Attorney Kevin Britt Woods, partner at Harmon, Woods, Parker & Abrunzo, talks with Opportunist's Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his firm's area of expertise, why his work is based on quantity and why he finds it necessary to become emotionally involved in each of his cases.
Harmon, Woods, Parker & Abrunzo is a Tampa-based law firm offering professional legal services in the area of catastrophic personal injuries including traumatic brain and spinal cord injury, trucking litigation, wrongful death, products liability, and nursing home litigation. Kevin Woods has 18 years of experience as a practicing attorney during which he has obtained numerous multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements throughout the State of Florida.
Opportunist: What inspired you to enter the legal profession Kevin?
Kevin Woods: My parents were a big influence in my education and on my decision to go to graduate school. My mother was a public school teacher and my father started his career in the US Air Force and then worked as a patrol officer for the Tampa Police Department. Between the two of them, they did not have much money left over after paying the bills, but what they had, they spent on private school for me and my sister. Education was always a priority for them and they instilled those values in their children. When I graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in finance, I knew I wanted to go to law school and thought I would probably focus my practice around commercial or business-related law. During the first 10 years of my career, I initially did a lot of business litigation on behalf of both plaintiffs and defendants. Ultimately I became Board Certified by the Florida Bar in the area of Business Litigation. Over those first few years, I learned how to litigate fairly complex cases. Ultimately, although I’m not 100 percent sure how that happened, [Laughs] my practice area gradually morphed into complex personal injury litigation. I have never really done any significant work other than litigation. I went straight from undergrad to law school, and from law school to my first job as a trial lawyer.
Opportunist: What is your specific area of expertise?
Kevin Woods: We are primarily a personal injury practice handling complex litigation of cases involving brain and spinal cord injury, trucking accidents, products liability and wrongful death. I and my partner Chris Abrunzo handle a lot of cases involving neurological injury. This includes traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury cases that result from dangerous products, significant motor vehicle collisions and trucking accidents. The trucking litigation aspect of our practice primarily involves representing the victims of accidents caused by commercial drivers operating semi tractor-trailers and other large commercial vehicles. Unfortunately, very few of these accidents are considered minor.
My Partners Tom Harmon and Steve Parker handle similar cases but they also take care of the firms' nursing home litigation as well. We have four partners here: Tom Harmon, Steve Parker, Christopher Abruzzo and me. Our firm is highly rated in a number of different publications, such as Super Layers, Best Lawyers in the Nation and Martingale-Hubble.
Opportunist: Has your work on the defense side helped you in your work with plaintiffs?
Kevin Woods: I and a lot of other good plaintiffs’ lawyers started out on the defense side of the table. It is a great way to learn the fundamentals of litigation and get paid by the hour to try cases. In the context of trucking litigation, as a defense lawyer, I was able to interact with my fleet safety managers and find out why they did the things they did, and that was instrumental to learning how to litigate trucking cases. You cannot just walk into a trucking litigation case without first understanding how a trucking company is supposed to operate. Through the defense side, I learned the federal regulations and industry standards governing commercial motor carriers.
Opportunist: Does your firm do much advertising?
Kevin Woods: There are a host of great plaintiff firms that advertise to get their clients—we’ve all seen them on billboards and TV and such—but, no, we don’t do any of that. Our niche, if you will, is referrals from those very good plaintiff lawyers of cases that for a variety of reasons are outside of their business model. Our typical referrals are cases that are complicated for a variety of reasons—perhaps they were too expensive to litigate, or because it is a products case or a trucking case it may be out of their area of expertise or the referring firm knew from the outset that the case would most likely go into litigation and require a trial. Those types of cases are typically referred out to firms like ours. We have the capital and experience to take those cases through the trial process. There are plenty of other firms that can do that too, but we have done quite well with handling complicated cases and making them into winners. So we have a very low volume and we invest a considerable amount of time and money into each case. A typical plaintiffs’ lawyer may have hundreds of cases at any one time, whereas we have 20 or 30 cases per attorney at any one time.
Opportunist: Can you share some highlights from your most notable cases?
Kevin Woods: Due to the nature of our cases, quite a few that are settled prior to or during trial are subject to confidentiality agreements and I’m not permitted to talk about them. The ones that go to trial and a jury renders a verdict, however, are a matter of public record, and we have had numerous multimillion-dollar verdicts. Three of these verdicts in cases where we were lead trial counsel were the highest of their kind in the counties where the verdicts were rendered.
Opportunist: How did you become involved in neurological injury lawsuits?
Kevin Woods: The case that got me into brain injury was a case where several other law firms had initially represented the client. The client was a very difficult person to work with and would oftentimes yell, curse and lose control of his emotions. He had been in a significant automobile collision and had to undergo neck surgery as a result of the collision. He came to us because his personality conflict was a complicating matter in the case and the other lawyers could not work with him.
At first we thought it was simply an orthopedic injury case. It took a while to figure out, and I can’t take all the credit for it. It was divine intervention in the truest sense because, while I was trying to figure out how to deal with the case and client, a neurological case manager mentioned to me that he thought the client also had sustained a brain injury during the collision. Keep in mind that this was now approximately two years after the accident and no doctor had diagnosed brain injury in this case. Based on the suggestion of brain injury, we spent a significant amount of money to have PET scans done and a neuropsychological assessment administered. The results of these tests confirmed that, in fact, the client had suffered a brain injury, which also perfectly explained his personality and emotional issues that did not exist before the accident.
After working on that case for a couple of years, we took it to trial in 2007 and the jury came back with a $6.5 million verdict. All told, the insurance company wrote a check to my client for $7.6 million with fees, costs and interest added on a short time later. That was a pivotal case for me because up until that time I primarily handled commercial litigation and some wrongful death and products liability cases. This case got me through the steep learning curve involved in brain injury cases and I learned how to get traumatic brain injury case to a verdict at trial. I have had a number of similar verdicts on these types of cases since then.
Opportunist: Can you share a few more with us?
Along with my partners Tom Harmon and Steve Parker, I won what was I Believe the biggest verdict in Alachua County on a wrongful death case against an employee of the Department of Children and Family. DCF operated several state-run facilities for Tacachale was a campus with group homes supervised by DCF employees who lived or worked there and monitored the resident disabled adults.
One of the workers decided to check out a facility van to take some of the residents on a picnic to Ginnie Springs. The van had been negligently maintained and one of the tires had been improperly repaired. Rather than drive to Ginnie Springs, the caregiver drove to her cousin’s house instead. There she consumed marijuana and alcohol while leaving the disabled residents sitting inside the van for the balance of the afternoon. Then, on the way home the tire deflated started to fail. After the tire had completely come apart, the driver lost control of the van and it began to flip ejecting many of the disabled residents. While the driver was unharmed, three of disabled residents died as a result of the single vehicle accident. I represented the families of the decedents in this case. It was big news in Gainesville, where the trial was aired on TV every night. We got a $40 million verdict on that case against the driver of the van.
We have had other cases in which we won multimillion-dollar verdicts. My partners tried two back to back cases last year with $1 million-plus verdicts. In Wauchula another significant case involved a product defect on a safety seat. We received a $3.2 million verdict in that case.
Opportunist: What are some of the deciding factors for you and your firm in choosing whether or not to represent an entity in a legal matter?
From a business standpoint, we base our decision on whether the case is going to be profitable for the firm. That is always a consideration. Beyond that, we look at the credibility of the plaintiff or the individual we are going to represent to determine if their claim is legitimate. There are litigious individuals out there who are malingering or faking, so we try to ensure that we represent only those whose needs are legitimate and who have suffered damage as the result of another’s conduct. On the other hand, we also make sure we are the best firm for them. Oftentimes other firms or lawyers who have particular expertise in another area are better able to handle their claims. We consider all those factors to ultimately ensure that the client’s interests will be properly served. If it is a good case, but we are not the best firm for the case, then we refer it out to the correct firm.
It is also important for us to try to keep our volume low. We are not set up to handle a high volume of cases and for that reason we have to be cognizant of the number of cases we carry at any given time. Our business model requires that we invest in cases that require extensive time, energy and resources. There are some firms where the client never gets to talk to their attorney. I have a personal relationship with each one of my clients and I handle the lion’s share of the attorney work on each file. Unfortunately, we sometimes have to turn down cases just because we already have a heavy workload and cannot handle more, although I will say that’s a good problem to have. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Is there a particular case in which you felt perhaps a bit more emotionally involved than in others?
Kevin Woods: I would say I am emotionally involved in each case that I take. I have found that I tend to take on the problems of my client and that, in a sense, they become my own. If I’m not emotionally involved then I don’t feel as if I’m relating the way I should. When I am working with a client, I frequently go to their home and spend time with them and their family. Since I am ultimately the one presenting what my client has been through, as well as the issues they’re continuing to deal with, I cannot effectively present their case to the jury unless I know them on that level. There are some clients whom I like more than others. By the time you get to trial you have spent so much time with the client that, like them or not, you are emotionally involved in the situation. By the time a case goes to trial, I have seen all the medical records and come to know the good and the bad relating to the client’s whole life. I will say that I am very happy for my clients when we win big verdicts and settlements because I have witnessed the toll that these situations have taken on them and their family.
Opportunist: Has the legal profession changed much since you passed the bar exam?
Kevin Woods: Yes. It has changed quite a bit. In terms of my practice, when I was a young associate I did primarily defense work and a little personal injury. I clerked for the oldest law firm in Tampa for two years while in law school and was hired as an associate after graduation. While I was there, I saw that there was a hierarchy of trial lawyers—the big dogs, if you will—who were kind of at the pinnacle of their careers. From what I’ve seen over the years, that type of lawyer is now rare. They are still out there, but with the advent of advertising there are a select few firms that get the lion’s share of cases and you simply do not see those firms referring as many cases to the tried and true trial lawyers anymore. Many firms keep those cases for themselves simply because advertising and cash requirements are so high.
Opportunist: What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Kevin Wood: Every time I succeed in getting a case resolved and the client is happy I feel a great sense of happiness. Typically, my cases take a long period of time to resolve and require that I invest a tremendous amount of work before the problem is successfully resolved and the client regains their financial and medical independence. I find it very rewarding to see a difficult case concluded so that the client no longer needs to bear those burdens.
Many clients I represent who have suffered brain or spinal cord injury have the rest of their lives ahead of them and face tremendous medical bills and can no longer work or care for themselves or their families. Knowing that I played a role in their recovery makes it all worthwhile.
Opportunist: Are there any developments taking place within your firm that you can share with us today?
Kevin Woods: We just added a new attorney, Christa Collins who is heading up our class action cases. We have done class action work on a case-by-case basis in the past, but we perceive the need for more of these services in our Tampa market as large businesses and insurance companies continue to find new ways to save money at the expense of the consumer. We hope to expand that practice area through the end of 2015.
Opportunist: Which direction do you see your firm headed in over the next five to 10 years?
Kevin Woods: I am quite happy with the direction that the firm is going at present. I love the type of work we are doing, I love the people we are helping, and I am very thankful for all of the great people and firms we get to work with to make these cases a success. My continuing hope and prayer is that attorneys and law firms in the State of Florida will partner with Harmon, Woods, Parker & Abrunzo on significant cases and that we will be able to add expertise and experience in the resolution of their clients cases through trial.
Opportunist: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment thus far?
Kevin Woods: My faith in God, and my wife and children. I am not sure that’s an accomplishment as much as a gift from God, but to me they are the most important things in my life.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.