"We had the Ford Bronco and the LTD right in the center here, nose to nose," Jon Krupnick says. "Over there was the jury box and right here we built a bench for the judge. He loved it."
Krupnick is standing in the middle of what he calls the Legal Locker, a warehouse his law firm keeps a few blocks from the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The building in which his firm once held court.
The case involved a young man who one minute was a passenger in the back seat of the Bronco and the next was a quadriplegic. Krupnick and his partners argued that Ford was 90 percent at fault due to the design and testing of the vehicle and that the other driver was 10 percent responsible. Krupnick had the boy's future scribbled out on a pad: pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life, $2,000,000; future medical, $5,482,702; lost wages, $1,739,915; future pain and loss of enjoyment of life, $7,222,617. Total: $16,445,234. The jury awarded $16,500,000.
"They couldn't remember the exact figure we asked for," Krupnick laughs.
It's a laugh of satisfaction that echoes off all the exhibits that are crammed into this warehouse. They'd have to rent another 5,000 square feet if they wanted to bring in a jury now. Everywhere you look are the man-made creations that can lead to the destruction of life; not only bicycles, cars and trucks but a tree shredding machine, a complete scale model of a construction site, every balcony railing from the hotel where a child fell through corroded bars.
This is that place behind the scenes of the multimillion-dollar settlements we read about in the newspapers and say to ourselves, "So how much is the lawyer's take from these poor people's misfortune?"
What we don't see is the expense and effort on the lawyers' end to persuade a jury to give up the big judgment.
Firm goes against big corporations when others won't
Few places go as far as Krupnick's firm in testing and pushing against the larger corporations.
"We accept a lot of cases that other firms just won't take on,'' Krupnick says. ''Especially against the big car manufacturers."
We don't think of ourselves as personal injury lawyers," says Walter "Skip" Campbell, the first partner in the firm founded by Krupnick in 1974, "We prefer to be called consumer protection lawyers."
The firm of Krupnick, Campbell, Malone and Roselli still will take the whiplash victims but they are proudest of the changes in industry that have come about because of their efforts.
One case involved warning labels after a group of people were asphyxiated while using a camping lantern in a closed van. The label said not to use it in an area without ventilation.
"But it didn't say, 'or you're going to die,'" Krupnick says.
Another case brought about what they say was the first boat recall ever after an accident involving a faulty steering mechanism.
"In that case we found a smoking gun memorandum from the president of the company himself, saying he had problems with his own boat," Krupnick says. The memo reportedly said, "One of these days someone is going to get killed. Hope it isn't me." A million dollar settlement.
When two men being taken for a hot-air balloon ride had to jump to their deaths after it ran into power lines in Davie and caught fire, models of the balloon, the occupants and the power lines were created. Tests to make wicker baskets flame-resistant were begun.
How could this have been avoided, they asked over and over again.
"They had a champagne holder but no fire extinguisher," Campbell says, shaking his head. A million-dollar settlement. And, because of this case, the way balloon baskets are manufactured has changed forever.
The payoffs are sometimes tremendous but the money involved in preparing these cases often tops $100,000 and the knowledge required can be intimidating.
"We have to almost be like Renaissance men to handle all this," Campbell says. They have to have an understanding of science, engineering, aviation, and medicine. It never ends.
"You get an initial gut reaction if the product involved is at fault," Campbell says, looking up at a bicycle that sent a man flying into traffic because the generator was haphazardly placed on the front wheel. "If it's negligently designed, then we bring in the experts. And they can be expensive, very expensive."
"There's an expert for everything," Krupnick says, and they seem to be able to be used to the point of absurdity. He tells of a tree expert used in a case involving a child falling out of a neighbor's tree. The branches had been cut off and the new ones grew in much weaker. It was "an abused tree," the expert declared.
"Right now we're involved with a case where we're using an odor expert because an individual drank a scented cleaning liquid. I didn't even know there were odor experts," Krupnick says.
From the experts they go to the testing and the models they will use in court.
When a Japanese automaker said it was impossible to flip one of its trucks, they flipped one and videotaped several more being dropped from a crane to show that the roofs were not properly reinforced.Do they know on paper what will happen with these tests before they destroy thousands of dollars worth of pickups?
"Well we think we do,'' Krupnick grimaces.
In one corner of their warehouse sits a dump truck that looks as if it got into a heated argument with Robocop III. It is nothing but a huge mass of shredded metal.
"A leaf spring," Campbell says, quoting the experts. He's going to have to make a jury believe all that destruction was caused by a defective spring.
Krupnick walks over to a prototype of a tree-shredding chute they had made to stand beside the one their client used, "which took his arm off up to the shoulder," Krupnick says. "In the courtroom the jury will be able to see how with the shorter chute it is very easy to reach the point of no return. Not so with the longer one. You're able to brace yourself."
The model of a condominium under construction seems almost too much for simply trying to prove that if the company had used mountain climbing type clips on their safety lines there would have been no serious injury, "but you want the jury to grasp exactly what dropping 15 stories is like." Krupnick says. "This does that." It does.
With every turn you become more and more suspicious of big industry and more and more willing to let these guys collect their standard 33 1/3 percent fee for challenging the corporations.
The standard fee, which is negotiable, "is both the poor man's and the rich man's entrance into the courts," Campbell says.
Their firm goes to trial more than most because "the offers made are usually way off," Campbell says. He cites cases where his firm's clients were offered $40,000 or $50,000 and ended up getting millions.
The money does matter to the victims. It does change their lives, the lawyers say.
And along the way, they say, they are protecting the consumer. "We can do that by proving negligence and at the same time educate a jury enough so they not only understand but begin to feel what your client faces," Krupnick says, "You know, I think how little I know about a product when we begin a case," he says. "Like hot-air balloons. Technically, I knew nothing about them, but through the models and the experts I tried to learn and I kept saying, 'educate me until I understand.' Because if the level of presentation is at a point where I can understand, then I feel the jury can, too. They have to. Lives depend on it."