This story was originally published in three parts in our weekly newsletter, All Rise.
Kelley|Uustal has won cases that other lawyers and firms refused to handle. How does a firm win cases that other lawyers won’t touch?
John Uustal, one of the founding partners, says that the answer is rooted in attitude. “We do what it takes. We don’t give up.”
The firm does tackle their cases in a non-traditional way. They use science. They demand precision. They have a doctor on staff to review medical data and reports. They prepare their lawyers with rigorous training sessions and targeted focus groups. They work in teams that dissect and analyze the evidence. They’ve developed networks of world-class medical, scientific and engineering experts. And they construct detailed trial strategies that they test exhaustively before they ever set foot inside a courtroom.
The first case that Kelley|Uustal ever tried involved a child burned so horribly that the emergency room doctors who treated him needed psychological counselling to cope with the experience. That little boy was on vacation in Virginia with his parents. They were sitting in an Oldsmobile Cutlass station wagon, stopped at a toll booth, when they felt “a little bump.” A homemade trailer had disconnected from a pickup truck, drifted across four lanes and stopped when it “tapped” the station wagon.
But, somehow, the Oldsmobile burst into flames, engulfing everyone inside.
As rescuers loaded that little boy onto a helicopter, his father suspected that it was going to be the last time he saw his son. He yelled after the helicopter, “I love you.” He kept yelling until the helicopter was so far away, he couldn’t see it.
The story of that horrific accident is one that every Kelley|Uustal lawyer knows. It’s a sort of parable about unscrupulous corporate greed, and what it takes to get justice. Because Kelley|Uustal did something no one else had ever done in trial. They discovered a new piece of evidence, and they got it admitted in court. It was about an internal memo written by a GM engineer, and it revealed the shocking truth: GM had performed a “value analysis” to determine how much to spend on fuel systems and calculated that it would only be worth it to GM to prevent these fires if it could do it for less than $2.20 per car.
Justice was done in that trial. The jury found the station wagon defective and returned a verdict for $60 million.
After their first trial, Robert W. Kelley and John J. Uustal continued trying cases together and founded Kelley|Uustal. They set out to create a different kind of law firm, a firm that put people first. And they kept on winning the most difficult cases.
Kelley won a stunning $300 million jury verdict against Phillip Morris USA on behalf of a woman who developed debilitating, life-threatening emphysema. It left her gasping for breath, always fearing what would happen if her breathing machine failed.
It was the largest individual award for a former smoker in Florida’s history.
Uustal won a $50 million verdict for a football coach and former Marine who was paralyzed in a car crash. Kelley won $14.6 million for a critically injured truck driver. Uustal won $7 million for a mother whose daughter died after their HMO denied a CT scan. Kelley won a $38.5 million verdict for a man who ended up in a vegetative state after anesthesia errors in a surgical center.
With each case, they’ve tried to improve. They’ve incorporated state-of-the-art forensic tools—from material failure analysis to reverse engineering—to identify underlying design flaws. And they’ve developed an expansive training regimen to develop the capabilities of every attorney in the firm.
“The harder it gets,” says Uustal, “the better you have to be.”
Their trial skills training system is based on a methodology developed by the military and made famous by the movie “Top Gun.” During the Vietnam War, new pilots were being killed in shocking numbers. But the Navy realized that if a pilot survived his first few dogfights, that pilot would likely survive the war.
They devised what they called the Fighter Weapons School, or Top Gun training, in order to give pilots the experience of those first few dogfights without the risk. They put their pilots through mock dogfights without live ammunition. It worked. The survival rate of Navy pilots soared.
And something similar happened with the young lawyers at Kelley|Uustal.
Kelley|Uustal lawyers use their Top Gun inspired training facility to prepare for trials.
On a recent Wednesday night, Uustal and other lawyers, along with the firm’s medical expert and technical staff, watched two focus groups “deliberate” like juries.
The Kelley|Uustal client lost with both groups. The real trial was three weeks away. The attorney in the case would take part in another focus group in Tallahassee, where the trial was to be held, to see how her presentation—modified based on the first group’s comments—played before a hometown crowd.
“I’m not worried yet,” Uustal told her, after the groups were sent home and the attorneys had a chance to review what had been said. “If it happens again in Tallahassee, then we have to rethink.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have taken this case,” said one of the younger lawyers.
“We only take cases for people who deserve to win,” Uustal retorted. “Just worry about being good enough to come through.”
And that, in a nutshell, is why Kelley|Uustal takes cases that other firms won’t. “If the case is righteous, the family is desperate, then the legal system has to work for them. We have no choice; we have to find a way to be good enough to win against this heart-stopping corporate power.”
The cases they’ve worked on have seldom, if ever, been simple or easy; many have been drawn-out fights, many have left them teetering on the edge of failure and financial ruin. But they’ve plowed on, and they’ve assembled a team that will do so right along with them. Not for the glory or personal success, they say. It’s to help people who’ve been betrayed and lied to, who have been left to die by corporations operating under the belief that nobody can afford to fight them.
Uustal doesn’t want any of their lawyers to ever forget that. So, just inside the front door of the Kelley|Uustal building, he had these words carved into the wall: “To honor a sacred trust. To stand, and not to yield, no matter the odds.”
Kelley|Uustal litigates cases that other attorneys deem too risky, too expensive or too massive in scope. Defendants with almost limitless resources can punish law firms by trying to put them out of business by making it breathtakingly expensive and incredibly time-consuming to litigate against them. Call 954.287.3068 to discuss referring your clients’ catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases to Kelley|Uustal.