The optics weren’t in his favor.
In an $8 million lawsuit pitting a school counselor with paraplegia and her husband against Big Insurance, Coral Springs attorney Michael A. Robb knew to tread lightly at trial.
In the eyes of the jury, he knew one side appeared far more sympathetic than the other — and it wasn’t his client, Geico General Insurance Co.
But Robb succeeded in discrediting plaintiff arguments without appearing to bully the opposing side. And in the end, his efforts secured Geico a defense verdict on March 8 after a four-day trial before Broward Circuit Judge Martin Bidwell.
“I achieved it by playing out the inconsistencies in the plaintiffs’ testimony,” Robb said. “Even though they were sympathetic, they were less than truthful about their prior injuries.”
Robb is a 31-year law vet practicing personal injury, wrongful death, products liability and insurance defense with Clark Robb Mason Coulombe Buschman & Charbonnet. He’s handled more than 250 jury trials and litigated before Florida’s Third and Fourth District Courts of Appeal, according to his online profile.
In this case, he represented Geico against husband-and-wife plaintiffs Douglas E. Fowler and Mercedes Rodriguez Fowler, who counsels high school students.
The Fowlers filed suit against Geico in May 2015 over an accident from November 2012. Douglas Fowler had been traveling in Broward County when driver Samantha Robinson crashed into his vehicle from behind, according to court pleadings. The suit claimed Robinson was at fault, had failed to stop and that she was underinsured, with little or no liability coverage.
Douglas Fowler, meanwhile, was a Geico customer whose policy protected against drivers with insufficient coverage. He claimed the collision caused him to suffer a brain injury and herniated disc in the lower back, requiring surgery. But the Fowlers alleged Geico breached the contract by failing to pay.
Court filings by plaintiffs’ counsel Jorge P. Gutierrez Jr., of The Gutierrez Firm in Coral Gables, accused Robinson of negligence. They contended the insurer now stood in Robinson’s shoes and was liable for any loss or injury stemming from the traffic collision.
Douglas Fowler also alleged the brain injury affected his memory, diminishing his performance at work and eventually leading to his unemployment.
The plaintiffs said that lost income meant the family could no longer afford the aide who helped Mercedes Rodriguez Fowler with her personal needs. They said that as a result, Douglas Fowler became his wife’s primary caretaker.
Geico extended a pre-trial offer of $100,000 — the policy limit — which the Fowlers rejected, seeking millions for alleged lost income and permanent, debilitating injury.
Robb dismantled the case on several fronts.
First, he relied on deposition testimony from Rodriguez Fowler, rather than calling her to the stand to testify during the trial.
“I didn’t cross-examine her when it came time to ask her questions, because I knew the sympathetic factor was there,” he said. “To have her on the stand in her wheelchair, and me pointing out and having her answer questions where she’s lying, would portray me as being an unsympathetic, heavy-handed individual. I didn’t think it would be best to embarrass her in front of the jury. I just thought that would make me come off as a cad, somebody the jury would get upset with.”
Instead, Robb said he found another strategy to refute Rodriguez Fowler’s claims her husband’ suffered brain and spinal injuries as a result of the car crash. He said medical records uncovered during discovery showed a pre-exisiting injuries, which the Fowlers falsely attempted to attribute to the accident. He said, for instance, the documents proved a neurosurgeon had spotted Douglas Fowler’s herniated disc 11 years earlier.
Rather than interrogate the wife in front of jurors, Robb presented evidence that raised questions about the truth of her testimony.
Second, Robb tackled Douglas Fowler’s unemployment by presenting testimony from the plaintiff’s former employer. That witness claimed the termination was for general performance shortcomings unrelated to injury or disability.
“I talked about the fact that Lady Justice has a blindfold on,” Robb said. “I asked the jury to consider the facts as if they had a blindfold on. With the blindfold, they wouldn’t see (Rodriguez Fowler) in the wheelchair, and feel natural sympathy.”
After about two hours of deliberation, the jury sided with Geico, and Robinson, the uninsured driver, had not negligently caused Douglas Fowler’s injuries.
Case: Douglas E. Fowler and Mercedes Rodriguez Fowler v. Geico General Insurance Co. Case No.: CACE-15-009037 Description: Auto negligence underinsured motorist Filing date: May 22, 2015 Verdict date: March 8, 2018 Judge: Broward Circuit Judge Martin Bidwell Plaintiffs attorney: Jorge P. Gutierrez Jr., The Gutierrez Firm, Coral Gables Defense attorney: Michael Robb, Clark Robb Mason Coulombe Buschman & Charbonnet, Coral Springs Verdict amount: Defense verdict in a case requesting $8 million