Calling the Shots

Big or small, Donald W. Boyajian makes each case count        

Published in 2008 Upstate New York Super Lawyers — September 2008

Don Boyajian's first impression of lawyers wasn't a good one. "I was about age 12," he recalls. "I was in our living room listening to my father's attorney explain why he should settle his claim for specific performance of a written real estate contract, which the seller was seeking to rescind. Trial was venued in a rural county and was imminent. The case was solid but our lawyer predicted that the jury might be turned off by my father's Armenian accent, which was pretty mild."

His immigrant father took the lawyer's advice and accepted a cash settlement, but he was haunted by the decision for the rest of his life whenever he drove by the property, which turned out to be quite valuable.

"I learned a few lessons from the experience," Boyajian says now at 52. "First, I could do better than that guy. Second, little guys deserve protection even if it is not the juiciest or most lucrative case to be had."

Working at Dreyer Boyajian, the firm he started 20 years ago, he has won numerous million-dollar settlements and verdicts in high-profile personal injury cases, like the suit he brought on behalf of the family of an innocent bystander, 24-year-old David Scaringe, who was shot dead by the Albany City Police in 2003. That case resulted in the largest settlement, undisclosed, of a case of that kind in city history.

In another well-publicized case, Boyajian was lead plaintiff's counsel in a class action suit involving 122 people sickened by an E. coli outbreak at the Washington County Fair in 1999. Those victims received a $4 million settlement.He is currently involved in two other class action suits involving waterborne illnesses in both private and state water parks in upstate New York.

"One of the great fun things about personal injury law is that you get to learn so much about a lot of different areas," Boyajian says. Despite all that knowledge, he claims to not know how many million-dollar settlements and judgments he has won over the years. "When you get a good win for somebody, that's what you are supposed to do. I then go on to the next one and get working on something else."

Boyajian had no idea that personal injury law would become his life's work after he graduated from Franklin Pierce Law Center in 1981. After working as a clerk in the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court for a year, he went to a small firm that did commercial litigation, knowing only that someday he wanted his own shop.

Then fate dealt a hand. A close personal friend, John Karian, 23, also a member of Albany's Armenian community, was catastrophically injured at work. He was working in the mechanic's shop of a large car-carrying company. He was beneath a truck in the yard fixing the air brakes when a co-worker ran the vehicle over his pelvis twice. The man's family reached out to the only lawyer they knew, Boyajian, and asked if he could help. He couldn't refuse them so he took the case.

"I dove in with both feet," Boyajian remembers. He soon came to a difficult realization. "On the circumstances, you'd say the case could not be won." Under state law, a man in Karian's situation could not sue either the driver or the owner of the truck.

"There was no chance," Boyajian says. "In fact, the firm I was working for—they were great guys—said, ‘You cannot take this case. This is not a case we want. This is not a case that is winnable. Do not take it.'" But he had given his word, so he went out on his own and worked the case for three years. Boyajian was seeking $3 million for his client. The jury thought otherwise and awarded a $5 million verdict instead.

"The outcome was so good I couldn't do anything other than go into personal injury practice," he says. But he also learned an important lesson. "If somebody really needs help and there is a legitimate, meritorious argument that you can make, and there was in this case, you can't give up on cases just because they are very difficult."

Even after 20 years, he personally handles or oversees all personal injury cases handled by his firm, which consists of nine other lawyers. "I try to evaluate every case not only on the merits but on the client's circumstances and whether we can help that client in a meaningful way," he says. "I find it difficult to say no. When I see a case involving somebody who got a raw deal, we want to try and help them, even though the case might not be easy or potentially lucrative."

His colleagues have noticed. "Don is a tireless advocate for people who have been injured due to the fault of others," says Albany attorney Terence P. O'Connor, who has known Boyajian professionally for 25 years.  "Early on in Don's career, he was involved in several catastrophic injury cases that many lawyers passed over due to their complexity and difficulty. Because of Don's persistence, determination and legal acumen, the results of those cases bore great fruit for his clients."

"He thinks a case through, strategizes it beautifully and prepares it comprehensively," says E. Stewart Jones, another Albany attorney who has known Boyajian for the past two decades.  "He is highly ethical and believes in his clients and the righteousness of his position."

When Boyajian gets out of the courtroom, he often heads to the basketball court. An avid player, he makes a point to get in a game about four times a week. But even on the hardwood, he can't turn off the lawyer side of his brain, always reading the other players. "You can learn a lot about someone by the way they play pick-up hoops," Boyajian says.

He even finds the game helps him empathize with his clients, since he admits that he gets hurt "a lot."

"I've been representing people for years who have been talking about what they go through in terms of physical therapy and electrical stimulation and ultrasound," he says. "But until somebody set a terrible back-pick on me that gave me a whiplash that injured C-5 and C-6, I never knew how painful it was. It gives you a little different perspective when your own hand starts to go numb."

As far as Boyajian is concerned, whether he's spending time on the court, in the court or with his family—he and his wife Rhonda have four children, Don, 22, Caroline, 21, William, 18, and Allison, 16—what makes him tick as a lawyer cannot be separated from what makes him tick as a person.

"I absolutely believe in doing the best you can in all circumstances you're faced with, in any scenario, whether it is being a father, a husband, an advocate for my clients, or as an employer of young lawyers," he says. "You get one shot at life and it's a complete waste if you don't take your best shot."        

 

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