CRUSER MITCHELL’S DIRECTOR OF LITIGATION MANAGEMENT JENNIFER KAPP SAT DOWN WITH OUR NEW YORK OFFICE MANAGING PARTNER RONDIENE NOVITZ TO TALK ABOUT HER SUCCESS IN THE COURTROOM, RESOLVING CASES, AND BEING A WOMAN IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION.
JENNIFER KAPP: The goal of our attorneys is to provide excellent legal services in an economic and efficient manner. While as many as 97 percent of all cases settle or are dismissed by motion, there is a small percentage that cannot be resolved and must proceed to trial. You have won your last seven jury trials. Have you seen a recent uptick in cases heading to trial?
RONDIENE NOVITZ: I do not believe there is any recent trend towards trying cases. While our philosophy is to resolve cases early, we know statistically that two or three percent will go to trial. These cases usually involve plaintiffs who are completely unreasonable with their demands or refuse to negotiate in good faith. Or they are private clients or insurance pools which want to try cases to send a message to the plaintiff’s bar or, in the case of employment discrimination cases, their employees. When this happens, we are ready, willing and able to take the case to trial and have had the great fortune to obtain defense verdicts on all seven of our recent trials.
The reason each of these cases went to verdict is that by the time we get to trial, we have already used every method available to try to resolve the case. Of significance, leading up to trial, our evaluation does not change, and we NEVER suddenly ask for more authority, since we have already communicated to plaintiff all means of settlement options. Once we prepare for trial, our settlement numbers are not going to change due to fear or surprise. We are already well aware of all factors involved, and have analyzed each detail.
JK: Using one case as an example, where did you value the case at the onset, and did that value change throughout the life of the trial? Were attempts made throughout to settle? Did you file any dispositive motions?
RN: Although most of my trials have been employment cases, I did try a high dollar general liability case recently. In that case, plaintiff fractured her wrist and hip and had several surgeries related to her injuries. The case was venued in New York County, which is unified. As such, the jury heard all of her injuries when deciding liability. The demand was always very high – $850K – which was a reasonable number for her injuries; however, Plaintiff’s counsel refused to acknowledge problems with the liability case.
We did file a dispositive motion, but the Judge did not agree with our position. We filed an appeal; however, the appeal was not heard prior to trial and our attempts at a stay of the trial failed. We evaluated the case in the range of $250K to $300K and would have settled for that amount throughout the life of the case. Plaintiff’s counsel refused. At trial, plaintiff asked the jury for more than $1 million. We tried the case and won, and held the verdict on appeal. Our valuation of the case did not change throughout the life of the trial. If the defense attorneys are doing their job correctly, there should not be any surprises or need to change an evaluation at trial.
JK: Have plaintiff verdicts increased in New York over the past few years? Do you think this makes plaintiffs more eager to try cases to try to “win big”? Has this affected your strategy on how to resolve cases?
RN: Plaintiffs’ verdicts have been increasing in the past few years. There are certain plaintiffs who are more eager to go to trial to try to get that big verdict. In fact, the appellate division has also been increasingly awarding higher sustainable verdicts for smaller injuries and even increasing verdicts. The result for us is increased evaluations early on. However, resolving a case early in the litigation process is still always better for both sides, especially with personal injury cases.
JK: It’s 2019, what is gearing up to be the “year of the woman.” You’re a woman working in a male-dominated field, and not only are you managing partner of the New York office, but you are also an extremely successful trial attorney. Have you ever felt that being a woman has gotten in the way of your ability to handle cases?
RN: Not at all. Being a woman has actually helped me. When you are trying a case, your goal is to get the jury on your side, and being a woman has helped in that jurors may trust me more. And if the plaintiff is also female, a cross examination is not as threatening and does not come across as harsh as if a male is crossing a female plaintiff. I feel I have an advantage as a strong and confident woman in this field. Diversity is on the increase and I have many strong women to look to for guidance. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it best, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”