Compared with the hours Fort Lauderdale attorney Bonnie Navin worked as a college student, pulling 12-hour days as a lawyer is nothing.
Navin paid her way through school managing 40 show horses for a prominent farm, handling the logistics of weekly competitions around the country and grinning through exhaustion.
“You work from 4 o’clock in the morning to midnight,” she said. “There are no such things as lunch breaks. So it taught me my work ethic. … Hands down, that experience as a child is why I am a good lawyer.”
Today, the Kelley/Uustal attorney channels that thinking into winning multimillion-dollar results for victims of medical malpractice. Soon after Bob Kelley hired her in 2012, they teamed up to win a $38.5 million verdict for the family of a man who fell into a coma after what they argued was an unnecessary procedure. Navin also worked to recover $4.3 million in arbitration for relatives of a pregnant woman who died after a hospital staff failed to keep her on oxygen.
Helping those who suffer at the hands of negligent health care providers is exactly what Navin wants to be doing — but it’s something she never pictured for herself back in her horse-farm days.
Navin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at Nova Southeastern University but wound up taking a job at a health maintenance organization when a friend recruited her for her reputation as a hard worker.
“I had no concept of interviewing,” she said with a laugh. “I went in in a pair of jeans and a nice blouse because we knew each other from the barn.”
She was hired and excelled at insurance work, starting in workers’ compensation and later helping develop managed care for maritime workers. She ultimately took a risk management role at Stellar Maritime Services, working to keep cruise ship employees healthy and prevent litigation. She spent two to three days a week in mediation as a corporate representative for the 13 companies under the Stellar umbrella but never considered becoming a lawyer.
One day her boss, the late cruise concession pioneer Lewis Fraser, walked into her office.
“I can’t deal with this anymore,” Navin recalled him saying. “I don’t want to pay another lawyer. I’m going to help you go to law school because I want to have our own lawyer in-house.”
When Fraser retired in the middle of Navin’s legal education, she was a little lost at sea. She left the maritime world, using her hospital and insurance knowledge to land a job as a medical-malpractice defense attorney. After a decade of facing plaintiffs lawyers who seemed to undersell their cases, she started thinking her unique knowledge might do a lot of good on the “other side.”
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Navin persuaded Kelley to hire her to make the switch, and since then she’s showed how her experience with medical billing and the inner workings of the health care industry allow her to call out defendants on bad practices others might miss. Often, her relationships with hospitals allow her to secure early settlements that help clients get on with their lives, she said.
Navin has a rule that she checks in with clients once a month, reminding them to “let me worry for you.” She tries to help carry heavy emotional burdens for her clients, many of whom have lost a spouse after 40-plus years of marriage, she said.
“You’ve got to cry with your client, and you’ve got to let them know that it’s OK to feel,” she said. “Sometimes people feel it’s not right to litigate or go after somebody that harmed them. … I have to say to them, ‘Well, unfortunately, the only way you make changes is by hitting them in the pocketbook.’ “
Navin said she works late nights investigating every case that comes through her door to make sure it will make a hospital executive sit up and take notice.
“I don’t do nuisance-value cases,” she said. “If I’m going to take a case, I take it because it’s going to trial.”
She relieves stress doing what she’s always done: tending to a barnful of show horses at home. Though it may seem an unusual path, Navin said she has a group of friends from the competitive horse world who have gone on to be successful lawyers.
“We go in the ring all by ourselves, and we’re judged on who we are,” she said. “You can’t be worried about people staring at you and passing judgment on you. [If you are], then this isn’t the job for you.”