Three New Jersey attorneys take time out to serve the homeless and the injured
Published in 2012 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine on March 16, 2012
As he travels around the country, personal injury attorney Steven Benvenisti with Davis, Saperstein & Salomon likes to tell about his “the most significant case of my entire career.”
“I tell the audiences about a student who was in college who had everything going for him,” begins Benvenisti, who represents drunken-driving victims and others with brain and spine injuries. “He was on top of the world; he was at the top of his class; he was homecoming king and he was an athlete. He decided in his senior year to go on spring break to Daytona Beach, Florida, with his friends. One night while [he was] walking, a drunk driver lost control of his vehicle and struck him, and his legs were crushed upon impact; his head smashed through the outside windshield of the car; his body thrown 70 feet. He had sustained very, very serious injuries. His family was called within an hour to be told that their son had severe brain damage … and they were asked permission to use his organs for donation.
“I’m speaking to the audience; there’s always complete silence and people feel really bad for this poor kid that they’re seeing in these pictures. Then they see the CAT scans of the individual’s brain, they see the X-rays of his legs, and it’s clear—even to a lay person—that this person is not going to lead a productive life. Then I happily announce that he survived: that, in spite of having the severe, traumatic brain injuries … he actually had a full and complete recovery, which is unheard of.”
Then Benvenisti delivers the shocker: He was the student. He credits his recovery to rehabilitation professionals—and law school. “It was the first year of law school—and the unbelievably intense curriculum that they do—that fixed me. As the year was going by, I noticed I was getting better rapidly.”
He shares his experience with audiences that vary from the American Association for Justice to medical conferences to high schools. He donates 100 percent of each honorarium to charities that mean a great deal to him, such as brain-injury associations, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and fire departments.
For years, Jeffrey Wild went with a group from his synagogue to provide supplies to a tent community of about 70 homeless people, tucked away in a wooded area in Lakewood. Then he learned that the city wanted to kick the campers out.
That’s when the Lowenstein Sandler attorney, who spends most days handling complex financial litigation, and his firm stepped in to offer legal representation to the tent residents. “It’s the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ phenomenon,” he says. “The county and Lakewood are not willing to spend the money to provide emergency shelter, but it is embarrassing or inconvenient to have homeless men and women—including a pregnant woman right now—living in the woods. I think [the issue] was politics, and nothing that the homeless were doing, since they are bothering no one,” he says.
The case has been in the courts since the summer of 2010. Wild bases his argument on laws that go back more than 300 years and require shelter for the homeless. As of December, his homeless clients remained in the tent community.
For Wild, it’s a personal issue. “My father grew up during the Great Depression. [He] had a single mother, and he would always tell me the stories about how, when the rent came due, they would have to flee in the middle of the night,” says Wild, who founded a nonprofit, the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. “So I’ve always known that anybody could end up homeless; it’s really just luck of the draw, whether you lose your job or you have money in the family or you have relatives who are able to take you in.
“The issue of homelessness is not going away.”
In 2006 McCarter & English partner William Greenberg, a retired brigadier general, was fed up with what he calls “a gap in a very complicated and bureaucratic system.” That gap was the lack of much-needed legal services for reservists who were called to active duty but, once back home, did not have the same access to legal services as veterans in the regular branches of the military.
So Greenberg, a seasoned business litigator who served nearly three decades in the Army Reserve, initiated the state bar’s Military Legal Assistance Program to provide a variety of legal services for reservists.
“Over the past decade, on average, half of the service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in the field and in combat situations were Reserve-component people,” Greenberg says. “We fill the gap as pro bono volunteer lawyers to represent wounded soldiers who are entitled to military benefits—actual compensation—when they leave the military.”
A number of McCarter & English attorneys have become involved, handling about 100 cases so far. The New Jersey State Bar Association awarded Greenberg its Presidential Achievement Award.
Says Greenberg, “The lawyers who volunteer their time and their effort to do it get a great deal of satisfaction, knowing that the wounded soldier has a level of repose, you know—that this terrible weight is lifted from their shoulders.”