Lawyers in Hollywood
Why Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore Attorneys are Like Paul Newman & Tom Cruise
The ABA Journal recently published an issue covering “100 Years of Law at the Movies,” exploring Why Hollywood Loves Lawyers. It concluded that “[t]he literature of law values the object lesson over the cheap thrill. Audiences crave universal truths, and by the time the closing credits roll, movies about the law have left behind wisdom to live by.” We agree with that sentiment. Whether it’s Henry Fonda corralling his fellow jurors in 12 Angry Men, or Tom Cruise cornering “you want me on that wall” Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, lawyer movies can and usually do pack a mighty moral wallop. It’s no surprise that Atticus Finch found himself at the top of an American Film Institute list of famous heroes of the last 100 years. As the Institute rightly notes, “Heroism that acquits the falsely accused will hold its own against any nonstop action flick.”
We don’t practice criminal law at Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore, but we feel that our quest for justice is no less rigorous and duty bound than that of Mr. Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or of Matthew McConaughey in the gripping tale A Time to Kill. We, too, strive daily to see that wrongs are righted. Fortunately, Hollywood agrees that civil practice can be just as compelling – and just as filled with white-hat lawyers making society better and more just, one client at a time.
Below is a short list of some of the great lawyer movies dealing with civil lawyers and our fight to improve the lives of our clients. We not only love these movies; we are proud of these civil justice-fighters, real and fictional.
Erin Brokovitch: “Not personal? That is my work! My sweat! My time away from my kids! If that’s not personal, I don’t know what is.”
Who doesn’t know of Erin’s true-life story fighting against a massive power company to get justice for hundreds of residents injured by contaminated water? What began as a personal quest for employment culminated in a life-changing verdict for the townspeople poisoned by Pacific Gas & Electric’s dangerous disposal practices. Though she wasn’t a lawyer herself, she and attorney Ed Masry certainly earned their badges as civil law heroes.
A Civil Action: “Now the single greatest liability a lawyer can have is pride. Pride… Pride has lost more cases than lousy evidence, idiot witnesses and a hanging judge all put together. There is absolutely no place in a courtroom for pride.”
Like Erin Brokovitch, A Civil Action is based on a true story of a lawyer who took on a large company responsible for damaging the health of the nearby townsfolk, this time causing terminal leukemia in several children. The story is a wonderful portrayal of a team of attorneys who quite literally risk everything to win justice against all odds.
The Insider: “You are important to a lot of people, Jeffrey. You think about that, and you think about them. I’m all out of heroes, man. Guys like you are in short supply.”
Big Tobacco went to war when a single courageous whistleblower, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe), agreed to a 60 Minutes interview to expose the dangers of smoking. The Insider tells the tale of the legal battle that followed as Big Tobacco pulled out all the stops to suppress the interview.
Rainmaker: “Every lawyer, at least once in every case, feels himself crossing a line that he doesn’t really mean to cross… it just happens… And if you cross it enough times it disappears forever. And then you’re nothin’ but another lawyer joke. Just another shark in the dirty water.”
A fictional story steeped in legal ethics, Rainmaker tells the tale of a medical malpractice case against an unscrupulous insurance giant. Not every medical malpractice case we take rises to the level of a Hollywood blockbuster – but we never forget that every single case we accept is of enormous importance to the health and life of that individual client.
The Verdict: “I came here to take your money. I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can’t do it; I can’t take it. ‘Cause if I take the money I’m lost. I’ll just be a… rich ambulance chaser. I can’t do it. I can’t take it.”
Another medical malpractice story starring the fabulous Paul Newman, The Verdict features a once-ostracized lawyer who resists enormous personal and industry pressure to accept a large settlement for his client – because he believes, when no one else does, that his client deserves even more than that. This great movie dramatically illustrates why real-life potential clients should not be unduly “wowed” when lawyers advertise their “big-dollar” settlements – because you never know if that settlement, though large, was really as fair for the client as it was for the lawyer.
At Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore, we work hard every day to emulate the commitment and heroism of the lawyers – real life and fictional – who stand up for the rights of their clients despite the strength of the opposition and against the pressure to settle too early, when doing so is not in our clients’ best interests. If you live near Tampa, Florida, and need a personal injury, medical malpractice, whistleblower, or wrongful termination attorney, contact us today for a free consultation. We may not have Paul Newman’s blue eyes or Tom Cruise’s boyish good looks – but we guarantee that our attorneys will work on your case with the same passion for justice that you see in their movies.
(Movie quotes from IMDb)
Florida law allows parties in a lawsuit to make Offers of Judgment in advance of trial, which can have a significant impact on the case. It is important to know how Offers of Judgment operate so that you can make a reasoned and informed decision about whether to make an Offer of Judgment yourself and whether to accept one offered by the other side.
Briefly, an Offer of Judgment includes the entire amount sought as a fair verdict award by the party making the offer. If it is rejected and the verdict heavily favors the side that made the offer, the losing party may have to pay a part or all of the prevailing party’s attorney’s fees.
Consider the following hypothetical:
In an auto-accident case, the plaintiff claims that the total damages she suffered amount to $150,000, but she is willing to settle for $100,000 to avoid court. Meanwhile, the defendant claims that the plaintiff’s damages were only around $70,000, and that she contributed equally to the accident, so his share should only be $35,000. He’s willing to settle the case for $50,000 to avoid trial.
Imagine that the plaintiff makes an Offer of Judgment for $100,000 and it is not accepted within thirty days. The case ends up going to trial and the court awards the plaintiff $125,000, an amount that is 25% greater than the amount requested in the Offer of Judgment. The defendant may now be required to pay reasonable costs and attorney’s fees incurred by the plaintiff after the Offer of Judgment was served.
Now imagine instead that the defendant makes an Offer of Judgment for $50,000 which is not accepted by the plaintiff within thirty days. At trial, the court awards the plaintiff only $37,500, an amount 25% less than the defendant’s Offer of Judgment. Now it is the plaintiff who may be required to pay the defendant’s reasonable costs and attorney’s fees incurred by the defendant after the Offer of Judgment was served. More, the defendant is often allowed to deduct those fees and costs from the award amount before it is paid.
Offers of Judgment can be an effective negotiating tactic, and a way to strongly suggest to the other side that you feel your evaluation of the case is correct. Importantly, if you cannot resolve the case before trial, the other side cannot tell the jury about your Offer of Judgment in order to convince them to give you less than you’re asking for.
Consult with your attorney about whether an Offer of Judgment would be appropriate in your case, and especially consider whether you should accept the Offer of Judgment proposed by the opposing party.
The law firm of Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore has experience in offers of judgment and all other aspects of civil litigation on behalf of their Tampa, Florida clients. Contact us today for a free consultation.
Work with Tampa’s “Bad Faith” insurance attorneys!
Florida law requires insurance companies to act in “good faith” toward their policyholders by promptly investigating insurance claims, settling claims at or below the policy limits whenever
possible, and protecting policyholders from judgments in excess of their policy limits. That’s a complicated way of saying that Florida lawmakers want insurance companies to protect their policyholders from bankruptcy and loss of personal assets in the event of a successful lawsuit against that insured customer.
But how does that actually work? Consider the following hypothetical:
You are involved in an accident with a driver who, while texting on his cell phone, ran a red light directly into the passenger side of your vehicle. Your car is damaged beyond repair, and you have injuries requiring hospitalization and surgery. Your medical bills alone are $125,000. The other driver, Bob, has insurance with a policy limit of $100,000, but his insurance company, Company A, only wants to pay $60,000 because it claims that you were partially to blame for the accident. You offer to settle for $100,000, but Company A refuses to settle despite Bob’s request that it do so.
At trial, the jury awards you $300,000, but because Bob’s insurance with Company A only covers up to $100,000, Bob will have to pay the remaining $200,000 out of his own pocket. Bob doesn’t have $200,000, though, so he is in danger of filing for bankruptcy. As a result, your chances of recovering the remaining $200,000 are slim.
This is where the bad-faith doctrine comes in. If you or Bob can prove that Company A failed to settle the claim for the $100,000 you demanded when, under all the circumstances, it could have and should have done so had it acted fairly and honestly toward Bob, then Company A will be required to pay the entire judgment amount of $300,000.
The bad-faith doctrine thus serves as a powerful incentive on insurance companies to correctly evaluate claims against their insureds and to settle cases within policy limits. If they do not, the companies run the risk that they will have to pay over and above the limits of the policy, along with all the expenses they incurred during the trial.
The bad-faith doctrine can obviously help you as a plaintiff, when negotiating against an insurance company. If you know the limits of the defendant’s insurance policy, and if you are willing to settle the case within those limits, you can leverage the bad- faith doctrine to give you an extra edge in negotiation. Always consult with your attorney before relying too heavily on this doctrine, however: If your legitimate claim only amounts to half the policy limits, the insurance company is unlikely to pay the maximum just to avoid trial.
Consult with a Tampa civil lawyer to understand your options.
During most civil cases, there comes a period of negotiation, where you start trading proposed settlements with the other party. For example, you, through your accident attorney, may tell the other driver the amount of money you would prefer to receive in the case. This is normally an amount you feel you could receive if you went to trial, and you are giving the defendant a chance to simply pay that amount and avoid the expense and stress of a trial.
In many cases, the other party will respond with a low number and suggest that you accept their number instead of yours to avoid the expense and stress of a trial yourself.
As aggravating as it can be, such is the normal process of negotiation.
Before you ball their settlement offer up and return it to them along with a few colorful words, there are a few things you should consider, together with your attorney:
• Trials are expensive, both in time and in money. If you can reach a settlement out of court, even if it’s lower than you hoped it might be, you will save yourself the time and expense of the trial. Your attorney can help you figure out if that makes the low offer a good deal for you, on balance.
• Their low offer may actually be higher than what the jury will eventually award. Though it’s difficult to contemplate, it is possible that the jury will sympathize more with their case than with yours, and will award you nothing, or a mere fraction of what the other side is offering.
• Their low offer might not be available later. If you discover new information that harms your case, you could later feel that the low offer was actually generous, and will wish to have it back. If, however, you don’t accept or actively reject an offer, the other party is not required to keep it available for you.
Any time you receive an offer to settle the case, meet with your attorney, keep an open mind, and carefully consider the pros and cons of accepting it. You may eventually choose to continue negotiating for a different amount, or even to go to trial, but you should at least be able to look back and know that your decision was thoughtfully made.
If you are in need of a legal malpractice, personal injury, medical malpractice, accident, or whistleblower lawyer in Tampa, Florida, the Tampa Bay attorneys of Wagner, McLaughlin & Whittemore would be pleased to speak with you. We fight aggressively to protect the rights of our clients. Click here or call us today at (813) 225-4000 to schedule a free consultation.