Stuart Z. Grossman V. Curacao
Bank of America, BP, and possibly the Netherlands are also on notice from the Coral Gables personal injury attorney
Published in 2012 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
on May 23, 2012
Updated on June 28, 2012
Q: Were you always interested in the law?
A: I was the first person in my family to graduate college. I did not have some Uncle Phil or my dad to use as a role model for being a lawyer.
Q: So what was the reason?
A: I grew up in the ’60s era that changed the world as far as the concept of equality was concerned. I think that I honed some sense of justice then—if not in my conduct, then certainly subliminally, and just psychologically was always drawn to those stories, to movies about people’s struggles, to the prospects of people having equal opportunities. I went on and became an English major and studied theater and literature. [I saw] a friend of mine from my high school basketball team … in college one day, and I said, “What’s that?” He had a book on the LSAT. My friend George, if it weren’t for him, I don’t think that I would have really thought about it. I said, “You know what, George? I think I’ll take that test, too.” Clearly, I’m doing exactly what I was intended to do, because I feel like I haven’t really worked a day in my life.
Q: What steered you toward personal injury law?
A: When I was in law school, I was also finishing a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard. I was in search and rescue, and my commanding officer let me take classes here at the University of Miami. I had been transferred back to Miami because my dad had passed away. So I completed my active duty here, and in my freshman year I was at a social event and [met] R.W. “Buddy” Payne. … It turns out that he was [with] the leading trial lawyer firm in Miami—Spence Payne & Masington. I got a job there as a law clerk, and then they asked me to stay as an associate, then I became a name partner, and stayed there my entire career until Grossman Roth was formed.
Q: What about personal injury has kept your interest all these years?
A: I was in medical malpractice … and products—how they fail—and aviation. And now we do so much class action work. I think the common denominator is watching something big hurt someone little, whether it’s a patient who’s caught up in the maelstrom of surgery and comes out radically altered from the way that person went in … or if a product fails and the manufacturer is not forthcoming, having to figure out what the design defect was. Same thing in the aviation cases we handle.
Q: Your biggest case at the moment is the bank-overdraft class action.
A: We’ve achieved now probably about $1 billion worth of settlements; we’re approaching that number. A lot of banks, with their not-so-wealthy clients, would sell them debit cards—it’s like a checking account reduced to plastic. It would have a value, and as long as you do not exceed [that], you would not get a charge for an overdraft. Let’s assume a fellow has a $100 overdraft limit, meaning he’s allowed to overdraft up to $100 without paying a significant fee for that mistake. And let’s say that on Monday of that week he overdrafted—he bought some things and was overdrawn by $50. And then on Wednesday of that week he overdrafted $20; well, he’s still below the $100 level. Let’s assume on Friday he has a big day and he overdrafts $100. What the banks did was, instead of taking the $50 and then the $20 and forgiving those and not charging—instead of doing it chronologically in the order in which the accounts were overdrawn—they took the $100 first. Well, that would be an immediate payment, because it’s at $100. He’d have to pay a fee. And going backward, next it would be $100 plus $20, so $120 [overdrafted]; then it’s $120 plus $50, is $170. So they’d gain three separate fees where, at best, they were entitled to one. That’s what they did to, we think, about 20 million people. They trained their computers to ignore the chronology and rather pay attention to size, to their advantage.
Q: You’ve also handled claims against BP over the Gulf oil spill?
A: I’m co-chairman of the [plaintiffs’] insurance committee. We have a lot of different entities that are liable for disaster. They don’t stand tall and say, “OK, I’m here; I did it”—even BP, which appears to stand tall. Each one claims that the other was responsible to a larger measure than they were. The people who built the platform that collapsed, the people that serviced the oil rig, the people that built the alarm that evidently failed, the people that did the actual drilling, the people who made the drills … they’re all parties. Each of them has, for the most part, several layers of insurance coverage, and we’ve had to ferret through the insurance situation to figure out who has what amount of coverage and what priority should be given to one company over another so that we can put them into some meaningful pool and try to divide up the monies that will be recovered eventually.
Q: New Orleans had already been so hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina.
A: Next time you’re out there, go out in the countryside and you’ll see fields with boats in the middle of them. It’s inexplicable. It’s like [Stonehenge]—no one can figure out how they got that way. You’ll see a boat in the middle of a cornfield and say, “What the hell is that?”
Q: Have you met with some of the fishermen affected by the BP spill?
A: Yeah, we have a lot of individual clients as well. Our Florida fishermen in the Keys area seem not to have been too badly affected as of yet; some that were in the ground zero area, so to speak, were very badly affected. Because it didn’t matter: They could stand on their heads and swear that their product was clean; no one was buying. And I don’t think the environment has spoken yet. I don’t think that we will understand what the consequences of this are until a lot more years go by. If you close your eyes for a second, you can see those early films of it just gushing oil endlessly into the environment. Where did it go?
Q: In 2006, you helped a group of Cuban shipyard workers?
A: One of the saddest cases … we’re still fighting the fight to get these guys paid. They were skilled dockworkers in Cuba, family men, who were told to be on the street corner at 4 o’clock one morning. They showed up and they were kidnapped, flown to Curacao, put into a barracks not much better than a large holding cell. They were put to work in the shipyard doing the same types of work they had done in Cuba, except this time they had no freedom—you say freedom in Cuba?—but yes, whatever the freedoms were in Cuba, they were deprived of. Their families didn’t know where they were, their passports were taken, their identification was taken. Basically it was slave labor. They were a commodity the Cubans used to pay down a debt owed to Curacao, and we believe that that had to have occurred with the full knowledge and consent of the Curacao government and certainly the Curacao dry dock … the largest in the Caribbean. They were kept there up to three years and then one day they just made a break for it. They’d heard about a friendly physician in town. He helped smuggle them out of the country and they made their way up into Central America and then to the States.
Q: And you won an $80 million judgment.
A: Yes, we have to pursue it. But many times, in these complicated cases against very solvent defendants, they play a tough game of hiding assets, and part of what we do is track them down. We’re immersed in holding the government of Curacao accountable for this. They can hide behind the shipyard, but we’re not going to let them. [The verdict] was against the Curacao dry dock, and now we’re [working on] getting that judgment to stick against the government of Curacao and perhaps the Netherlands as well, because [Curacao is] a client-state, one of their colonies.
Q: Over the years, you’ve been interviewed by the likes of Ted Koppel and Larry King.
A: All the networks covered the Wisconsin Dells [case] where the little girl fell—was dropped—out of the amusement ride and crashed, landed on her back. I handled that one and that got a world of publicity. Before then was the 2004 case in which a local South Florida doctor injected botulinum toxin [into my clients] … tried to make Botox himself. He got the toxin that’s used in it from a laboratory in San José on nothing more than a credit card, and this is the deadliest substance on earth! You could have bought a quantity [from the San José lab] that would have killed all of South Florida. … We sued the doctor that injected it, and the California company.
Q: Your clients were paralyzed by the toxin. What was the outcome?
A: It wound up as a major news story and ultimately was settled. They have since recovered to a good degree.
Q: Tell me about Margaux’s Miracle Foundation.
A: Eleven years ago, my daughter passed away. She battled for a year at age 15 with a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. She was treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and after she passed, we started a foundation, and the foundation has endowed a research fellowship up there. We’ve raised, I guess, close to a couple of million dollars now from friends who’ve kept her [memory] alive. My friend Greg Norman, the professional golfer, plays golf with eight guys for 10,000 bucks a round and treats them to just a splendid day and night. Another guy throws in his helicopter and makes it a memorable flight up to his private club, and then they might have dinner at home. We’ve had a lot of events; we’re having a big one here in Miami, it’s the Ladies Luncheon. We’re having [U.S. Rep.] Debbie Wasserman Schultz. So we’re doing work, it’s ongoing. There’s no money in those cancers. They’re called “orphan” cancers. Breast or prostate [cancer] has unlimited funding, because if someone were to find a successful medicine, they would be off-the-charts rich. The pharmaceuticals are interested in that, not in a cancer that affects 500—mostly kids—a year. There’s no real dough in that.
Q: What do you do outside of work?
A: I love fly-fishing and horseback riding. I have a horse named Champ, a quarter horse. I’ve got a home on an island off Key West. It keeps me busy. For years, I’ve had a place in Sun Valley. I’m not into downhill any longer. Probably it’s better that I’m just [doing] cross-country now. Better for the innocent people on the slopes.
Q: What do you consider the most important quality in an attorney?
A: I think staying within yourself and being somebody that a jury would trust. You’re talking about a minimum of 12 eyes on you all the time and 12 ears. When you get out of character and start acting like what you think a lawyer ought to act like, or like one that you’ve maybe seen on TV—or maybe even in a courtroom—and you want to emulate him, and you become someone other than who you really are, I think that juries will hurt you. I think that they’ll reward people, even if their case isn’t perfect, if sincerity comes through and they sense that you’re a good person.