The 54-year-old Bruce Nagel, who cofounded Nagel Rice in Roseland, loves taking chances. He has done pioneering work in such controversial areas as wrongful birth litigation and slavery reparations. For his efforts he’s secured more than 35 settlements and verdicts of at least $1 million; 15 have exceeded $2 million. He also won the highest wrongful-birth settlement in New Jersey—$4.2 million on behalf of a child born with a heart defect that should have been diagnosed.
Not bad for a kid who once got an F in “deportment” while growing up in Clifton.
Nagel always got top grades in school, but he was never afraid to speak out either. The law was perfect for him. After graduating from Cornell University, he received his juris doctor from the New York University School of Law, where he met an NYU undergrad, Marla, now his wife of 28 years. His first job was in the general litigation department at Hannoch Weisman, where he handled employment, business and contract litigation, construction, matrimonial and chancery matters. He describes that job as “three good years getting exposed to how other people practice law.”
In February 1980, he tried a case in federal court involving construction of the Alaskan pipeline, representing a construction company in a billing dispute. Opposing him were the senior litigation partner of a major firm, the in-house attorney of a public company and the general counsel of a major firm—all seasoned trial attorneys. Because it was his first big jury trial, he wasn’t given much of a chance. But the jury awarded his client $204,000—the entire amount he had requested. The trial taught Nagel he could take a very complicated case and present it clearly to a jury. “The key was keeping it simple and communicating with the jury on a human level,” Nagel says.
In 1983, at Holstein’s Ice Cream Shop in Bloomfield, he attended a meeting that would change his life. Across from him sat Jay Rice. Nagel and Rice had been friends since third grade in School 16 in Clifton. Rice was also a lawyer, also working for a big firm. Over coffee-chip ice cream for Nagel and a duster sundae for Rice, they decided to change that. They sketched out their ideas for a firm on napkins and estimated what they thought they could make in their first year. They figured $100,000 in gross billings. Maybe. So they launched the firm on April Fool’s Day 1983 with $500 in the bank and two heads full of sweet dreams.
“We are completely opposite,” says Rice, who manages the firm so Nagel can be free to do battle. “We have a relationship like brothers. My office is neat and clean. Bruce’s office is like a disaster area. I get in here early; he gets in late. We are as different as two guys can ever be. He’s much more aggressive. He plays to the jury well. And cross is a major strength for him. He has the best track record on appeal from the Supreme Court of anybody I know. His reversal rate is incredible.”
Nagel Rice attorney Barry M. Packin is struck by Nagel’s fearless nature.
“He is not afraid of a tough issue or a tough case,” Packin says. “Were I to have any need for somebody to handle a case, personal injury or otherwise, he would be the first and only guy I would go to. He will pull out all the stops. If the emotional approach is called for, he will be emotional. If the case needs intellectual, he will do intellectual. He will do what he needs to do.”
To feed his endless curiosity, Nagel takes cases in almost any category: medical malpractice, product liability, class action, employment, environmental, wrongful birth, partnership disputes, complex litigation. He enjoys it all but considers helping families to be his calling.
“Business law, I have no problem with it, but it’s usually a battle of deep pockets,” he says. “I represent families where kids are born with genetic defects or the father is killed. I can help these families. I can send these kids to college or make sure a child gets a bioelectric arm. We’ve had children who have profound problems and we’ve made sure they are cared for when their parents aren’t around any longer.
“The test for me is, does it feel wrong? If it feels wrong, it’s time to litigate it.”
Something felt wrong when he researched his first wrongful birth case. (Wrongful-birth cases are about prenatal information that’s either incorrect or incomplete. Without good information, mothers can’t make informed decisions about the child they are carrying.) In that first case, in the ’70s, a mother was near death during childbirth at a Catholic hospital. She was given her last rites, but the hospital wouldn’t perform an abortion even to save her life. As it turned out, she did live, but the baby was severely brain-damaged. The lawsuit wasn’t filed until 15 years later, in the mid-’80s. It wound up in the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1992—one of the court’s few 4-3 splits in the last several decades. That case resulted in what Nagel will only say was “significant” money for the child’s care, even though the court said there was no cause of action. Then Nagel did it again with a similar case, filing suit some 20 years after the birth. That one settled for $2.3 million.
Nagel’s actions have helped create changes in the medical industry. As a result of one genetic-testing case, a national laboratory changed its reporting form to make test results more understandable. In another case a hospital in Providence retested hundreds of parents for Tay-Sachs, a fatal inherited disease of the central nervous system of babies.
He hasn’t always won friendship from the attorneys he faces, but he does win their respect.
“We hated each other,” says Arthur S. Goldstein, of West Orange-based Wolff & Samson, who opposed Nagel in a legal malpractice case. “I sought sanctions against him on repeated occasions and he returned the favor.”
“I think Bruce Nagel is one of the most talented lawyers I have ever faced,” he says. “He has a terrific intellect, he thinks extremely well on his feet, and he is very creative.”
Depending upon whom you ask, Nagel’s slavery reparations case—he’s lead counsel in a class action brought to recover billions in reparations for descendants of U.S. slaves—is either one of the most significant human rights cases in the last century or a stunt. But without question, it reignited the national debate on slavery and prodded companies to disclose old links to it.
“We pulled back the covers and took a look at how our history came about,” Nagel says.
He brought the unprecedented action against eight major corporations, including Wall Street giants JPMorgan Chase & Co., Aetna Inc. and Bank of America, alleging them of profiting from their historical ties to the slave trade.
Nagel again faces long odds. In mid-December of last year a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court ruling that slave descendants have no standing to sue for reparations and that the statute of limitations ran out more than a century ago. However, the panel did keep alive a small part of the suit that claims that corporations may be guilty of consumer fraud if they hid past ties to slavery.
“A lot of people said there was nothing viable about the action, and now we see that it clearly has a viable piece to it,” Nagel says, pledging to bring future actions under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.
Nagel is also looking at ways to file a suit against Midwestern coal-burning electric utilities, which send particulates to New Jersey through prevailing weather patterns. He believes the particulates are exacerbating children’s medical problems such as asthma. “I’m very concerned about cases that affect children and their well-being,” says Nagel, who is a father of three girls, ages 17, 12 and 9.
He recently filed a class action against health-insurance companies that he says breached their contracts and violated state law by limiting their coverage for anorexia. Nagel is setting out to prove that the disease is based on genetic imperatives and must be covered by state law. It looks to be an uphill fight. “Any argument that anorexia is a biologically based mental illness is contrary to its historic medical classification and to New Jersey law,” one insurance company spokesman said after the action was filed.
Nagel isn’t daunted. He believes he has the best interests of families on his side. And he’s not afraid to cross the line.