Jim Gilbert’s crusade for victims of unsafe vehicles
Published in 2022 Colorado Super Lawyers Magazine on February 28, 2022
In 1978, James L. Gilbert’s five-year-old daughter Kristine was run over by a car.
“That memory is etched into my soul, and will never be forgotten,” he says. Kristine lost part of her leg that day; today she’s a nurse helping kids at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Gilbert, then a general practice attorney, had recently been asked to take on a lawsuit against Ford on behalf of a family of five who had burned to death in their Pinto after being rear-ended at a relatively low speed. The gas tank, notorious for being positioned at the rear bumper, had exploded into flames. In photographs from the scene, Gilbert could make out what looked like hands reaching for the windows, trying to escape the burning car.
That case, and Kristine’s accident, changed the course of his life forever. “That’s when I really made the final decision that I want to help people who are injured like that,” he says. “I changed from a general practice to this practice so that I could help people.”
The Gilbert Law Group’s focus—litigating complex automobile and automobile component defect cases against the likes of Chrysler, Ford and GM—has to date secured more than $1 billion in settlements and verdicts. The firm’s work has led to cars like the Pinto and the CJ5 and CJ7 Jeeps being removed from the road, as well as changes to the Ford Explorer and Toyota 4Runner to reduce the risk of rollovers. In 2013, Gilbert won a record $43 million verdict from a Vermont jury against Johnson Controls after an unsafe seat collapsed from a minor accident and paralyzed his client. His no-stone-unturned discovery style—his is the only firm of its kind with an in-house engineering department—discovered that the company knew the seat’s single-sided recliner was faulty and could have been reinforced for $7.16.
In other cases, many of which settled before trial, Gilbert has used a crash-testing facility in California to demonstrate the design choices that could have saved clients from death, paralysis or devastating burns. In one test, he pulled a vehicle up on chains and dropped it on its head after injecting foam into its pillars to show that’s all it would have taken to save the victims; in another, he added a skid plate to a fuel tank to prove that an SUV can be dragged along the top of a Jersey barrier without erupting into a fireball.
As the proud father of national champion Formula racer Micky Gilbert, and a longtime racer himself—he once learned about vehicle dynamics the tough way, spinning out of control and crashing into the wall coming out of turn 10 at the Laguna Seca racetrack—Gilbert has also been known to impress juries by using famous racecar drivers, including Bobby Unser, as expert witnesses.
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone in the country more knowledgeable about car manufacturing and design defects,” says Richard H. Friedman of Friedman Rubin in Seattle. Friedman, like Gilbert, is a member of the exclusive Inner Circle of Advocates, whose membership is limited to 100 personal injury lawyers nationwide. When those lawyers come across a potential defect claim against a car manufacturer, Gilbert is the person they call.
That’s how Judith A. Livingston, senior partner at Kramer, Dillof, Livingston & Moore in New York City, came to partner with Gilbert on a large design defect case against a major car manufacturer.
“Jim stands out as one of, if not the most formidable attorney in America at holding the automobile industry accountable for the results of negligent design, of intentionally careless design or putting profits over safety,” Livingston says. “What’s unique about Jim Gilbert is his vast experience, combined with having an engineer assisting him every step of the way to uncover why the automobile or particular parts of the automobile should not have been manufactured as they were, and how such injuries could have been avoided.”
Bruce Braley of Leventhal Puga Braley teamed up with Gilbert for years on a complex suit that settled in 2019. “It was just an honor to get to work with him,” Braley says. “It was fascinating to watch how he and his team put together this very challenging case. … Jim and his team, including the engineer, went through thousands of documents.”
“He has been a pioneer in a field of law that has impacted the safety of motor vehicles for the past 40 years, and the work that he has done to insist these auto manufacturers live up to the commitments they make to their consumers when they spend billions on expensive TV advertising has made vehicles safer for people in the United States,” says Braley, a former U.S. Congressman who in 2014 questioned the CEO of GM about deadly crashes resulting from defective ignition switches, famously holding up a swag screwdriver with the slogan “Safety Comes First at GM” that made the national newswires. “What Jim did was separate the myth of these statements and marketing materials and dig into the engineering and development decisions that are made including decisions made to save money that cost people’s lives.”
Sitting in his conference room in a small office park in Arvada—the same town he grew up in back when it was still rural—Gilbert is unassuming in a red fleece and NYU Law baseball cap as he downplays his own technical knowledge and insists lawyers should “talk regular.” He grew up raising calves and lambs, the oldest of eight children, their father a large animal veterinarian. He went to Colorado State University and earned a scholarship to New York University’s School of Law. He also worked as a bartender in West Greenwich Village.
“Law school was probably the worst training I had as far as learning to select juries and try cases,” he says. “Lawyers are taught in law school to talk, and a good trial lawyer is like your favorite grandma or your favorite bartender: they listen.”
Gilbert also attributes his success to the people he surrounds himself with, like his firm’s engineer, Andrew Kim, the lawyers of the Inner Circle, and lawyers at the Attorneys Information Exchange Group, which he founded during that first Pinto case.
Gilbert nods across the conference room table at senior litigation paralegal and certified e-discovery specialist Lindsey Berg, whom he credits for helping him learn much of the engineering on a lawsuit heading to trial against GM. Berg started at the firm when she was a 16-year-old high school student at Arvada West. She was nannying the children of Gilbert’s office manager, who brought her in before a big trial to help put barcodes on the exhibits. She stayed with the firm through college, left to work at a big firm, but eventually returned.
“My heart was here,” she says. “It’s incredible literally making the impossible possible at this firm. I don’t think Jim hears enough from any of us what a privilege it is to work here. The engineer has been here for 30 years. Our office manager has been here for 35 years. People stick around here because of the relationships that Jim builds. He has such genuine relationships.”
Those relationships extend to his courtroom adversaries. Edward C. Stewart, a partner at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, who represents auto manufacturers as national trial counsel, has counted Gilbert as both a friend and adversary for the better part of two decades. It’s not uncommon for Gilbert and Stewart to talk frankly about a case over lunch.
“He really believes he can win, because he’s really good. You can’t blame the guy for that,” Stewart says. “A lot of people don’t learn the science and have a lot of bluster, but Jim does the homework and knows the physics. He’s known on both sides as being technically very sound, especially about the products. He’s tough on discovery issues, but he’ll always fight fair in the sense that he’ll give you extensions for time and won’t play gotcha.”
Charla Aldous of Aldous Walker in Dallas, who sought out Gilbert’s partnership and expertise on a products liability case involving a gas tank explosion in a rollover crash, says when automobile industry lawyers hear Gilbert is on the case, they stand up and listen.
“I watched Jim interact with the lawyers on the other side and as is typical of him, he was a total class act, ethical and honest but very well respected as a formidable adversary,” she says. “He can outwork anybody, and he usually has a twinkle in his eye while he’s doing it.”
He always starts that work by visiting the victim’s family.
“I don’t care what state they’re in. I want to go see where the family lives,” he says. “I want to walk inside the home, see what they have on their walls.”
His record $43.5 million verdict in Vermont against seat manufacturer Johnson Controls was a case that several law firms had turned down. But after meeting the family, and after his team figured out why the client’s seat collapsed, he knew he could put together a powerful, emotional story to complement the case’s technical details.
“I was amazed he even took that case,” Friedman says. “I think he loves a challenge. Probably in another life he was an engineer. Like the medical malpractice lawyer who loves medicine, he loves engineering. Here’s a case where there doesn’t seem to be anyone to go against. It doesn’t look like the car company did anything wrong. He loves to get into the nitty-gritty details and solve problems other people haven’t been able to solve.”
As Gilbert told the jury, the story of the case actually began 20 years before trial, when Dzemila Heco’s husband was shot and killed defending their village in Bosnia. Heco feared her two young sons would be next, so she fled with them through a tunnel underneath the airport in Sarajevo, then over a mountain range into Croatia, before immigrating to the United States. Those little boys were young men by the time of the accident that made their mother quadriplegic. They understood all she had done to save their lives, and they decided they weren’t sending her to a nursing home. They were going to take care of her every need, just as she had done for them.
Gilbert pointed out that she could have moved anywhere in the United States, but chose Vermont. He told the jurors how he’d been living in their community—something he likes to do before trial—to get to know the place and the people.
“Ladies and gentleman, I want you to know what a great choice that was for her,” he told the jury. “They represent the spirit of this part of Vermont, and I can see now why they happily settled in this community, and this community is responsible for telling people what is proper to do when you design something like a [defective] seatback.”
By this time, Gilbert had shown through discovery that the seat manufacturer knew the type of seat in Heco’s car, with a recliner on only one side, was prone to collapse even in low-impact collisions. The safer seats had recliners on both sides.
So at closing, when he presented the jury with two possible life-care plans with different dollar amounts, he said, “Ladies and gentleman, this defendant has given her a seat with one recliner. Don’t let them give her a life-care plan with one recliner. She wants the dual recliner life-care plan, and she deserves it.”
Outside the courthouse, he learned from jurors that there had been disagreement over the award. A few jurors had wanted to hold out for $80 million; $43.5 million was the compromise.
“A lot of lawyers love to brag about big verdicts, and I guess big verdicts are good,” he says. “A lot of people have come to me because of the verdicts they may have read about, but the real key is helping people.
“I’m not proud because of the number. I’m proud because I’ve been able to help families.”