‘Be a Human Being’
Don Caminiti’s recipe for courtroom success: humility, honesty, empathy
Published in 2023 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
By Nick DiUlio on May 8, 2023
In the fall of 1989, Jody Stroker was driving down a small suburban side street with piles of recently plowed leaves lining both sides of the road, when an oncoming vehicle swerved and struck her left fender. She was slightly injured, but the tragedy is what happened to her young children, Jake and Ali, wearing lap seat belts in the back.
Both of them were severely injured upon impact. As a result, Jake suffers from lifelong hemiparesis, causing the right side of his body to function improperly. Ali’s spinal cord was severed, paralyzing her from the chest down. She was 2 years old.
Their father, Jim Stroker, calls it “the worst situation you could ever imagine being in.” But they had one thing going for them: personal injury attorney Don Caminiti.
“His empathy and compassion were mixed with a ferocity for trying to help my kids,” says Stroker. “Right away I could feel the type of class act and tough lawyer Don was. It was a no-brainer that this was the guy you wanted on your side going up against a goliath that had limitless money and resources. We knew it would be a really tough battle, but if anyone could pull it off, it was Don.”
Caminiti, who heads the personal injury practice at Hackensack-based Breslin & Breslin, anticipated the difficulties of taking on the automobile manufacturer. “Whenever you deal with a big corporation, you know they’re going to throw the kitchen sink at you, and you have to be prepared for that,” says Caminiti. “They have unlimited amounts of money, virtually unlimited attorneys, and they can make your life very difficult. But when you have a sincere belief in your case, it allows you to see through all of that.”
Caminiti’s plan was to attack the auto seat belt design. So he dived into scores of car manuals, studied ads from the manufacturer touting the safety of its vehicles, and probed for evidence that they knew their lap belts—as opposed to three-point harnesses—were potentially hazardous but used them anyway in the back seat of the car driven by the Strokers.
The case settled confidentially just before trial. According to Stroker, the settlement provided opportunities to enhance the lives of his children, including buying a therapeutic horse for his daughter and hiring a private tutor for his son. Ali would go on to become the first wheelchair-using performer to win a Tony Award, for her role as Ado Annie in the Broadway revival of Oklahoma! in 2019.
None of this would have been possible, their father says, without Caminiti. “Don changed the lives of our two children, and really our entire family,” says Stroker. (The couple have one other daughter.) “He has a fierce work ethic, he’s unbelievably meticulous, and he blends that with this soft, gracious and empathetic spirit. He truly is the top of his field.”
“I was honored to represent them,” says Caminiti, who speaks unassumingly but with deliberation. He has spent more than four decades representing victims of dangerous products, medical malpractice, auto accidents and general negligence. “I had the usual pit in my stomach, but I also had a great deal of humility, having the responsibility of these kids’ lives,” says Caminiti. “This relationship evolved out of my respect for how these kids responded to a terrible, terrible situation.”
Growing up in Hudson County, Caminiti had no particular inclination toward a career in law. After graduating high school, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life. He just knew what he didn’t want to do.
“The Vietnam War was raging at the time, and I very quickly realized that I didn’t want to be sent somewhere to shoot people I didn’t know—and more than that, I didn’t want people shooting at me,” recalls Caminiti. “There were people fleeing to Canada, but I had no interest in that. So I decided to join the Air Force.”
Not being a pilot, Caminiti’s calculation was that the Air Force would be the best way to avoid combat—and he was right. Stationed in Germany, he was even able to attend undergraduate night school for three years before returning home to get his bachelor’s degree in history from Rutgers University.
“The Air Force was the first time in my life that I’d experienced ranking. You literally wore your status on your sleeve,” he says. “I was down very low on the totem pole, and that really motivated me to continue my education.”
Supported by money he was receiving through GI Bill benefits, Caminiti decided to attend law school at Rutgers after being inspired by two professors who taught U.S. and East Asian legal history. After graduating in 1976, he took a job clerking for Superior Court Assignment Judge Theodore Trautwein.
“It’s from him that I learned how important it is to be respectful, not only of the law but of everyone you encounter along the way,” says Caminiti. “I never saw him disrespect anyone, no matter how foolish an argument might have been. Everyone admired him. If I’m even half as well-respected as Judge Trautwein was, then I’d consider myself extremely fortunate.”
His peers feel Caminiti’s aspirations have been met.
“I don’t know of anyone you could speak to—on both sides of the aisle—who wouldn’t tell you that Don is a great guy, an exceptional lawyer and a good person,” says New Jersey personal injury lawyer Chris Placitella, who worked with Caminiti on a landmark tobacco case. “What really sets him apart from so many others is the respect he brings to every interaction. And that’s not just something he puts on when wearing his lawyer hat. That’s who he is as a person.”
Less than two years into his clerkship with Judge Trautwein, and recently married, Caminiti applied for a job at Breslin & Breslin. He’s been there ever since.
“I saw a job opening for a trial lawyer and didn’t think twice,” says Caminiti. “Turned out to be civil and not criminal law—which is what I thought I wanted to do—but it was a tough job market, so I took what I could.”
He was assigned a case in the early 1980s involving a middle school gymnast with ruptured discs in her spine—due, Caminiti believed, to an instructor’s failure to properly assist her during a difficult back bend. At trial, the newbie lawyer found himself up against a much more experienced and sophisticated defense team.
“During that trial, there were some words I got wrong, some mistakes I made. You could tell I was a novice,” says Caminiti. “And when the defense attorney gave his summation, he criticized me for these mistakes. And I remember sitting on a bench outside the courtroom just hoping the floor would open up so I didn’t have to go back in there being so embarrassed.”
But he went back, deciding the best thing he could do was to be honest with the jury.
“I let them know that they were at this trial longer than they needed to be because I wasn’t as proficient as I should have been,” recalls Caminiti. “But I asked them to please not take any of my insufficiencies out on my client. In the end they didn’t, and we got a quarter-million-dollar verdict.”
Caminiti says the case was pivotal in shaping his courtroom demeanor.
“That was a critical lesson in humility,” says Caminiti. “Going forward, I knew I could relate to jurors by letting them know how I felt, in human terms. And there’s an overriding thought I have in every trial: If we’re going to win, the jurors have to like my client and they have to trust me.”
Caminiti recalls another moment when humility triumphed over bluster. He was cross-examining a nervous and wilting defense witness, a doctor who had brought to the stand a 12-inch-thick stack of papers, which she accidentally knocked to the floor while Caminiti was asking his questions.
“She was mortified. But rather than sit there and gloat, I helped her pick up the papers,” recalls Caminiti. “When those moments happen, you need to put aside the bravado and be a human being. It’s something that has served me well throughout my career.”
He went on to win a $6.3 million verdict in the case.
More often than not, Caminiti’s work is focused on tragedies visited upon individuals and their families. But sometimes his expertise is needed in further-reaching circumstances, as was the case with his involvement in New Jersey’s $7.6 billion landmark settlement with the tobacco industry.
The case was the brainchild of South Carolina lawyer Ron Motley, whose mother died of lung cancer, inspiring a determination to hold tobacco companies responsible. He lost numerous lawsuits in front of juries who felt cigarette smokers were primarily responsible for their own choices.
Then Motley had an idea. He recognized that many people who smoke get very sick, either chronically or as a precursor to a smoking-related death. And, since the state has to pay for the health care of indigent people through the Medicaid process, Motley began encouraging individual states to sue tobacco companies to recover finances spent on people who’d become sick from smoking.
In 1993, Placitella, who was mentored by Motley, was charged with assembling a team of six lawyers to bring Motley’s suit to New Jersey. At the time, Placitella was serving as president-in-training at the New Jersey Association for Justice. Caminiti was the organization’s president.
“I was so incredibly proud to be one of those six lawyers,” says Caminiti. “Ron was handling the liability side of things from South Carolina, essentially proving that tobacco companies were making people sick. It was our job to work on the damages model, and it was a daunting task.”
Placitella says Caminiti provided a calm hand during a case that often involved intense emotions.
“He was very good at keeping a balanced perspective and not going off the rails,” says Placitella. “Sometimes we, as plaintiff lawyers, can get too aggressive in our thinking, but Don would reel people in and make sure we were thinking about X, Y and Z. And he was also strategically very good at thinking about what the defense was going to do and how we needed to address it.”
The case lasted more than three years, during which Caminiti says he witnessed some outrageous courtroom behavior. He recalls a day when lawyers representing the tobacco industry tried to convince the judge that it had actually saved the state money because smokers who died would have otherwise lived longer before eventually dying of something else.
“The judge just took a long look at him. Maybe 15 seconds of silence. Then he said, ‘Mr. So-and-So, do you think that argument passes the red-face test?’”
Whether it’s navigating epic, multiyear state litigations or counseling families through the trudge of personal sorrow, Caminiti looks upon what he does with gratitude.
“I love what I do because I love helping people, and helping them at the most difficult time in their lives,” says Caminiti. “Whether it’s a malpractice case or an auto accident or someone who’s been hurt or killed by a dangerous product, I get a very rewarding feeling from helping people in those moments. And I cherish the relationships that have come out of it.”
Helping Families Cope With Cancer
One afternoon when Caminiti’s oldest son, Brian, was 8, he jumped off a small wall and said his back hurt. The next day, they took him to his pediatrician, who said the boy had probably strained a muscle and should be better in a day or two. But the pain got worse. A second visit found the doctor more concerned, and eventually Brian was taken to Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, where he was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor, the most common type of pediatric kidney cancer.
“I remember when the doctor in New York hadn’t done a full workup yet and said, ‘If we’re lucky, it’ll be a Wilms tumor, because 90 percent of Wilms tumors are treatable.’ Well, we fell into the 10 percent that couldn’t be treated, and just eight months later Brian passed, in 1987.”
As a result of that tragedy, Caminiti has spent the past three decades supporting Hackensack University Medical Center—which cared for Brian—and its Tomorrows Children’s Fund, which provides financial support for families battling pediatric cancer.
“I think I’ve gotten more from being involved with that group than any of my legal successes,” says Caminiti, who has four grown children. “When a kid is diagnosed with cancer, that usually means one of the parents can’t work anymore. So suddenly they’re facing a major financial burden on top of the sorrow that comes along with pediatric cancer. This is work that I’m extremely proud of.”
In October, Caminiti hosted the 34th Annual Brian A. Caminiti Memorial Golf Outing, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for the Tomorrows Children’s Fund.
“Not only am I proud of the money we raise, but I’m also proud of what it means to me and my family personally,” says Caminiti. “Year after year, this event helps remind me more of Brian and who he was.”
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