By Peter Cary
E. Carter Corriston, talking of his negligence-law practice, is a man possessed. His arms flail like a windmill, and he bounces excitedly forward and back in his restaurant chair as he recalls cases and reveals his courtroom secrets.
"Fully prepare the case. Spare no expense. You never save a dollar," he feverishly lectures a listener, explaining how he has risen to the top of his filed in a new age of sky-high jury awards and multimillion-dollar settlements.
His cigarette falls off an ashtray and begins to burn through the tablecloth. Leaning forward then back, his hands flapping, the solidly built, stocky attorney unconsciously begins to pull the tablecloth and its contents onto his lap.
"You've got an accident case. Get photos of the scene. Go there yourself. Get a feel for the place, relive it in your mind. Get total hospital records. Depositions of anybody and everybody involved. Hire experts, and if you don't like what your first expert says, you hire another."
His intensity grows, his shaggy white hair falls across his forehead, and the full contents of the table cloth, ashtray, salt and pepper, sugar bowl and his drink glass, move ever near the table edge. Still he doesn't notice.
"I've got this burned little girl," he says. I wrote to the American Trial Lawyers Association. I got a list of all lawyers who handled anything like it in the past five years. Thousand of cases, I'm looking for experts. This thing, to this little girl, is the absolute worst thing that could happen to her outside of being paralyzed."
Now he is getting loud, there is a sheen of sweat on his face, his tie is loose, his eyes grow steely, and the half-filled drink glass totters on the table's edge.
"I went through 1,000 pages of micro-film. It took me three and one-half years to get the right report...so I can go to the insurance company and say, 'Put up or die!' He slams the table with his hand.
And as the drink slides to the table's edge, a red-coated waiter swoops to the table, grabs the glass, and pushes the whole table cloth back to dead center. Corriston never even sees him.
Like the waiter who grabbed the glass, Corriston, 45, is a man in the right place at the right time - and, in his view, one who can do great good. Twenty years ago, negligence lawyers chased ambulances and scrambled to make a buck for themselves and clients, and Corriston was earning $100 a week at his Hackensack law firm, learning the basics from his mentor, John . J. Breslin. Ten years ago, Million-dollar jury awards were rare - there have been fewer than 300 nationwide in the last decade.
But now juries are awarding more and more and, out-f-court settlements in the millions of dollars are increasingly common. In a North jersey case, settled last month, a former Union City schoolteacher received $1.1 Million for burns she received in the explosion of vapors from an open pan of gasoline in her basement - collecting from the manufacturer of a hot-water heater whose flame ignited the gasoline. Public Service Electric & Gas Co., and even from the manufacturer of a gasoline can that carried no warning against the flammability of gasoline.
Also last month a Fort Lee man won $850,000 from PSE&G for a 1977 gas explosion that leveled his Fairview embroidery factor, critically injuring him and killing his wife.
Suits stemming from the 1973 60 vehicle New Jersey Turnpike crash were recently settled for $2.2 Million. Also last month, a Staten Island family filed suit seeking $510 Million for physical and psychological injuries they claims tem from the Elizabeth chemical-warehouse fire.
Insurance coverage increases
As the awards grow, insurance coverage increases, tempting more and bigger negligence suits. In New Jersey, courts pressed by sharp negligence lawyers have rendered more liberal decisions - now, for instance, manufacturers can be held negligent for not installing safety devices on products. And attorneys who have a lock on the business are in the driver's seat as they take more and more cases and win more for their clients.
"I probably open two cases a week, and these are serious cases," says Corriston who lives with his wife and five children in Englewood Cliffs, and has worked as attorney and prosecutor for several boroughs.
"I have maybe 100 plaintiffs in a year I do, in a normal year, about $2 Million in recoveries, Jay (Breslin a partner) does $1 Million. Last year the gross amount recovered by Breslin and Breslin (his firm) was $6 Million, not counting my $2.2 Million cash settlement."
Corriston and Jay Breslin say their take ranges from one-quarter to one-third on a case under $100,00 to less on bigger awards.
What makes successful negligence lawyers? Listen to 77-year-old Harry Lipsig, the dean of them all, said to be the best in the country, talking from his downtown New jersey law office: "you'd be surprised at the different types. Some do it by dint of sweat and attention to detail, bringing to bear their great reasoning powers. Another would have a most engaging, outgoing personality,....He may be a brilliant cross-examiner or brilliant actor...Sincerity is vital - if the jury gets the idea you are insincere, they will bury you."
And ego? "Egocentricity is almost a necessary trait. There has to be pride of accomplishment and what is egocentricity than some measure of pride. If he does not have that, he is no man," Lipsig says.
Intensity. Concern. Showmanship. preparation, toughness, street-taught smartness, attention to details, aggressiveness, and a monumental ego. These are the qualities that make successful negligence lawyers, and if you don't believe that, Corriston is one of the best, ask him.
"I got $2.175 Million in cash. I got the biggest cash settlement in the history of Bergen County," he says proudly, referring to a New Brunswick case settled last summer in which a driver was struck from behind at a stoplight by a truck." This wasn't a structured settlement, (payable over a long period.) This was cash. I don't think anyone ever got $2.2 Million in cash. I've got the checks right here in my office to prove it."
Frank Lloyd of Harwood, Lloyd, Ryan, Coyle & Wulster can't suppress a laugh when asked if Corriston is the best in North jersey. He says most lawyers regard Corriston as such, but points to a framed set of newspaper clippings chronicling a $2.6 Million jury verdict he won last year for three Saddle Brook firemen who were burned one died) when a fuel tank on a burning garbage truck exploded.
"I like to needle Carter about that," says Lloyd, who, with his Hackensack law firm, is known for defending insurance companies, not for representing plaintiffs.
Lloyd is the opposite of Corriston. He is soft-spoken and takes great care to be precise. His is a world of caution, of reason. Square-jawed, suntanned, in a white button-down shirt and tasteful blue tie, he is a man you'd love to have as your neighbor. His lawn would always be neatly clipped.
"A defense attorney has to convince a jury to be fair and reasonable," he says. "You can't appeal to emotion, bias, passion as a defendant. I'll bet that Carter would admit, if you asked him, that he appeals to emotion, bias, passion."
Despite their different approaches to the law, Lloyd and Corriston regard each other as friends; and they agree on most aspects of the negligence-law scene.
Aspects of negligence law
A good 95 percent of negligence suits are settled between the parties to the suit, most before the case even goes to trial, a few during trial but before the verdict is reached.
Still, it is the threat of a jury trial that brings the parties to the bargaining table. Jury awards have become more liberal because of inflation, because jurors are more affluent, the lawyers say. Jurors are more sophisticated, they hear more and more reports of lawsuit awards, and large awards no longer seem unreasonable. They are more aware of what is means to suffer, and they may even may be more compassionate, Lloyd says.
While the field of defendants lately has expanded to include doctors, and, most recently, product manufacturers, there are still only a small group of prime targets for negligence suits. The list is headed by large auto manufacturers, and includes tire manufacturers, drug companies, and cancer-linked chemical manufacturers or asbestos producers.
No right-thinking negligence lawyer would sue anyone who isn't insured. "You're wasting your time," Corriston says.
And, at least in New Jersey, few negligence lawyers want medical-malpractice suits. Corriston says he takes one out of 10 he is approached to represent.
"It's very costly, and not easy to find qualified doctors to testify against other doctors. It can take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars just to find out if there's a case there," says Brian Coyle, a partner of Lloyd's.
The suits they do take, they pursue doggedly, often searching a haystack of facts for the needle that will sew up the case For Lloyd, in his $2.6 Million gasoline tank explosion case, the key was one line amongst subpoenaed truck-maintenance records that showed the tank's gas cap had been replaced with an unvented one that allowed explosive pressure to build in the tank.
For some cases they use their own in-house investigators, for other cases they hire specialists. in medical cases, the lawyers pore over medical textbooks, becoming expert in medical practice, in treatment and especially in the lives of the suffering, which they lay before juries detail by painful detail.
"All the brilliance in the world can't compensate for the preparation which anticipates every question," says Lipsig. It is not uncommon for multimillion-dollar lawsuits to take five years to prepare.
If a trial goes to jury, not any old jury will do. Using their rights to remove jurors, lawyers try to set up a jury which will be most favorable to their cases.
"There are certain people you don't let sit," says Corriston. "Bankers, you can forget about them. People who work for the government, people who work for the oil companies or utilities.
"Give me a laborer - a person who runs a sewing machine in a factory. She can sympathize. Give me free-spenders, give me certain ethnic types who are warm and family oriented. Give me Italians, Jews. businessmen are good, salespersons. The biggest problem is we don't get businessmen or salesmen on juries in Bergen County.
Unlike many of his brethren across the country who dazzle jurors with graphic exhibits - films of a day in the life of a paraplegic are often used in accident suits - Corriston eschews such devices. His secret is to know the locality, know the jurors, and know the accident so well that he can implant ideas in jurors minds that they won't forget..
"I don't think you need all this showmanship. We have reasonable people in Bergen County, they don't need all those gimmicks," he says.
But Harry Lipsig, who won one of his first famous cases in 1934 in Hackensack in a case that established the precedent that drivers should look out for children, says he would prefer never to go to court in New Jersey.
"They really aren't as urbanized a people. Jurors there are not in the same atmosphere of easy money as New Yorkers. New Yorkers have Wall Street, they are accustomed to big money. Jerseyites are homeowners, they are more careful of money. There's no finer being for empathy than you get in the good city of New York."