In 2013, a retired orthodontist trips over a table cloth and falls while vacationing at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach, possibly necessitating serious surgeries later on. A year later, a manufacturing associate residing in North Florida gets her hand caught in a conveyor belt and sustains permanent injuries that she claims prevent her from earning a living.
A cursory scan might register both of these scenarios as open-and-shut cases, just two more examples of bystanders harmed by the negligence of larger entities acting irresponsibly. And yet in December, Fort Lauderdale litigator Rory Jurman was able to persuade juries into siding with parties most would deem impossible to identify with.
“Juries really latch onto common themes that they already believe,” Jurman said. “And you have to be able to deal with them. Those themes are sometimes more important than the actual evidence.”
Jurman, a commercial litigator and shareholder at Fowler White Burnett, recently represented the Four Seasons in a suit brought against the luxury brand by the widow of Dr. Jeffrey Norkin. The suit alleged Jurman’s client was responsible for two surgeries Norkin underwent after his fall at the Four Seasons. The complaint also claimed these surgeries prevented Norkin from receiving chemotherapy treatment for his cancer, thereby causing his untimely passing. Likewise, Jurman also served as the defense attorney for Massachusetts-based manufacturer R T Engineering. The company had a suit brought against it by Cheri Nuss, an employee of Carlisle Interconnect Technologies in St. Augustine, after her hand was mangled in a machine built by R T Engineering.
With Jurman’s help, jurors returned a defense verdict for the Four Seasons and placed the predominant fault for Nuss’s injuries on her employer, rather than R T Engineering, thus producing a far smaller verdict than expected.
Under Florida law, the jury is allowed to apportion fault in a strict liability case to the employer that did not manufacture the machine, said Spohrer & Dodd attorney Keith Maynard. Maynard represented Nuss in her suit against R T Engineering. “So even though the jury found that the manufacturer was strictly liable for manufacturing a defective machine … the comparative fault significantly reduced what the plaintiff will be able to recover for her medical care.”
If there was a common thread between the two cases, Jurman said it’s that the plaintiffs in both were understandably sympathetic figures. With that being the case, it fell on the attorney to make his own clients — large corporate entities that carry their own baggage in public perception — to be just as, if not more, relatable in the minds of jurors.
Jurman did this by focusing on the people in the employ of his clients.
“I made it small and I made it personal, so that jurors could relate,” Jurman explains with reference to the R T Engineering case. ”I called three witnesses who were involved in the production and design and set up of the machine, and they resonated as common, everyday people.” He added it was important to do so “respectfully” and in a way “the jurors can relate to them as people and how much they cared about what they were doing.”
Jurman also said the plaintiffs’ arguments in both cases fell flat as they “never really brought in evidence or people” that communicated a story beyond a conventional narrative of corporate greed. “It’s not running away from the facts, the good and the bad, but putting them all together as one consistent trial theme and story,” he said. “A lot of trial attorneys don’t focus on maintaining their own credibility throughout the trial. They’ll make an argument because they can, not realizing it could backfire and hurt their credibility if a juror rejects those arguments.”
“So in both trials we made very consistent, credible arguments at all times conceding issues that we needed to concede and sticking to what the jurors may believe in a fashion that they will be with you, so to speak,” Jurman continued. “They were both complex and difficult cases. We had to thread the needle on both of them.”
The attorneys for Norkin’s estate, Gregg and Darryn Silverstein of Aventura firm Silverstein, Silverstein & Silverstein, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.