Joel Brown and Philip Freidin
Joel Brown and Philip Freidin (AM Holt)

A respected retired judge and his former co-counsel joined forces as trial attorneys to win a $1.44 million negligence award for a young marine fire inspector and repairman.

In the process of getting the verdict for Diosdado Vasquez, former Chief Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Joel Brown and Philip Freidin joined forces again after 28 years. They represented Vasquez, who was injured in an April 2011 collision outside PortMiami and will never work again in his chosen profession.

After 19 years on the bench, Brown joined the personal injury firm of Freidin, Dobrinsky, Brown & Rosenblum.

Brown and Freidin are childhood friends who last worked a case together in 1985 when they were co-counsel for the parents of Mercedes Soto, a 12-year-old girl who died after a doctor failed to diagnose a burst blood vessel in her brain. The medical malpractice case resulted in a $2 million jury award.

The buddies found themselves appreciating the symmetry between the Soto and Vasquez cases.

“It certainly meant a lot to us to have won our last case together and then our first case together,” Freidin said.

He also appreciated that fact that Brown wanted to return to litigation as a trial lawyer, an unusual step for a 68-year-old attorney.

“A lot of judges who are at the end of their careers either leave the bench to retire or become mediators,” Freidin said.

Vasquez, now 38, was leaving the port after working on a ship when he made a turn on Dodge Island and collided with a tractor-trailer going in the same direction. He suffered a severe shoulder separation that required two surgeries but never fully recovered.

Vasquez made a good living as a self-employed fire safety inspector servicing equipment on large ships, Brown said. But the work is physically demanding, and Vasquez was unable to resume his trade.

“He tried for a little while” but had to quit, Brown said. “The wrench to undo the valves, we put into evidence, must weigh 15 pounds. He has to hold his arms over his head to torque the nuts.”

That was one of many examples of on-the-job challenges the became too much, he said.

The defendants were truck driver Eleazar-Isabelo Velasco Jr. and owner H&M International Transportation Inc.

The main dispute at trial involved whose version of events the jury would believe. Vasquez claimed the tractor-trailer cut into his lane, and the truck driver claimed the opposite.

Both sides put on accident reconstruction expert witnesses and other testimony, Brown said.

The six-day trial before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jose Rodriguez ended Nov. 12. The jury found the truck driver and owner 100 percent negligent, Brown said. Past and future lost earnings were calculated at $586,000, past and future pain and suffering totaled $705,000, and medical costs were put at $147,000.

Despite his disability, Vasquez kept his business going. He still procures contracts but hires others to do the work. And this was explained to the jury.

“It was costing him. He had a loss of earnings because he was now paying somebody to do what he normally did,” Broward said.

Because of the timing of his retirement, Brown missed much of the pretrial preparation, “but the last six months is when a lot of stuff happens,” Freidin said.

Brown, who is practicing personal injury, malpractice and family law, has possible trials lined up for March and May.

He knew he was coming off the bench to go straight into a case headed for trial. He didn’t know what sort of obstacles, or rather pranks, his old-new partner would put up. Brown started work April 1.

“Phil locked me out of the office my first morning just to remind me I wasn’t a judge anymore,” Brown said.

For the sake of context, April Fool’s Day is still celebrated between this pair that Brown admitted still “haven’t totally grown up. So, I broke the door down.”