Like a good poker player, Fort Lauderdale attorney Jon Krupnick doesn't place his bet unless he sees a strong chance of winning.
Last year his law firm gambled $7 million of its own money to argue the case for a group of crop growers who said their plants were damaged by a fungicide. It was a magnificent bet. The pot? A $214 million settlement from chemical giant DuPont—the largest in Florida history.
The success made Krupnick $12 million in personal profit and landed him a spot in Forbes magazine last month as the eighth highest paid trial lawyer in the country. His law partners also pocketed millions.
So what's next for the million dollar lawyers? A case with billion dollar potential, of course. The firm will take on two chemical manufacturers whose product is claimed to have caused more than $1 billion in losses to the shrimp industry in Ecuador.
The 15-lawyer firm of Krupnick Campbell Malone Roselli Buser Slama & Hancock may be small, but it has shown it has the gumption, skill and bank account to take on large corporations with deep pockets in class-action lawsuits that represent large numbers of small clients.
Personal injury litigation is a specialty with lots of upside. The Forbes list shows even high-profile names like Johnnie Cochran took a back seat to lawyers like Krupnick.
But this type of law is risky. These lawyers collect a fee only if they win or settle, while attorneys who defend corporations get an hourly fee. Representing plaintiffs can be a lot more profitable, but it means taking a high-stakes gamble. "You have to have a good case and believe in your case," Krupnick said. "You have to make enough of a commitment to give your client a chance. You also have to be smart enough to put resources into areas that get the best results."
Krupnick learned how to calculate risk and reward early in his career.Twenty years ago, when he split with his partners to form his own law firm, he became the nemesis of his old corporate clients.
Unhappy with defending insurance companies, Krupnick set up his one-man shop in a small office in a downtown Fort Lauderdale bank building in 1974 and began filing lawsuits on behalf of injured parties. Over the years, Krupnick's firm grew larger along with his verdicts and settlements.
Today, he and his seven partners occupy a full floor in a four story office building that he owns near the Broward County Courthouse. Car door latches, toy trucks and miniature human skeletons clutter the office with remnants of cases past. Framed newspaper clippings hanging on the walls tell of the firm's involvement in some of the most high-profile cases in Broward.
"He's good at trying long cases," said retired Broward Circuit Judge Arthur Franza in Hollywood, who most recently presided over a Benlate® case. "I knew Jon Krupnick when he just got started and didn't have two pennies to rub together. He's a top-of-the-line attorney. As a plaintiffs' litigation firm, they're as good as you get."
Willing to spend
From the beginning, Krupnick says, he learned a good personal injury lawyer must spend money to make money. In the late 1970's, he sued Outboard Marine Corp. on behalf of two boys who had been thrown overboard in a boat crash. The initial reports indicated the boys were joyriding. But using expanded diagrams of a defective boat part, Krupnick showed the jury how the boat had veered because of bad design.
"It was unheard of to spend $40,000 to prepare a case for trial, but it taught me the importance of demonstrative evidence," he said. "It settled for $650,000. That could buy you 13 houses on Las Olas Isles at the time."
While he's occasionally gambled and lost, he and his partners have had at least 350 big wins. Krupnick's record of more than 120 verdicts and settlements in excess of $1 million places him among the national leaders in personal injury litigation.
Paying for the next case
Of the profits he and his partners collect, a portion goes toward funding the next big case. The firm has never taken out a bank loan, nor do its lawyers have expense accounts. Expenses are paid directly out of their pockets. Firm revenues for the past several years have ranged between $10 million and $12 million.
When a client walks in the door, Krupnick sizes up the merits and the cost of proving the case and compares it with the potential windfall. Many times he decides it won't pay to pursue a claim. Of the total inquiries from potential clients, the firm ends up representing about half.
Recently, it has been turning down cases involving the elderly. Because Medicare gets the first crack at any financial recoveries, there's not much left for the attorneys and injured parties, Krupnick lawyers have found.
When the firm does take a case, it's brought before all the partners and the one who wants it or has the expertise to handle it takes it on. Most of the partners have specialties such as aviation, product liability and medical malpractice.
Once committed to a case, the firm will spend whatever it takes to win. It commissions medical reports and hires consultants, private investigators and expert witnesses. It also invests heavily in trial graphics and charts like those used in the O.J. Simpson trial.
"Some lawyers take a case just to settle," said Richard Roselli, one of the name partners. "Some go to trial but don't spend what's necessary to win. There are many personal injury lawyers but few trial lawyers. Most firms can't afford to play poker. We can, as long as it's what the client wants."
In its representation of 220 farmers who said their crops had been ruined by the fungicide Benlate®, the firm spent about $7 million presenting its case. DuPont spent $100 million defending itself. After trying and winning two individual suits against DuPont, Krupnick partner Kevin Malone got the company to settle the rest.
Broward personal injury attorney David Singer says the Krupnick firm is one of the few local firms equipped to take on DuPont: "The Benlate® case could not have been handled had they not built a war chest of assets from 20 years of big successes."