NOTE FROM PAPPA DON: Alvin Wolf and I were puppy lawyers together and did a couple cases with good outcomes together. Ain’t no apple in the orchard like Alvin, he’s wound tight and partially crazy, but in a good way. He’s a faculty member of the Keenan Ball College and teaches a course in his city while doing a spin class. His son Alex will be a Superstar.
Here’s their case:
This is our second father and son Autopsy. This Autopsy will honor Alvin and Alex Wolff. Alvin Wolff received his undergraduate degree from Washington University In St. Louis, and his Juris Doctorate from the St. Louis University School of Law. When Alvin left law school, he began his law career as a solo practitioner in the field of criminal defense law. After serving as a criminal defense attorney for a couple of years, Alvin felt the need to try something new. Alvin began taking plaintiff’s personal injury cases, and after obtaining some very successful verdicts, he made the decision to become a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer.
Alex Wolff received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University, and his Juris Doctorate from the St. Louis University School of Law. Alex was always interested in being a litigator, and like his father, he wanted to advocate on behalf of the plaintiff. Alvin had a successful personal injury practice, and it made good sense for Alex to start his career at his father’s firm. Alvin saw it as an opportunity for Alex to obtain courtroom experience. It also benefitted the firm’s transition as Alex was able to develop under his dad from the moment he joined the firm.
The Wolff’s firm takes all types of personal injury cases. Their firm’s mission is to help people who are not able to help themselves. Outside of the law profession, the law firm is involved in Gateway to Hope, which is a breast cancer charity and STARS, which is an adaptive program for teaching and assisting functionally disabled kids how to ski and horseback ride. The Best Lawyers in America awarded Alvin Wolff with the honor of the 2015 Plaintiff’s Lawyer of the Year for medical malpractice in St. Louis. He is the only attorney to receive this award in this practice area.
According to Alvin, Alex coming to the firm gave him the courage to shed over 30 years of bad habits. In a way, he envies his son, explaining that, “When Alex came out of law school, he was a blank slate. The way the practice had changed allows him the opportunity to learn and digest everything without all the bad habits and techniques from 30 years of practice.”
Alex’s idea of trial advocacy was rigid. Alex learned that he did not have to sit there and have the judge or the defense counsel dictate how he was going to try his case; instead, he could make the case his own and push back. He realized that juror's don't care about him or his client; they just want to know how they can protect their community from the defendant’s negligent actions. According to them, the safety standards lay at the foundation of every case. The safety standards take the defenses’ negligent actions out of the realm of a mistake, and cause the jury to see that the defendant purposely violated the prevailing community safety standards.
Alex finds great benefit from being able to work alongside his father. They find that their success with the stems from the fact that they understand the system very well, and find great value in bouncing cases off of each other. Alex sees trial techniques as a tool that allows plaintiff’s attorneys to easily outline the case. A simple malpractice case that may have taken three days in the past, only takes four hours now, due to the power of their system
Facts of the Case:
Their client left his second floor apartment at night to take his dog for a walk. There were no light fixtures in the stairwell leading from his second floor apartment to the first floor. The lack of light caused their client to miss a step and fall down the stairs of the apartment, severely fracturing his ankle. He was immediately ushered to the hospital where a doctor performed surgery on his ankle. The surgery left the plaintiff confined to his home. During his confinement, the plaintiff began suffering from depression. The client’s medical bills totaled $50,000.
The Wolff’s client was a stereotypical “on code” plaintiff. Their client had an extensive history of psychiatric care, suffered from macular degeneration in his eyes, stuttered, and happened to be a lawyer. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of their client’s issues. The Wolffs received this case as a referral from a lawyer who had already botched the client’s deposition before passing the case off to them. Furthermore, the plaintiff’s prior counsel produced inaccurate and incomplete medical records during their client’s deposition, and allowed the client to deny his pre-existing medical conditions that were documented in his social security file. Despite all these issues, the Wolffs believed that they could turn this around. According to Alvin, the beauty of what they accomplished is that you can start out on your heels, but land on your feet.
Alvin and Alex knew that their pre-trial work was going to be important. They started with the depositions of the apartment’s seven maintenance workers, the manager, and the manager’s son. The Wolffs placed an emphasis on getting each maintenance worker to agree with the safety standards. The Wolffs developed four simple rules for the case. Their safety standards went as follows:
1. A Landlord must use ordinary care to make the stairways reasonably safe for tenants.
2. A Landlord must provide lighting on the stairways to make the stairways safe for nightly use.
3. Stairways must be safe for tenants and guest to prevent injuries.
4. An apartment complex should not expose tenants to needless dangers.
During the maintenance workers’ depositions, it was the Wolff’s strategy to embed their safety standards with the maintenance team. Furthermore, they wanted to take the apartment complex “off code.” The code for apartment complex is “Paying tenant deserves a safe environment.” One of the safety features guaranteed in the code includes proper lighting of the outside area. The Wolff’s knew that if they could get the maintenance team, who had the responsibility of providing a safe environment for tenants, to agree to the safety standards, then they would be able to show the jury that the apartment complex not only violated the safety standards but also was “off code.”
During their deposition, the maintenance team agreed with each rule that the Wolffs presented. They agreed that the state requires lights to be present in common areas so that tenants can see in the dark. They agreed that tenant safety is the primary responsibility of an apartment complex. According to the Wolffs, their plan was to make their rules so simple that the defendant would have to either agree with them, or look foolish denying them.
The Wolffs implemented their strategy effectively when they asked a maintenance worker to identify the lighted areas on the apartment’s premises. The maintenance worker was so eager to show that the apartment had met their safety requirements that he ended up pointing at a non-existent light. The maintenance workers gaffe was so embarrassing that the Wolffs had a difficult time not making him look foolish during the rest of his deposition.
The Wolffs used the Landlord’s deposition to show their careless disregard for the safety of their residents. The Wolffs asked the Landlord whether he trains his staff to look for repairs to prevent harm to his tenants. He followed up by asking the Landlord whether he double-checks behind his maintenance workers to ensure that the maintenance workers are repairing maintenance issues. Lastly, the Wolffs asked the Landlord whether the light fixtures were too expensive for the apartment complex to purchase in order to provide safety to their tenants. Moreover, the Wolffs demonstrated that the apartment had lights all over, except in their client’s stairwell. They used this evidence to show that the apartment complex knew what was necessary to keep their residents safe, but failed to maintain it.
Furthermore, the Wolffs used the defendant’s deposition to demonstrate forseeability. They asked the Landlord whether he believed that dark stairways are dangerous for his tenants. The Landlord agreed. The Wolffs conveyed that such an incident could happen with a parent, a grandmother, or a child to show the worst possible forseeable outcome. With each new question the Wolffs asked, they forced the Landlord to admit to the dangerous environment he created for his tenants. More importantly, through this deposition, the Wolffs were able to show how those dangers stemmed from the defendant’s safety standard violations. Furthermore, they created a timeline, which further illuminated the apartment’s safety standard violations.
The Wolffs agreed to mediate the claims in the case, and committed themselves to go to trial if the mediation did not produce a six-figure offer. The Wolffs used the approach of reducing their demand until after lunch, while they waited for the defense to put serious money on the table.
At the mediation, Alex presented a PowerPoint presentation with over 40 slides. The slides contained the general requirements for property owners, whether the defendants followed the their own procedures, and what the defendants said during their deposition. Through their timeline, they were able to show the mediator how each maintenance worker admitted to the defendant’s own violations. The Wolffs also presented pictures of the stairway, x-rays of their client’s ankle fracture, as well as the medical treatment that their client received.
Creatively, the Wolffs decided to pick three of their favorite statements from Landlord’s depositions and place them in talk bubbles around his head. The statements they took highlighted the defendant’s rule violations in this case. They also took the opportunity to demonstrating the forseeablity during the mediation by enlightening the mediator on the dangers that exists when an apartment fails to keep their common areas lit. In addition, the Wolffs paid close attention to remaining “off code” by refusing to let their client speak at the mediation. They decided to take a lesson from their client’s failed deposition. Their client was totally disheveled during the mediation, and the Wolffs did not want to risk making him “on code.”
It was around 2:00 pm, that the defense called it quits. Looking back at the case, the Wolffs believe that many of the standards were probably too narrow. According to Alex, they believe that they could have developed better standards and they keep developing better standards with each subsequent case.
This case taught them that, cases with a simple act of negligence, coupled with negative attribution, rarely produce great outcomes. According to the Wolffs, the key to success in this case involved taking the apartment complex “off code” and showing what could happen to anybody under the same or similar circumstances. They took a weak case and received a successful settlement for their client. Their depositions laid the foundation for the reasonable forseeability, turning what the defense dubbed a simple mistake into a potential threat for all individuals who happen to walk on their premises. They placed the safety standards on the chopping block and dared the defense to disagree. The preparation of their safety standards and mediation presentation propelled them through this case. The Wolff’s outcome is a testament to the hard work and perseverance that led to a positive outcome.