Dianne Jay Weaver, Weaver & Weaver, P.A., Jacksonville

How Weaver went from being called “The Skirt” to landing nearly twenty $1 million-plus verdicts. No one’s snickering now

Published in 2010 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2010

How did you become interested in law in the first place?

When I was 13 or 14, the grandfather of my best friend in junior high was a premier trial lawyer. On breaks, my friend and I used to go and watch some of his cases. I watched him take the jury from being totally indifferent to just looking at him whenever something happened to see if he approved or disapproved. It was so fascinating to see this happen. I went home and told my parents, “I’m going to be a trial lawyer.”

 

And your parents were OK with that?

No arguments from my family. When I got to college, my parents said, “You know, there really are no women trial lawyers. What is the second thing that you love? Why don’t you study that and then go back later for law.” The second thing that I loved was children, so I got my undergraduate degree in elementary education. I taught school for a year and said, “No, if I can do this, I can be a trial lawyer.” So I went to law school at Indiana University.

 

And after that it was all smooth sailing?

It was very, very difficult in 1972 to find a law firm that would hire a woman to do trial work. I was offered jobs to do appellate work and to be the librarian and all that kind of stuff, but—even though I was a federal law clerk, which meant I had excellent credentials—I really bumped into a few walls before I got a job doing trial work. I was the only woman in Fort Lauderdale doing jury trials for several years. They used to call me “The Skirt.” You know what? It really wasn’t a disadvantage, once I got a chance. My mother had told me, “Honey, don’t worry about being a female, worry about being a good trial lawyer. If that’s what you worry about, then it will happen.” In many ways, it was an advantage [being female] because I was underestimated. Nobody believed at that point in time that a woman could be a good trial lawyer.

 

Your husband, Ben, is also a partner at your firm. How did you meet?

We met in law school, then we both were lucky enough to be chosen to serve as attorneys on the staff of the federal court in Miami, for different judges. I was hired by U.S. Judge Peter Fay as a federal law clerk in Miami and my husband was a federal law clerk for Judge Joe Eaton. We fell in love with Florida and couldn’t go back to Indiana. Judge Fay, who was my mentor, said, ‘If I were you, I would go to Fort Lauderdale, because that way you can practice in Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach. So that’s how we ended up there. Eventually we ended up at Weaver & Weaver, and we had eight lawyers.

 

But you moved to Jacksonville in 2001?

We’re a very close-knit family, and when our children got to the point that they were near college, we didn’t really want them to settle in South Florida. We felt it had become not as family-oriented a place for them to start raising their families. We thought the odds were they would move where we were when they graduated from college. We started looking around and really just fell in love with Jacksonville. I drive down the street here and turn on my turn signal to change lanes, and they slow down instead of speeding up.

 

About that close-knit family: You have six kids?

Ben and I had one biological child and we have four adopted children and one foster child. We were just very, very lucky [in life] and decided we would love to adopt children. The last adopted one is a brain-injured child, and that’s how I became so interested in the field of brain injury. Our foster child came to us as a teenager from an unhappy family, and we just kept her with us. They’re in their 20s and 30s now.

 

And your age is…?

I come from a long line of women who lie about their age. When I was introduced into the International Academy of Trial Lawyers—the first woman—the lawyer who was introducing me said, “Dianne, I have so much information about you but I don’t have your age.” And I said, “And you’re not getting it.”

 

Fair enough. How did you and your husband juggle raising six kids and maintaining two law careers?

Well, I just went around feeling guilty all the time. No, what we did was live close. If I hit every traffic light between my house and the office, it would take me five minutes. And we would always hire a young girl who was going to college and give her room and board, books and tuition, so the kids had someone with them around the clock. And my husband and I didn’t get involved in any of what he calls “the Disease Balls”: the Heart Ball, the Cancer Ball. We just practiced law, and whatever we would do socially would be things with our children. I had a full-time housekeeper, so it allowed me the freedom to be with my kids when I was home. The No. 1 thing we did was that I cooked a family dinner every night.

 

You’ve taken on many complex personal injury cases. Does one stand out?

A 19-year-old man who was riding a motorbike to junior college was hit by a car and had a lot of orthopedic injuries. They were so severe and he was on so much medication that it wasn’t until many months later that people started noticing he wasn’t functioning right. He had a brain injury and developed seizures. He would periodically go into rages and ended up being arrested; they put him in the South Florida Evaluation & Treatment Center. In Florida, you’re only allowed to use restraint for less than 24 hours without calling someone in to review it. These people kept this sweet young boy in four- or five-point restraints, tied to a bed, for two-and-half years.

Some lawyers got him released, and then he got spooked in a grocery store—nobody knows why—and went running down the walk and accidentally ran into an older lady and knocked her down, and she died. This time they put him in the North Florida Evaluation & Treatment Center, where they put him in a 10-by-5 cell with a 20-watt light bulb. When his brother went to visit him, they found him naked in the corner, hiding his eyes from the light. That’s when I came into it on a civil side. His criminal lawyers came to me and said, “This is the worst violation of civil rights we’ve ever seen.” So I went through the records and met with some experts, and they did an MRI of his brain and could see that structural changes had occurred.

I got him into the Florida Institute for Neurological Institution, a brain-injury inpatient facility, then proceeded with the civil rights case down here. We had 23 defendants and a 12-week trial, and the jury found 20 of them responsible, three were exonerated, and they awarded him $18 million, which was the largest civil-rights verdict ever in the state of Florida and still is.

It was a knock-down-drag-out trial, but as a result, a mental health court was formed in South Florida so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again.

 

Any other particularly interesting cases?

One of my most fun cases was a young lady who came to me and her car trunk had rusted out. She had gone to three lawyers and told them, “My trunk rusted out and they won’t repair it.” The lawyers wanted so much money down, and she didn’t have it, so she went to Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen and asked for help, and they sent her to me. She said she had purchased rust-proofing; that’s why she thought they should repair it. But she told me that, when she went to have it repaired, she was told there was no rust-proofing.

I said, “Here’s the keys to my car; give me the keys to your car. I’m going to take your car to an independent garage that I trust; if they tell me that your car wasn’t rust-proofed, I’ll take your case. I found out they hadn’t rust-proofed her car, even though she had bought a non-negotiable package of rust-proofing, paint sealant and fabric sealant that she had to buy or else wait for a special-order car. I asked the jury to award me $1,000 to repair her trunk and $5 million in punitive damages. It came back in December 1984 with $5.1 million. It was the single largest consumer fraud verdict in the nation at the time. It was written up in the London papers: “Woman Gets $5 Million for Rusty Boot.” We provided copies of the verdict to other consumers who went to their car dealers and were able to get their cars fixed. That was great.

 

What advice do you have for young lawyers?

I tell them my goal is for the opposing counsel, when they see my name on a case, to have this response: “This one is going to be done right.” I’ve tried to bend over backward to communicate with opposing counsel. And I always assume that my enemy is smarter than me. Also, I’m a one-lie lawyer. I tell my clients when I interview them, “One lie and I’m no longer your lawyer.”

 

Have you ever had to follow through on that threat?

Unfortunately, I have.

 

You’ve landed well over a dozen multimillion-dollar verdicts during your career. How do you account for that?

I love what I do, and I’m very lucky to get to pick and choose who I represent. Therefore, when I represent someone, I really believe in them. I think juries know that. I am a firm believer that people who serve on juries are really trying to do the right thing. And I think they have a pretty good instinct about people.

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