In this episode of Trial Lawyer Talk, Scott speaks with Daniel Rodriguez, an accomplished trial attorney based in Bakersfield, California. Mr. Rodriguez tells Scott about a case involving a school shooting that deeply affected him.
Transcript of Episode 42, with Daniel Rodriguez
Welcome to Trial Lawyer Talk. I’m Scott Glovsky, and I’m your host for this podcast where we speak with some of the best trial lawyers in the country. Today, I’m very happy that we have a wonderful lawyer for us all to learn from. Daniel Rodriguez is an incredibly creative, thoughtful, insightful, and effective trial lawyer who’s based out of Bakersfield, California, but Daniel tries cases all over the country. Daniel is an incredible guy who runs marathons, has an active, vibrant practice in life, and I’m very glad that we’re going to speak with him today. So let’s get started.
I’m very happy to be sitting with Daniel Rodriguez who is a phenomenal trial lawyer, phenomenal human being, and just a wonderful, wonderful person who we’re all going to learn a lot from today. Daniel practices in Bakersfield, although he handles cases all over California and all over the country. Daniel, thanks for being with us.
It’s my pleasure, Scott, and I have to tell you. Thank you for the very kind words. I don’t know that I’ll live up to the billing.
Daniel, can you share with us a story of a case that had a profound impact on you?
Yes, and I think the case I’m thinking about, the one I would like to talk about is a case that involves something that has very much been in the media lately, and it’s very unfortunate that these kinds of cases have been so prevalent. What I’m talking about is a mass shooting or a shooting at a school. I think that hits home for me and maybe for other people. It’s because when I think about society, when I think about community, I can’t help but think that the number one job, the number one priority for societies all through millennium has been to protect our kids.
As parents, we know that our number one job is to protect our kids. So that’s why this case touches me in so many different ways because it has to do with kids and our job as a community, as a society, as a people, and that is to protect our kids.
So tell us the story.
Well, before I tell you the story, let me give you a little bit of context, a little bit about background. What I found out in working with my client and working with his family and working on this case is that shootings that take place at schools typically … Not typically, almost universally. Almost every single time it’s not something that happens unexpectedly. Usually what happens, it’s gradual. It builds up. If you talk to school psychologists or people who study this kind of situation, they will tell you that the shooter usually almost every single time will have leakage.
What does that mean? Leakage. That he’s leaking out warnings that he’s going to go and get a gun and come to school. So it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not like an explosion; he exploded one day. No, no, no. He’s testing it. He’s giving out warnings, and if nobody does anything about it, he then escalates it to another step. Another step, another step. I say he because I think it’s something like 80, 90% of all shooters involved in schools are male. So there’s this leakage. Since Columbine, which is probably the best-known, the most infamous school shooting that happened in 1999 in Colorado.
If you google it, you’ll find out that since that time I believe there’s been about 240 school shootings of one sort or another. Since that time, 141 people have been killed in school shootings. So, why is this important to know? Because school districts know about them, and it’s fair to say that probably every school district in our country has a protocol, a plan in place on how to prevent this. First thing is how to detect them and second, how to prevent them. So they have a plan in place, and they receive training. They being for example school psychologists, the administrators receive training. It’s not just training on what to do if there’s a shooting, like get down, put up the table, desk. Barricade the door. It’s other training — red flags, warnings.
A lot of those warnings, like I was talking about, leakage happening, usually the shooter will broadcast. What do I mean by broadcast? It means make a threat. Say, “I’m going to shoot up so-and-so. I’m going to kill the people who have made fun of me or have excluded me, left me out because I’m not one of the cool kids. I’m not one of the cool cliques. I don’t belong to one of those cool cliques,” and they don’t make threats like that. Then if nothing happens, it escalates to a more concrete threat. Those kinds of things if the teachers have been properly trained and they properly respond, they report it to the administrators.
Then the administrators have a plan in place, and it’s called a threat assessment. They’re supposed to do a threat assessment. The threat assessment is spelled out. It’s very detailed. Step-by-step interview. There’s certain factors you look at. For example, interviews. You interview the potential shooter, the potential bad person who’s going to do something bad. You interview people who have said, “He said to me that he was going to do X, Y, and Z. He was going to shoot. He was going to kill. He was going to do whatever.”
This is all done by the school psychologist, and they follow a protocol. If there’s any mention of weapons, they’ve searched the internet for any threats that have been published, have been posted by the potential shooter, and they make an assessment. Oh, if there’s any mention of weapons. For example, they call the police. Almost every school in the country has what’s called a school resources officer, a school cop. You tell the school cop, and the school cop goes to the home, for example, to search for weapons, but that search can only be a real legitimate search if the officer has all the information.
What do I mean by that? If he’s been told, “Oh, by the way, this potential shooter, the student who you’re going to go to his house to search for weapons. By the way, he made this threat on this day, and he made a threat to the teachers, and he made threats to the cafeteria workers. He made threats to students. He had a hit list,” whatever it may be, because then and only then, there’s a school resource officer who truly appreciate the threat, and then maybe he’ll do a different kind, a more thorough search.
So when he goes to the house, for example, of this potential shooter. If he knows about the seriousness about all this information, maybe instead of just searching the boy’s bedroom, he’ll search the garage. He’ll search the cars. He’ll search the living room. He’ll do a more in-depth investigation and more in-depth search. So that’s very important. Then last but not least, physical barriers. Most schools in the country, if not all of them, have some kind of perimeter fence. Well, the fence is designed not only to keep small children and other children in on campus, but also to keep out potential dangerous people.
But that perimeter fence is only good if you keep any gates to it locked. If you keep them open, that allows a shooter to come on campus unhampered, unhindered. So those are the kinds of things that have to be taken into account. That’s what happens in schools. So, school shootings unfortunately, unfortunately, are way too commonplace. But because they’re commonplace, responsible school districts know how to detect them and how to prevent them. But not only must they have a protocol in place, which they all have, but they just can’t just pay lip service to it. They have to do a legitimate, real threat assessment and everything that goes along with it.
So that’s the context, the backdrop. So now let’s talk a little bit about the specific situation here. It’s in Taft, California, which is a town that probably unless you’re from Southern California or the Central Valley, you probably have never heard of. But Daniel … I forget his name. It was a Actor Academy Award winner, and they made a movie about the oil rush in Kern County, and it was set in Taft. It’s based on a true story. Kern County, if it were a state, I think it would be the third largest oil-producing state in the country, and it’s just a county.
So anyway, that’s Taft. At the school, about … Let’s see. I think it was about a year or so after Newtown, Connecticut shooting. So, specifically, the date we’re talking about it is January 10th, 2013, about five years ago. But we don’t start the story there. We start the story about 10, 11 months before then. There’s a boy who … There’s students that go up to the teacher and say, “Hey, so-and-so here, he’s threatening to shoot people. He’s threatening to kill 50 people.” The day later, a school teacher goes to the district, the administrators, and says, “This guy is threatening to kill people. We were coming home from a field trip, and he was talking out loud saying who he was going to kill.”
Other reports to the school administrators during 10 to 11 minutes before the shooting are saying, “He’s told people that he’s going to blow up the auditorium and he’s going to shoot people.” Then what happens? Well, then they do a so-called … I say so-called threat assessment because later on, we find out that the psychologist really doesn’t interview everybody, all the students, and so forth. He talks to the student who’s making these threats, and then they decide they’re going to send the school resource officer out to the house of this potential shooter, of this person that they claim they’re somewhat concerned about.
But do they give this school resource officer, the school cop, all of the information? Do they tell him, “Oh, by the way, this potential shooter has threatened to kill 50 people, has told people that he has a hit list of 30 people, students that he was going to kill, that they tell them he’s going to … He’s threatened to blow up the auditorium.” Did they tell the school resources officer any of this information? No, they didn’t tell him any of this. How do we know that? Because when we talked to the school resources officer in a deposition when we took his sworn statement and asked him, “By the way, did you know about these threats?” “No, I didn’t.”
“Did you know about the threat to blow up the auditorium?” “No, I didn’t.” “Did anybody mention to you about him claiming to have a hit list?” “No.” “So what happened?” “Well, I went out there, and I was just told to go check to see if he had a gun.” “What places did you search?” “Just his bedroom.” “By the way, if you had had all this other information, would you have done a little bit more thorough search?” Says, “You bet I would. It would have been a whole different notion in my head of what I was dealing with. But I was just told, ‘Hey, go check to see if this guy’s got a gun.’ Then yeah, I went and checked. I checked his bedroom. That was about it.”
So all these things … Then the school psychologist who did the threat assessment, the checklist that he was supposed to follow that spelled out their criteria. He really didn’t follow it. So now things accelerate, and now as it gets closer to the day of the shooting, what’s happening? There are students. For example, there’s a parent who comes to the school and meets with the school principal. He tells the school principal, “Hey, my child came and told me that so-and-so, this potential school shooter, said he had a hit list. He was going to do this. He was going to do that. I’m concerned.”
The principal said, “Oh, we’ll look into it.” He says, “Oh, by the way. Should I call the police? I’ll call the police.” “Oh, no, no, no. Don’t bother. We’ll take care of it.” Did they ever call the police? Did the school ever call the police? Did the school administrators ever call the police? The answer is no. They never did. So now as we get closer to the day of the shooting, we have kids reporting to the administrators that there’s been social media posts about this shooting and how kids are concerned.
There’s even two individuals who work for it what’s called a regional occupation program. It’s called ROP that’s near the campus. They told the school that they’re so afraid that they’ve come up with escape plans in case this student decides to shoot up the school. What did the school do in response to all of this? Zip. Zero. They didn’t do anything. So now we roll around to January 10th. It was the Thursday. It’s early in the morning, first period class. The perimeter around the school had … There’s two or three gates.
The plan they have in place by the way is that all the students are supposed to be funneled through the front gate, and all the other gates are supposed to be locked. Guess what? One of those gates is not locked. One of those side gates is not locked. How do we know that? Later on, we have a video because there’s surveillance cameras around the school campus, and we can see the shooter walk up with a shotgun in his hand, a 12-gauge shotgun. That’s a big caliber shotgun. We can see him open the gate. There’s no lock on it. He walks right in. He walks into this building, goes up in onto the second floor.
He gets to the door of a classroom, and they’re inside taking a test, the kids. The teacher’s at the front sitting there. When the door bursts open, and he strides in, he walks in. Then he pulls up the shotgun, and one of the students seated toward the front of the class, he puts a shotgun almost point blank to his chest, and he pulls the trigger. Blood, human tissue flies everywhere. The boy falls to the ground. He’s knocked to the ground by the impact. It’s a shotgun. Now all these pellets, these BBs, just tear through the skin and the bone of this young man, into his lungs, his diaphragm.
He’s there. The shooter gets a gun. The kids get up and they run to the back of the room, and they can smell the odor of the spent shell, and he splays with the shotgun. Luckily, there’s a person, a school employee outside and the teacher, and they start to talk to the shooter and talk to him. Then they run up and take the gun away from him. Ambulance was called. Then they take the boy who’s laying on the ground, bleeding out, and they take him to the hospital, in Bakersfield, about an hour drive away. That’s what happened in this case. There were so many red flags and warnings all along the way. It didn’t just happen overnight.
The boy didn’t snap. Like I said, there’s leakage. And every professional, every person, every scientist who studies this terrible phenomena would tell you there’s leakage, and the leakage … It’s very important to read it, to identify it, and then to act on it appropriately in the right way because almost every one of these shootings are preventable. Because again, these shooters don’t just snap. They’ve been broadcasting what’s going to happen. They’ve been testing the waters, leakage. They made a threat. “Oh, nothing happened.” Made another threat. “Oh, nothing happened.” So that’s what happened in this particular case.
So how did you go about discovering that story?
First, you have to listen. You have to listen, and you have to put yourself in the place of everyone involved. At the Trial Lawyers College, we call it reversing roles. That means you slip into the hide of the person. Why do we do that? We do that because it gives us an insight into what motivates, what propels someone to feel and to do certain things, how they react. So we reverse roles with … For example, in this particular case, we’d reverse roles with whom? Obviously, the shooter would be one person. Another would be the teacher in the room, the students in the room, the administrators, the school psychologists, the school resource officers, and obviously the young man who was shot, the 16-year-old boy who was shot.
I’m happy to tell everyone that he survived, and he does not like for people to think of him as a victim. He wants people to think of him as a survivor because he is working darn hard at making sure that people do not define him by the shooting. He doesn’t want that to define his life.
I can sense a piece of Daniel Rodriguez in this young man’s story. What is your connection? Where does the feelings that this young man must have? Where’s that in your history?
I think it’s something that exists not just in me, but in all of us. We all have something that we’re struggling with. It may take different shapes, different forms in each one of us whether it’s someone who comes from a broken home, someone who comes from a home that’s where he or she’s being abused. Whether it comes from a school situation of being bullied, of being teased, of being tormented. In my personal situation, I don’t think of myself ever of being as disadvantaged despite the fact that for example I didn’t live in a house. I mean, I was born in Texas, in the States, in this country, but my upbringing was a little bit different than I think the average American.
For instance, I didn’t live in a home with indoor plumbing, a toilet inside the house until I was in the sixth grade. So when I was about 12 years or so, up until then, I lived in houses or shacks that had outhouses. Do you know what an outhouse … I don’t know if most people know what an outhouse is nowadays. It’s a little building with built over a hole in the ground that you sit down and you do your business. That’s an outhouse. The first time I spoke on a telephone, I was a sophomore in high school in the 10th grade. The first time I ever saw a dental floss, I didn’t know what it was until I was 20 years old. The first time in my life that I ever went to a dentist, I was 25 years old.
I was at UCLA Law School, and part of our student health plan, it costs like a dollar a month. We’re talking back in ’77 or something like … Maybe it was $5 a semester or something like that. So, hey, free dental, sure. I’ll go. So went over to the UCLA School of Dentistry, and I walk in there, and you fill out the form. Write your name your address. One of the questions was, “What’s the name of your family dentist?” I left it blank. It said, “When’s the last time you had your teeth cleaned or you saw your last dental appointment?” I put never.
I filled it out and I turned it in, and I sat down and waited for my name to be called, and I just sat down. The officer person calls me over and she’s like almost frowning, almost … said, “You’re trying to be funny, aren’t you?” “No, what do you mean?” “Well, we really, really, really need to know when’s the last time you had your teeth cleaned.” I said, “Never.” “You got to be kidding me.” “No, I’m not. I’ve never been to a dentist.” “Okay.” Gives me an appointment. I come back two weeks later. No, maybe it was a week later. I come in, and they call my name, and I follow the young lady through the hallways, the passageway, and it leads up to a door, and she opens a knob, pushes the door open. It swings open.
There’s about 20 young dental students there in their white smocks all waiting for … I know what they’re thinking. They’re thinking, “We don’t have to go to a third-world country to examine somebody’s mouth.” We have him coming to us. So I sit down. They opened my mouth, and they all took turns looking in my mouth and examining my teeth, and they were in for a surprise. It turns out I had the beginning of one cavity. It was explained to me. They took a history and asked me where part of my childhood because I lived in a lot of different places growing up.
We were migrant farm workers, and we followed the crops. We’d go from one place to another, to another, to another. We didn’t live more than … We never stayed more than two or three months in any one place. But part of it was in the Texas Panhandle where fluoride occurs naturally in the water supply. The reason they knew that is when you have that, the enamel of your teeth is rough, and plus good DNA, good genetics. My dad, we couldn’t afford to buy a bottle opener, so when we were working out in the fields and we had pop and soda. We couldn’t afford to buy a pop opener. So guess what? We would hand my dad our coke bottles, and he’d go … with his teeth and hand them back to us. He had great teeth.
So anyway, the reason I share that story with you is that people, when they listen to a little bit about how I grew up, they said, “Oh my God. You grew up so hard.” I didn’t. I had great loving parents. I didn’t come from a broken home. I came from a set of parents who … My dad was illiterate. My dad never went to school a day in his life. He couldn’t read or write in Spanish nor English. My mom went to the third grade. But because of that, they valued education even more than the typical set of parents. Our parents would push us, the kids. There were six of us.
They would push us. Never mind that we’d go to school for two months and then we’d leave on Friday, move on Friday, and then we’d be in a different state on Monday starting a new school. But instead of moving on a Wednesday or Thursday, they would move on a Friday. They said we wouldn’t miss school, and we would be enrolled in a new school on Monday. I think it paid off because of the six kids, five of us went to college, and three of us got graduate degrees. How did we do that? It wasn’t because we were disadvantaged because we weren’t disadvantaged. We did it because my parents cared and loved and supported us in lots of different ways that were just as rich as material things.
So that’s what I mean about struggling. Everybody struggles, and it’s just a matter of finding the struggle in, for example, in this case, my client. What was his struggle? It was just as important to find out what the shooter was struggling with. Why would that be important? Because if you get some insight, and you find out about, and you educate yourself about how these situations come about, this leakage. I think it does a better job. It allows us to do a better job of presenting the complete story for the juror’s consideration. Not a part of it, but the complete story, the complete relevant story for their consideration.
I think that’s really the key to putting on a case that it’s got to be the complete relevant story that you have to present to the jurors.
Daniel, with your background that you’ve just shared with us. To becoming a very prominent, well-known, successful trial lawyer, how do you feel?
Well, I do feel … I tell people … I stole this line from Gerry Spence. He has this great saying that the first time I heard it, it just stuck to me. He says, “I dragged this massive thing behind me called my ego, and the fact of the matter is you can never let your ego get the best of you because you have to remind yourself, you’re no better nor worse than any other person.” So, you have to keep … because at the end of the day, no matter how many cases you may have won or lost for that matter because we all lose trials. If you’re not losing cases, you’re not trying enough cases. But at the end of the day, you have the same concerns, the same ambitions, the same fears and the same dreams as everyone else.
We all have a common story. We’re all humans. We’re all human, and we’re all struggling. And yes, of course, it’s punctuated by happy moments. The trick is to have a lot more happy moments than to have the down moments, and I work at that.
The way I work at it is I like to think that I have some semblance of balance in my life. I love what I do. I’m obsessed. I’m a workaholic, but I try to be conscious of that and say, “I’m got to make time to spend with my wife with my kids,” so even though I love what I do for a living, I don’t consider it work. It’s not like working out in the oil fields. It’s not like working out in the farm fields. It’s you’re not out in the hot sun or the freezing cold. You’re not lifting 100-pound sacks and throwing them in a boxcar and sweating like a pig. You’re working in an air-conditioned office. Is that really work?
You’re getting to take, learn, and share stories of your clients and the important people in their lives with what start out as 12 complete strangers. But if you’re really sharing the truth and the genuine story and the relevant story, they’re not going to be strangers by the end of the trial. There’s no trick to it. It’s just a matter of being focused and more importantly being emotionally involved in your case, and it just simply means finding what there is to love about your client first and foremost. By the way, it’s not always easy. In this particular case, my client is just a wonderful human being, and what is there not to love?
But that’s not always the case in all of our cases. Sometimes, you got to dig a little bit, like dig really hard to find something in your client that you can love.
What would you like at the end of your life on your tombstone to say?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I haven’t given that much thought, but I will tell you something, and I heard for the first time. This comes from another member of our tribe, another member of the Trial Lawyers College, graduate of the Trial Lawyers College, and that’s Joey Lowe who’s a phenomenal trial lawyer. I didn’t hear him say it. I read it in an email that he shared with the tribe, and he said, “At the end of my life, I want to be able to know that I had a positive outcome, a positive effect, a positive impact on at least 10 people,” and that really hit me. I want to know that I made a difference in at least 10 people’s lives. I would die a happy man.
Well, Daniel, thank you so much for being with us. You’re a phenomenal storyteller, a very thoughtful and skilled lawyer, and I really appreciate the wisdom you shared with us and on behalf of our listeners and myself and your clients here you help. Thank you.
You’re quite welcome, and I have to say it’s been my privilege for you to have extended an invitation for me to come on this podcast. Thank you.
Thank you for joining us today for Trial Lawyer Talk. If you liked the show, I’d really appreciate if you could give us a good review on iTunes, and I’d love to get your feedback. You can reach me at www.scottglovsky.com. That’s S-C-O-T-T-G-L-O-V-S-K-Y dotcom, and I’d love to hear your feedback. You can also check out the book that I published called Fighting Health Insurance Denials: A Primer for Lawyers that’s on Amazon. I put the book together based on 20 years of suing health insurance companies for denying medical care to people, and it provides a general outline of how to fight health insurance denials. Have a great week, and we’ll talk to you in the next episode.