Michael Leizerman had an inkling that he’d discovered an intriguing career direction after the Toledo personal injury lawyer took on the case of a trailer-truck driver who’d rear-ended another 18-wheeler. It wasn’t his client’s fault, he was ready to tell a jury. The other truck’s brake lights were out.
“Of course, my guy’s brakes weren’t working,” Leizerman concedes.
It made the young lawyer think. Was it really some giant coincidence that those two dangerously un-roadworthy behemoths had found each other in a grind of chrome, metal and glass? Or was it possible that there were a number of big rigs out there with inadequate signals and braking systems? Trucks weighing 80,000 pounds and more, barreling down on the family minivan at highway speeds of 60, 70 miles an hour, pads worn, lighting iffy.
Indeed it was, and mechanical failure was only the first detour on the road to safe driving.
There were, as Leizerman would learn, trucking firms that bullied drivers into overtiming well into the No-Doz zone; ambitious drivers who falsified logs to shave hours behind the wheel; and truckers who shouldn’t have earned their commercial license in the first place, operating heavy metal like some 9-year-old who has found his father’s handgun stash.
Take the big-rig driver from the Ukraine that Leizerman put in the crosshairs of a lawsuit, after the guy ran a light to plow into a middle-aged deli counter worker. Leizerman found that his injured client hadn’t been the hasty trucker’s first victim. “In the five years since he’d come to the States, he’d had at least three prior hit-and-runs after disregarding a traffic sign,” he says.
Leizerman’s client ended up with a rotator cuff injury that precluded her from operating the cheese and meat slicer. “We settled for around a half-million dollars.”
There are some 500,000 truck accidents a year in the United States. Around 100,000 involve casualties, including about 5,000 fatalities. And over a five-year period culminating in the year 2000, only four states had more fatal truck-involved accidents than in Ohio. Leizerman, who also practices in Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma and California, had found a crying need.
He took on more and more truck cases in the late 1990s. He organized, and still runs, a truck litigation committee within the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA). He invested in an expensive Web site called truckaccidents.com, runs phone directory and newspaper ads and TV spots in several cities, bylines legal articles, and recently signed a contract to write a 1,000-page treatise on his favorite topic. Oh, and he went to truck driving school, earning all of his certification and passing his exam for a commercial driver’s license in his first attempt. Just curious to see what it’s like behind the wheel.
“I want to be the national truck accident attorney,” Leizerman states flatly.
Doctored Logs and Paperwork Forests
“Mike is very cerebral, and he’s a good businessman,” says Steve Gursten, a Southfield, Michigan, lawyer who has referred truck accident cases to Leizerman and worked on other cases in association with his Ohio counterpart.
Leizerman was happy to redirect his attention from the mostly routine auto accidents that hit his desk at E.J. Leizerman & Associates, his uncle’s firm and young Leizerman’s sole workplace since his recruitment as a 17-year-old file clerk. Leizerman, who grew up in the Detroit area with two younger brothers, went right to work here as an attorney upon graduating from the University of Toledo School of Law and passing the bar exam, in late 1994. The firm specialized in personal injury cases involving railroad workers, as well as larger car accident cases.
“I wanted to stop taking car cases because many of my clients could have done as well without me and wouldn’t have had to split the settlement,” he says.
Meaning that when a policyholder is clearly at fault, auto insurers are eager to settle for up to the coverage limit. Since the faulty drivers seldom have much additional money to chase, there’s a fairly low settlement ceiling and a rather uncomplicated process to get a check cut.
Truck cases? Different story. And much more of the challenge Leizerman relishes.
In the first place, there’s the forest of documents to wade through. Among the myriad laws established by an alphabet soup of federal and state regulatory agencies, commercial drivers must keep written journals, or logs, of their driving activity. That’s to ensure that the drivers of freight-transporting commercial carriers not exceed 11 hours of service in a day. Driver fatigue, though usually hard to prove, is suspected as at least an underlying factor in many road accidents. So there are credit card receipts and cell phone records to go through to see if everything meshes with the documented activity.
After all, says Leizerman, “if drivers are falsifying their hours, who cares what the laws are?”
There’s also bill of lading paperwork, which can indicate excess cargo weight or load shifting. There are alcohol and drug test results. And, since many trucking firms have in-cab satellite communications systems, there are incriminating messages to be found.
Which is exactly what happened in a case handled by Leizerman. “It was right there in the messages picked up by the driver while offloading. He told the company he was at his service limit, and they sent him back out anyway.” And put it in writing.
In addition to the challenge, the payoff is better than car accidents. Minimum insurance coverage on commercial carriers starts at $750,000 and can work all the way up to $5 million on rigs carrying certain classes of hazardous materials. Lawyers might also go after the relatively deep-pocketed trucking firms that negligently hired or contracted with or overworked the driver, or inadequately serviced the vehicle.
Leizerman felt needed. “There’s almost never a million-dollar settlement without a lawyer,” he observes.
He’s won several seven-figure sums for his clients and firm, which earns about $10 million a year in total settlements. “The average is about $200,000 per case today, when 10 or 15 years ago it was maybe $15,000,” he says. “And the little cases take just as much time to do right as the bigger cases.”
The Young Tractor-Trailer King
Michael Leizerman hesitates when the question of age comes up. It’s not an unusual response from anyone being interviewed for publication. “Well,” he finally responds, “I’ll be 35 by the time this comes out.”
The problem, as it turns out, isn’t vanity. Quite the contrary, it’s his relative lack of years that concerns him. “It’s hard being taken seriously by a plaintiff on a million-dollar case when you’re 28,” he observes. “But I guess I’ve done this long enough now that I’ve built up some credibility.”
Leizerman is a small, sober-looking man whose quiet but friendly mannerisms suggest nothing along the lines of what you’d expect from a trial lawyer dubbed “The Tractor-Trailer King” by his peers. No 10-gallon cowboy hat, snakeskin boots or trophy third wife on display here.
His office at E.J. Leizerman & Associates, which occupies its own modest building in downtown Toledo, is as well kept as the man. It’s a large-enough room done up in lawyerly fashion: cherry desk and credenza, rich green carpet, jet-black leather sofa and guest chair, textured wallpaper the muted color of oatmeal. His desk holds a few razor-sharp stacks of paper and case files and little else. The credenza is stuffed with law books. An easel exhibits the self-portrait woodcut of his wife, Julie, a sculptor who worked on the FDR memorial in Washington, D.C., part-time bookkeeper at the firm and full-time mother.
His conversation ranges from his career and caseload to his obviously welcome home life. He’s the father of sons Kegan, 10, and 4-year-old Daniel. He plays the piano for relaxation, enjoys cooking and even confesses to caring for 25 chickens and torturing the accordion. Most important: “No matter how busy it gets, I get home most evenings,” he says.
“Home” is in Swanton, a tony suburb where he and his family live among 14 acres of gardens, scrubby woods and, apparently, free-ranging foul.
Yes, he’s home most evenings, but not always “there,” insists Julie. “His office is in this little hiding place off of the kitchen. I’ve learned to look for him there first. He’s just always working or thinking about some aspect of work. But I suppose if he can mow the lawn while thinking about his cases, he’s multi-tasking.”
Gursten, his Michigan-based occasional partner, appreciates his friend’s effort and attentiveness. As he sees it, “the biggest reason people hate lawyers is their lack of responsiveness. But Mike is one of those rare lawyers who actually calls people back.”
Which is important to Gursten because some of his clients have suffered traumatic brain injuries. “If they get ignored, they take it harder than someone else might.”
The phone calls don’t necessarily stop once the case is over. Leizerman won a $2.5 million settlement on behalf of Toledo tire salesman Richard “Willie” Lauffer in late 2003. He had suffered multiple fractures and become permanently disabled when a truck backed into him.
“That guy’s first class, more like family than a lawyer,” says Lauffer. “He still calls me once in a while just to say, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’”
Road-Safe in ’04
As he enthusiastically discusses advancements in truck safety, Leizerman almost sounds like he wouldn’t mind being put out of business. He chats about his favorite technology: electronic logs and satellite-positioning systems that can’t be falsified, in-cab satellite communications and collision-avoidance systems.
“It’s radar that scans forward and on the sides,” he explains. “You get a siren when someone’s in your blind spot and the monitor graphs out the positions of all vehicles around the rig. Drivers can see what’s going on, and trucking firms can use it to preemptively examine the tailgating practices of drivers and send them back to driver simulation school if needed.”
Pretty cool. But couldn’t widespread adoption of the technology force him to give up his crown and title of Tractor-Trailer King?
No matter, he says. “The hope is that there really is an increase in safety on the road.”
Worst-case scenario, it just gives Mike Leizerman a little more time for accordion lessons and poultry raising.