The Detail Man
PI plaintiff’s attorney Michael Maggiano drills down and connects dots
Published in 2015 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine on March 13, 2015
The car idled just outside of Pomodoro’s Pizza in a small strip mall near Fort Lee, when Michael Maggiano hopped out through the passenger-side door. The engine continued to hum.
“Hang on,” he said to the driver. “I think we have a little more room.” The 67-year-old waved the car forward about four inches, until it perfectly hugged the dimensions of the parking spot. Maggiano nodded.
To the veteran Fort Lee personal injury plaintiff’s lawyer, details matter.
“We live in the world of rules,” he says later. “And what happens when rules are not followed? People get hurt. The rule could be stopping at a traffic light. It could be analyzing potential dangers before putting your men to work.”
In 40 years of practice in New Jersey and New York, Maggiano has carved out a high-profile career that’s earned the reverence of peers and clients, and some of the state’s most substantial recoveries. Whatever mistakes occur—be they trucking and car accidents, construction or workplace accidents, government fraud, medical malpractice—Maggiano retraces the steps of society’s worst slip-ups and dissects them.
“There are no lions in the courtroom, without there first being the drudge in the library,” he says. “I have the patience to take the time, to drill down, to learn the methodology of the area of science or medicine very well. And then connect the dots.”
In the rush to get work done, he says, “safety is often traded for dollars. That’s the reality.”
In the dimly lit loft inside Pomodoro’s, Maggiano measures his words slowly and deliberately. “We find that accidents are predictable. Once you drill down to the details, it becomes so obvious, and therefore preventable. But whether it’s medicine or construction, it happened because of a failure to observe the details; to adhere to accepted safety standards.”
To Maggiano, the son of a family doctor, sweating the small stuff is his job. Even the smallest stuff, he says, has the power to wreck lives.
In medical negligence cases, that often means pinpointing the spot on the timeline where a doctor or nurse, “in the rush of the day,” messed something up. Symptoms are observed but forgotten. Diagnostic tests are ordered, but not carried out right away.
“You would be surprised how many people leave hospitals who are, for example, suffering congestive heart failure, when they were told they just got a bad case of gastric distress,” Maggiano says. “Then they go home and drop dead. You’d be stunned at the statistics.”
One Maggiano client, who’d recently undergone gastric laparoscopic band surgery, complained to hospital staff of stomach pain. Despite an elevated heart rate and white blood cell count, she was sent home with medicine. At another hospital, it was discovered that the patient’s stomach had perforated during surgery, and she was now suffering severe infected peritonitis. It was nearly fatal.
“Her stomach almost exploded from the inflammation, she almost dies four times, is in the hospital for months; they had to reconstruct her stomach,” Maggiano says. “All because a doctor failed to pay attention to the signs. I bet he didn’t even look, because he was off to the next case.”
Maggiano’s no surgeon, but he knows what to look for when things go wrong. He’s conversant in the principles of differential diagnosis, the process-of-elimination system that doctors use to identify maladies. One of the system’s chief components involves prioritizing the most deadly conditions first. “Is this problem in this patient stomach gas? Or is he suffering an abdominal aortic dissection?” Maggiano says. “One is going to give you a bad night. The other’s going to kill you.”
He uses a similar rubric to carefully analyze each case. “You start by nibbling at the edges and before you know it, you’re at the core,” he says.
From his cousin and godfather, fellow Fort Lee trial attorney Nicholas Gigante, Maggiano inherited a sense of wonder about the law and its place in society. Gigante, he says, “enjoyed the mix between forensics, science and the law. And he cultivated that excitement for seeing how, in modern society, there’s this interplay between the various sciences, technology, medicine, people and the law. I found that fascinating.”
From his office at Maggiano, DiGirolamo & Lizzi, near the banks of the Hudson River, Maggiano pores over the tenets of architecture and engineering for construction injury cases, or the federal flowcharts of OSHA regulations.
“He immerses himself in his work, and he takes time with it,” says partner Michael Lizzi. “And for that reason, there are no stones left unturned.” Maggiano’s profession also happens to be his hobby, Lizzi says, and his air of effortlessness comes from “a pure, sincere passion for the practice. He’s in his element when he’s working, and he’s an indefatigable litigator. His drive knows no limits.”
That tirelessness stems from a place of duty. “Recognize that, out of all the lawyers in the state and the country, they have picked you to undertake the duty and responsibility to speak for them, for their loss, when they are incapable of speaking for themselves,” he says. “What an awesome responsibility that is. You are, in many instances, their only access to justice. You are the keys to the courthouse for voices that would never be heard.”
In Lorraine Young v. the North Carolina Department of Health, for example, it took nearly five years and 30 depositions to untangle a gruesome government mix-up. In 2008, Young and her two friends were killed on their drive home to New Jersey when their rented minivan careened off Interstate 85 near Greensboro, North Carolina. The local medical examiner was delivered three bodies, each of which had been misidentified by the state police on the scene. Rather than conduct his own evaluation, the examiner assumed things were in order, and the bodies were sent to the wrong places. While the family, lawyers and funeral home in New Jersey were frantically searching for Young’s actual body, it was scheduled to be cremated at a Greensboro funeral home. Despite its negligence, the state maintained that it was not legally obligated to compensate the next of kin.
“We said, ‘Oh yes, you are,’” Maggiano says. Throughout the five-year ordeal, Maggiano, along with co-counsel Chet Raybon, broke down the chain of command and responsibility of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the state’s freelance army of medical examiners and the Department of Health and Human Services, targeting the vast web of mistakes and breaches of conduct that contributed to the “horror show,” as Maggiano called it during a North Carolina Industrial Commission hearing in 2008. Despite the fact that the charred remains were out-of-towners, the Guilford County medical examiner—one of a pool of state appointees who are paid $100 a case—did not order an autopsy or other tests to determine the crash victims’ identities.
The case eventually went to trial and to verdict, and the N.C. Industrial Commission awarded over $400,000 to Young’s family. Soon after, the state began working on legislation that will alter the laws that shield public officials from liability.
“I can’t even describe in words his attention to detail,” says Edward Young, Lorraine’s brother. “He just has a way of dissecting each case down to each chapter, and each part. It’s unbelievable how prepared and knowledgeable he was.”
In 2003, after the highly publicized collapse of the Tropicana Casino parking garage that left four workers dead and 32 injured, the families of three injured workers retained Maggiano, and he eventually became part of a seven-lawyer trial team that set out on the arduous task of motion practice, discovery, document reviews, inspections, depositions—“the entire gamut of litigation discovery,” Maggiano says.
It took nearly 250 depositions, more than a million pages of documents and more than 50,000 pages of transcripts to obtain a $101 million settlement package—at the time the largest construction accident payout in U.S. history. The floors and walls, Maggiano’s team concluded, were not properly connected with the required reinforcing steel.
In an industry in which 98 percent of injuries are preventable, according to OSHA, Maggiano can’t just understand workplace safety—he has to know the work itself.
In May 2004, a man died on a construction site, seemingly out of the blue. He was working on a pile-driving operation when a chunk of iron dislodged from the top of the beam. It fell 20 feet, crushed through his hardhat and killed him instantly.
Maggiano’s first order of business was to hire a recently retired pile-driver foreman. “I said, ‘Teach me pile-driving,’” he says. He interviewed the crewmembers. Most importantly, he dove into OSHA regulations, which mandate that general contractors maintain a job-safety plan, extending to any and all subcontractors, and conduct a jobsite-specific safety analysis. “You couldn’t begin your work until this analysis,” he says. “Now I could show that the general contractor breached its duty to be the one in control of safety at the jobsite. The buck stopped there.”
Maggiano studied economic theory at Fairleigh Dickinson before heading to Chicago Kent College for law school. There, the Watergate scandal pointed him to a law student clerk position at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “I found the work very exciting and inspiring,” he says. He briefly considered applying for the distinguished Attorney General’s Honors Program, before godfather Gigante convinced him to refocus his efforts on the citizens of New Jersey. “He said, ‘Why do you want to be a little guppy in a big pond?’”
Today, his long hours are fueled by nightly gym sessions (“My hour of power,” he says), the occasional interlude by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or George Gershwin, and the promise of the next complicated case to pick at.
“That challenge is what drives the engine,” he says.