent entrustment, etc.). They continue to explore the “how” to make the case about the company, which brings up some truly fascinating ideas and tactics.

Michael and Malorie continue to explore several other topics throughout this episode like testing theories and hypotheses, root cause analysis, reassessing your case throughout the process, and the curse of knowledge. They also explore the processes of walking people through your case one step at a time so that on their own, it inevitably leads to the conclusion of who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, what’s right, and what’s wrong. It takes a lot of work to get there, but Michael and Malorie agree, it’s so worth it.

These Table Talk podcasts also could not happen without the interaction and questions that are submitted by our listeners, for which we are eternally grateful for and encourage you to continue to send us your thoughts, ideas, and questions as we love sharing our experiences with them.

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