William Geraghty
Shook, Hardy & Bacon

Between Sept. 1, 2014, and Aug. 31 of this year, tobacco giant Philip Morris was the defendant in 24 Engle trials resulting from lawsuits by individuals that grew out of a decertified class action. A partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon has been lead counsel in over 70 percent of those, and no one has held that position more frequently than Miami managing partner William Geraghty.

Tobacco companies in general have won verdicts about a third of the time in Engle trials. Philip Morris, defended by Shook attorneys, has fared better than the industry average, winning half of its cases. Geraghty has done even better than that. In that 12-month period Geraghty won all four of his cases.

The original class action named for Howard Engle, a Miami Beach pediatrician who suffered from emphysema, was decertified in 2006. But the Florida Supreme Court ruling provided that certain findings from the Engle class action are binding: that nicotine is addictive; cigarettes are harmful and cause illnesses such as coronary heart disease and lung cancer; tobacco companies were negligent and sold a defective product; they concealed the addictive nature of nicotine; and their conduct rose to a level that could trigger punitive damages.

An attorney defending a tobacco company in an Engle case cedes that ground. But Geraghty was able to convince jurors in all four cases that there were critical holes in the claims made by the plaintiffs. In at least two cases he successfully questioned whether the smoker in question was addicted to tobacco from smoking cigarettes containing nicotine and whether smoking was the legal cause of the lung afflictions. In another case he successfully argued that a smoker had not been addicted to tobacco at the time that the Engle class period closed, which was January 2008.

Since 2009, Geraghty has won 12 of the 16 trials he has taken to verdict across six different judicial circuits. Geraghty and his colleagues at Shook Hardy have saved Philip Morris millions of dollars. An American Lawyer article in May stated that Philip Morris has paid out $17 million in compensatory and punitive damages to Engle plaintiffs, while one of its competitors has paid out $162 million.

Geraghty also has handled litigation matters in a wide variety of other areas, including commercial disputes, legal malpractice and professional liability claims.

Finalists:

Rumberger Kirk Attorneys Successfully Defend Maker of Sea-Doo Boats

Scott M. Sarason and Armando G. Hernandez
Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell

In 2012, a Duval County woman suffered the amputation of three toes while performing maintenance on a Sea-Doo Jet Boat. She sued the maker, claiming strict liability design defect, negligent design and failure to warn.

After a weeklong jury trial, Scott M. Sarason and Armando G. Hernandez of the Miami office of Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell won a defense verdict in favor of their client, BRP U.S. Inc.

On Jan. 26, 2012, the woman was in her backyard performing maintenance on the boat. At one point she placed her foot under the open engine hatch. She eventually pushed that hatch closed, trapping the foot. It was 30 minutes before help arrived and she was freed.

She lost three toes. She was also diagnosed with neuropathic pain and reflex sympathetic dystrophy, as well as constant pain in her back, hip, knee and leg. Surgeons implanted a spinal cord stimulator to address the pain. Her life care plan costs were in excess of $1 million.

At trial, the plantiff argued that BRP knew of the foreseeable risk of injury given the desgn of the hatch cover but did nothing. She argued that BRP did not include any warnings or instructions on the jetboat, in the owner’s manual, or in the safety video. She sought millions of dollars for disfigurement, mental anguish, pain and suffering, and past and future medical expenses.

Sarason and Hernandez responded that the the boat was not defective or responsible for the accident. BRP experts explained the development and hundreds of hours of testing that went into the boat’s design. The attorneys emphasized that not one other person had ever been injured while using the identical engine hatch design on other Sea-Doo boats. Despite the plaintiff’s attempts to exclude such evidence, the attorneys successfully argued for the admissibility and probative value pertaining to the lack of other accidents.

The attorneys informed the jury that the plaintiff had opened and closed the same engine hatch at least 50 times in the 10-month period prior to the date of the accident without injury. As such, they argued that the plaintiff was solely responsible for her injuries. They further argued that in more than three years since the accident, the plaintiff had continued to regularly use the boat without injury.

Despite a sympathetic plaintiff and testimony from her medical experts, the jury returned a verdict in less than an hour, finding no negligence on the part of BRP and no defect with the jetboat. The plaintiff did not appeal.