The Defense (Never) Rests

John H. Gomez was already a top trial lawyer; then he went back to college—Gerry Spence’s

Published in 2012 San Diego Super Lawyers — June 2012

Photo by: Frank Rogozienski

Outside the Marriott TownePlace Suites in Rancho Cucamonga, a water main has burst open, spewing a geyser into the air. After the problem is handled, firefighters and workmen, lingering in the hotel’s corridors, come across a man with facial stubble and a muscular frame, wearing jeans, a faded T-shirt and a baseball cap. They fall into easy conversation, using the laconic shorthand of blue-collar workers on a lunch break.

“What do you do?” one of the workmen asks him.

“I’m a lawyer,” he replies, “preparing for a case.”

The workmen share a glance, wondering if he’s putting them on. A younger man ambles down the hall. He’s in a T-shirt, too, and his arms are covered with tattoos from wrist to elbow.

“He’s a lawyer at my firm,” says the first man in the baseball cap. “Every lawyer in my firm has to have tattoos. It’s a requirement.” He grins and adds, “Just kidding.”

Personal injury attorney John Gomez, of The Gomez Law Firm, may be kidding about the requirement, but a tattoo does peek out from under the right sleeve of his own T-shirt. Asked about it, Gomez rolls up his sleeve and reveals a tattoo of the mustachioed Monopoly man, Uncle Pennybags, receiving a coin with the word “now” emblazoned beneath him. Gomez rolls up his other sleeve. Pennybags is on that bicep too, above the word “later.”

“It means you can settle now for a reasonable amount or get whacked after trial,” he says. “The tattoos are brash, but whatever, I’m a trial lawyer. And I don’t want to forget what I was before I practiced law.”

Gomez’s voice is soft and modulated, and his vocabulary is peppered with the words of the laid-back surfer that he is: “whatever,” “cool” and “awesome.” At the same time, when he’s in trial, the former All-American football player at the University of San Diego (USD) has the instincts of a linebacker who wants to level a savage hit. “In my last case, I disliked some of the defense doctors,” he says. When they testified, “I approached them, put my hands up and talked loudly. I probably could have dialed it back. It was a predominantly female jury.”

In another case, he was cross-examining a pizza delivery driver, a young woman who had crossed into oncoming traffic and struck a vehicle. As Gomez’s cross became more aggressive, the driver seemed agitated. Suddenly, Gomez recalls, “The woman said, ‘I need a break.’ She slapped her thighs, kicked the door that opened to the gallery, and burst through the door.” While the lawyers stood in disbelief, they heard the young woman scream from the hall, “I f--cked it all up!”

Gomez laughs. “It was a Perry Mason moment,” he says. “The judge tries to keep a straight face. He turns to me and says, ‘Defense rests?’”

 

The defense may rest but Gomez rarely does. In addition to surfing, he practices yoga, holds a black belt in Tang Soo Do karate, and has completed numerous marathons. He graduated magna cum laude from USD but upped his game at law school.

“Yale was a small, tight community with a lot of super-smart people,” he says. “There were a lot of Rhodes scholars and people who graduated at the top of their class at Ivy League schools. So at first I was totally underwater. They would say words in class and I would have no idea what they were saying. I’d go home and look them up.”

Legal terminology?

He shakes his head. “Just fancy words,” he replies. “I’d probably know them all now. But at the time, I had done well at USD but I wasn’t an intellectual type of guy. These people were engaged in conversation at a very high level. I would create a list of words and define them for myself each night.”

After graduating from Yale in 1993, he clerked for a federal judge, spent three years at Latham & Watkins, then grew bored representing Fortune 500 companies. So he became a federal prosecutor. “It was an awesome job,” he says. His most prominent case involved 300 Chinese nationals on a fishing boat who were interdicted while trying to illegally enter the United States. Gomez was flown out on a helicopter and lowered on a basket to the boat.

“It was cool, for sure,” he says. “The aliens knew they needed to get to the U.S. so they jumped in the water and started fights. Anything to get into the United States and get asylum.”

As a federal prosecutor, Gomez won 20 straight felony cases. He never lost. “We did a lot of border bust cases, where people got stopped with drugs in their car,” he says. “Some prosecutors got bored of border busts, but I thought each case was different and had a different life.”

He explains: “Maybe I have a female canine officer and the rest of the law enforcement officers are male and the defendant is female. This allows a female juror on some level to associate a little more with the government. Or maybe the canine officer is a much better testifier and observer of the defendant. But a lot of prosecutors wouldn’t even talk to the canine officer. Discovering the story takes time, but it’s always worth it because you find these little nuggets.”

Ultimately, despite the life in each case, he got tired of drafting warrants and sitting on wires for long-term investigations and returned to private practice in 2000. “I didn’t want to become a glorified drug agent,” he says. “They were giving prosecutors less discretion and I didn’t think that was cool. I was philosophically more with the little guy and wanted to find something that fit that.”

The first case he tried as an attorney with the McClellan Law Firm was against a California crematorium that had sold body parts for medical research instead of cremating them. He positioned the case from the perspective of the deceased’s adult children, his clients, and how they promised to take care of their mother’s burial wishes. “They felt they had failed that promise, so they felt a lot of guilt. Now every time they thought of her, rather than thinking of everything they had worked to give her at the time of her passing, they were forced to think of her being chopped up and sold.”

At the trial, Gomez talked about the importance of burial and closure in our society. The 9/11 tragedy had just occurred and Gomez reminded the jury that, at the twin towers, “people went in to get remains just so they could have something to bury. That tells you a lot.”

Gomez’s client was awarded $1.6 million. On appeal, however, the court determined that the trial court judge erred by granting a directed verdict on the issue of liability. The case was retried and the client ultimately awarded $950,000.

In September 2005, Gomez started his own law firm. His first case was the civil component of the so-called “American Beauty Murder.” Kristin Rossum, who worked as a toxicologist at the county medical examiner’s office, had murdered her husband using fentanyl, a controlled substance she had taken from work. (Her husband’s chest was found sprinkled with rose petals, mimicking an iconic scene from the film American Beauty.) Gomez, who represented the parents of the deceased, took the position that San Diego County was partly responsible for his death.

“It was a super high-risk case to blame the county for a murder that took place off work premises,” he says. “There were huge causation and jury bias issues. But we portrayed [Rossum] as a victim—she was an addict that should never have been put in that position of having access to the fentanyl.”

It was also high-risk because one of his clients wasn’t exactly sympathetic. “The dad was estranged from the [murdered] son at the time,” he says. “The son had said he would kill the dad if he ever saw him again.”

Gomez almost went broke trying the case. “Running a personal injury law firm is super expensive and there is always a time lag between what you spend and when you get the money, even if you do win. I had to take out a second mortgage on my house, clean out my 401(k), tap out my line of credit, and go borrow some money from rich lawyers. We were right on fumes.”

In the end, the jury awarded the father—the mother passed away before trial—$6 million. An additional $100 million in punitive damages made it the largest wrongful death verdict in California history.

Gomez has now obtained four jury verdicts in excess of $1 million each in which the defendants offered no settlement before trial.

“John is a relationship-oriented guy who is easy to talk to,” says James Yukevich, the opposing counsel in the pizza delivery case. “He’s a down-to-earth guy, understated but upbeat, and very pleasant. It was a case that should have settled, but there were some conflicts about who was going to pay what. It wasn’t fun trying the case but it was as fun as it gets.”

Even with such success, Gomez didn’t rest. He says the way he approaches cases has changed since he recently attended the Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College in Wyoming for a month. He wanted to get more enjoyment from his work and “elevate his game,” something he had seen with other lawyers who returned from the program.

“I have a large firm and young kids, but I just said screw it, and off I went,” he says. “It was cool. It was awesome. It really teaches you to embrace honesty in your presentation of cases, and [leads to] a lot of self-discovery through psychodrama of your own issues. It’s hard-core. People are going through some heavy things with a lot of crying and cussing.”

During Gomez’s psychodrama exercises—in which role-playing and dramatic self-presentation are used as a form of psychotherapy—he talked about his childhood issues. “Poverty, abuse, neglect … those types of things,” he says. “My parents split up early and there were a couple of boyfriends or husbands who came around and caused a lot of problems.

“There were years when we had little to nothing to eat in our house. One particularly abusive stepdad would literally put a lock and chain on the refrigerator. The food was only for him, I guess. We would often eat variants of cornmeal, including ‘fried mush,’ for every meal. … I was beaten, threatened and bribed with drugs, and my little brother and sister got worse.”

Gomez says psychodrama techniques have given him the tools to better connect with clients and juries. “They teach you that to be a good trial lawyer you have to be the best person you can be. I try to be 100 percent honest with everyone.”

This was valuable in a recent and particularly difficult case. Gomez represented a chiropractor who had slipped on some water at a local Starbucks and fell. The case had problems. The chiropractor did not seek out a doctor until the next day. There were no objective findings of injury on the CT or MRI scans. Gomez knew that jurors looked at both slip-and-falls and chiropractors with suspicion. “People think chiropractors are a scam, and that they try to rack up fake charges,” he says. He addressed those concerns with the juror during the voir dire. “A lot of lawyers run from the stuff that bothers them,” he says. “But if you talk about them, it demystifies the issues.”

He also used psychodrama techniques to work with the family to develop the case. The injuries had caused a lot of subtle but life-changing symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury, including fatigue, memory loss and irritability.

“If you look at [his client], he looks fine and speaks fine,” Gomez says. “But if you live with him day-to-day you can see the differences. We talked to a ton of family members and friends about how he had changed. We beat up on the defense doctors and called them for what they are—cottage industry professionals hired to defame injured people.”

The case lingered for more than three years. “Starbucks put us through the ringer,” he says. “They offered us $75,000 before trial. The jury just returned for $7.5 million, including $1 million to the wife for loss of consortium. It was a huge win, and a lot of it was due to what I learned at Trial College: Don’t have an agenda. Don’t play lawyer games.”

 

Victor M. Núñez, a deputy district attorney and former president of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, says Gomez has used his difficult past to be a role model for underprivileged kids.

“He came from a single-parent home, wondering where his next meal would come from,” Núñez says. “He comes to events, lets his guard down and just talks to the kids openly. They relate to him and see he’s very successful, and makes them think they can overcome their own obstacles.”

Núñez recalls one particular event when Gomez supplied a $20 gift certificate to the more than 200 children who attended the annual Thanksgiving dinner put on by the National Latino Peace Officers Association. “We gave away 20 bicycles,” Núñez says. “One of the kids [who didn’t win one] sent John a thank-you note for his gift certificate and the dinner, mentioning he had hoped to win a bike because his was stolen. John called me up and said, ‘We’ll buy him a bike. Bring him over to the firm.’ And when we came to get it, there were six bikes. He said, ‘If anyone else needs a bike, let me know.’ He just has a big heart and hasn’t forgotten where he came from.”

Photo by: Frank Rogozienski

Photo by: Frank Rogozienski

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