Peter Perlman explains how to prep a case, talk to a jury and dropkick a basketball
Published in 2007 Kentucky Super Lawyers Magazine — June 2007 on February 23, 2016
Updated on June 3, 2020
Peter Perlman has seen the lawyers on TV and in the movies. He’s seen the bravado, the posturing, the bluster. But the Lexington trial lawyer––the man after whom the Kentucky Academy of Trial Attorneys named its “Outstanding Trial Lawyer” award––will tell you that in his own practice, he tries to take the high road. “There’s an old saying, you don’t want to mud-wrestle with pigs,” Perlman says. “You both get dirty, but the pig loves it.”
That might sound strange coming from a guy who got his first job in law from a basketball referee who ejected him from a high school game for having a temper tantrum. “Tommy Bell, the ref, called a foul on me,” Perlman recalls. “I thought it was unjust, so I dropkicked the ball and he threw me out.
“Years later, I ran into him downtown, and he said, ‘Are you still dropkicking basketballs?’ I asked him, ‘Are you still refereeing?’ We got reacquainted and he offered me a job as a clerk in his office.”
Growing up in South Fort Mitchell, Perlman aspired to be a doctor, but when he won a scholarship to law school, his career path changed. “I was pre-med in college, and I thought I’d go to law school and then medical school,” he says. “But by the time I graduated from law school [at the University of Kentucky College of Law], my wife was expecting, so I started working instead.”
Still, Perlman has made good use of his pre-med training. In 1978, he founded the Peter Perlman Law Offices, specializing in catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases from motor vehicle collisions, product defects, and aviation and railroad collisions. “I wanted the chance to make a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “Lives are in our hands, just like a surgeon’s. If you’re not detailed and well- organized, you can’t ever have the case back.”
Many of his cases involve defective parts of vehicles. In February, he won a $11.6 million verdict for a woman who was paralyzed after a rented tow dolly hitched to her SUV suddenly fishtailed on the interstate, forcing the vehicle off the road and into the median. The car rolled over the guardrail, pinning the woman under the roof.
“When U-Haul placed its tow dollies on the market in 1982, they required the towing vehicle have a 2-to-1 weight ratio with the vehicle in tow, and prohibited towing with SUVs, since the center of gravity is so high,” Perlman says. “Since then, they’ve made changes, and the current model, which came out in 1998, requires a 1-to-1 weight ratio and allows rental to SUVs. Our position in the trial was that the changes U-Haul made were intended to increase the rental market, but made towing more dangerous.”
Eleven million is no small figure. Perlman says the amount serves two purposes. First, “we want to keep [my client] with her family and maximize her ability to enjoy life. She’s suffered enough with the injuries; she shouldn’t have to suffer with second-rate medical care, too,” he says.
Second, Perlman hopes that a multimillion-dollar verdict against a large company will serve as a catalyst for safety changes in its products––as it did a few years ago, when Perlman argued a case in which a woman was run over and killed by a Chrysler minivan that had just been parked. The woman’s 4-year-old daughter had been in the car, so Chrysler’s lawyers argued the girl had probably moved the gear-shift lever. Perlman contended that the minivan should have had a brake-shift interlock, which would have prevented the child from using the lever. “At that time, every minivan but Chrysler’s had that feature,” he says. “Now Chrysler has that safety feature. We feel our case may have had something to do with that,” he says.
In the courtroom, Perlman is low-key. He tries hard to come across not as a big-shot lawyer, but as a person talking to his neighbor over the back fence. “I used to teach a class at the University of Kentucky College of Law, and on the first day of class I always told my students to remember what they used to talk like before they went to law school. When you’re in court, you want to talk like a normal person.”
Emotional involvement is hard to avoid in his line of work. Perlman occasionally gets choked up during closing arguments, most recently in the case involving the paralyzed woman and the tow dolly. “I was thinking about the importance of the verdict and the consequences to my client if the jury didn’t come out in her favor,” he says. “The stakes are very high.”
Perlman becomes—and stays—very close to his clients. “Over the years, the people I’ve worked with have become lifelong friends,” he says. “I still stay in touch with the family of a little boy who was paralyzed in a helmet injury.”
He’s also loved by his colleagues, who have honored him with numerous awards and memberships into prestigious organizations, including the Inner Circle of Advocates, an invitation-only group limited to 100 U.S. trial lawyers. He’s been inducted into the University of Kentucky College of Law’s Hall of Fame, where an endowment in his name provides scholarships to law students.
And, of course, there’s that award. The Peter Perlman Outstanding Trial Lawyer Award, given annually by the Kentucky Academy of Trial Attorneys, is bestowed upon an attorney who has demonstrated exceptional talent, fights for the rights of consumers even when cases and causes are unpopular, and gives back to the legal profession by working to protect America’s constitutional right to trial by jury.
Perlman is humbled by the honors. “I’m proud to be recognized by my peers, the people who know best what I’ve tried to do with my professional life,” he says.
Not surprisingly, Perlman’s professional activities keep him busy and often out of the office, a fully restored two-story Victorian building in downtown Lexington that’s listed on the National Historic Register. They also, along with out-of-town trials, keep him away from home. “When I’m gone a few weeks at a time, my wife [Lana] wishes I would retire.
“But if I were home more than a few days she’d probably tell me to get back to work,” he laughs.
The 69-year-old has no plans to slow down just yet, but he knows that day will arrive eventually. “We have lifelong friends through most of the groups I’m associated with,” he says. “I’m not ready to give that up.”
He may not be ready, but he’s already got a retirement plan. “I used to do bartending when I was in college and law school,” Perlman says. “I’m hoping in five or six years I’ll be on the beach in Tahiti tending bar, with my wife helping me.”