In this episode, Scott talks to Joe Fried, a trial lawyer from Atlanta who specializes in trucking and other commercial vehicle accident cases all around the country. He tells Scott about a vehicle defect case that profoundly impacted him.
Transcript for Trial Lawyer Talk, Episode 13, with Joe Fried
Scott Glovsky: 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 United States. First, I want to apologize for taking a couple weeks to get this episode out. Occasionally, given my trial schedule that will happen, but hopefully not too often. We’re moving to our new format where we’re going to issue a new episode every two weeks.
Today, we’re very lucky to have with us Joe Fried. Joe is an amazing human being. He’s a passionate fighter, brilliant, and a wonderful story teller. Joe practices out of Atlanta, but he is truly one of the only lawyers I know whose constantly on the road trying cases for other lawyers around the country. Joe specializes in trucking cases and other industrial commercial vehicle accident cases. It’s a real treat for me to have him with us. So let’s get going.
We are very lucky to have with us, one of the best trial lawyers, best human beings, and a tremendously powerful story teller and powerful person, Joe Fried. Joe is a trial lawyer who truly has a national practice. Joe goes all around the country trying largely trucking cases, but all kinds of large litigation, large trials for other lawyers around the country. I’m humbled and thankful to be sitting here across the desk from him. Joe, thanks for being with us.
Joe Fried: Well thanks for having me. I don’t feel like I deserve the wonderful praises that you gave me, but those make me feel good. I’m glad to be here, thank you.
Scott Glovsky: Joe, was there a case that had a profound impact on you?
Joe Fried: There have been a couple of cases that have a profound impact on me along the way.
Scott Glovsky: Could you tell us a story?
Joe Fried: Sure, I’ll tell you about the first one. I had spent several years earlier in my career as a lawyer who focused on family cases that involve medical negligence. So I was working in a medical negligence firm. I ended up getting a phone call from a friend of mine, colleague who was in another state, who asked me if I would go check on a former client of his who had gotten into a terrible accident, and was in a burn center in Atlanta.
I went less as a lawyer and more as a human, just to see if there was something I could do for this lady or her family in this burn center. It turned out that the woman had been in the process of moving her residence from apartment to apartment. She had gotten hit from behind and her car burst into flames. She struggled to get out of the vehicle, and ultimately she was giving up and praying.
She put her hands together as she felt her body burning. She looked up in prayer and the convertible top of the car that she was in started to burn away. So she climbed through that opening onto the hood of the car, and she was fully engulfed in flames. A passerby stopped, as it turned out it was the singer Usher, who was involved in dousing her body out, and making the flames stop.
She was of course transported to the hospital in a terrible place. She was burned over the vast majority of her body. The family asked me, since she was in the process of moving… This was really not my field, accidents were not what I was handling at the time as a lawyer.
The family asked me if I would go, they didn’t want to go to the car because of the state that the car would be in. But they wanted to see if some of their mother, it was their mother, jewelry was still in the car, there had been a jewelry box.
So I went down to the wrecker site and I dug through the ashes. What happens when a car catches fire on the roadway, especially if it’s a convertible, the wrecker driver just throws everything in to the back. They clean up the scene and it becomes the dumpster of the scene.
So here I am… Back then as a med mal lawyer I actually wore a coat and tie, a nice tie and shirt, I looked like a lawyer. I don’t really do that much anymore. But just take a minute and picture this young lawyer hanging into the back of a ford Mustang that was all burnt up, trying to find what might be left of this lady’s family stuff.
Scott Glovsky: What was going through your mind?
Joe Fried: I was honestly just trying to be a helpful human at the time. What struck me as I was looking at this car, I had spent… You may know this about me, I had spent some years in law enforcement before I went to law school. So I had worked wrecks in that capacity.
So I started looking at the car, what struck me about it was, of course it was all burnt up, but there was not really that much damage to it. When I looked at the actual damage from the accident, from the wreck as we say down south, there really wasn’t that much crush to the car.
I remember thinking why on earth did this car catch fire? I wasn’t able to find anything, by the way. My day with the car just resulted in a ruined suit, tie, and white shirt, and even ruined shoes. My wife just had me put all of them into a bag when I got home, and I never saw them again we’ll just leave it at that.
But what it did do, it made me go home and start to look at this Ford Mustang, which was this iconic car that I had grown up seeing. I was horrified at what I learned, there were hundreds of people who had burned alive in Mustangs. I was too young to really be around as a lawyer in the old Pinto days. But it seemed to me…
Scott Glovsky: In the Pinto days was when there were Pintos that were exploding, that became a subject of a lawsuit.
Joe Fried: That’s right. It was a big deal at the time. Ford got themselves… I think it may be the first time in history that a company, an actual corporation, was held to be ethically wrong. I think they may have even had criminal charges against some of the executives, or something related to that case.
But it seemed to me this was the same thing, how could we not know, and how could I not know? When I asked people, “Have you ever heard a problem with the Mustang?” Nobody had ever heard anything, but yet I was pulling up article after article of people who died.
I don’t know what came over me, something compelled me. As you fast forward through this story of Joe, just a couple of months in, I was consumed with this matter. I was in a partnership that allowed me to basically lay all other cases aside, have other lawyers work on them, and I started focusing my effort and attention on this. I was calling people…
Scott Glovsky: Let me stop you for a moment.
Joe Fried: Sure.
Scott Glovsky: If we were to take a step back and think, what was compelling you to do this?
Joe Fried: I don’t know that I know the answer to that. But at the place where I am now, I don’t believe in many coincidences. I think things happen and there is something that guides that. I don’t know what compelled me except, as I’m looking I started calling people. Calling people?
I called parents of people who had died 10-12 years before and asked them, “Can I come and talk to you?” Some of them would say, “No, I don’t know what you want, but I don’t need a lawyer in life.” A few said, “Yes.” I flew to places, others I spoke to on the phone, and I talked to them about their loved ones and if they knew of a problem and had anyone looked into this.
I ultimately filed the case. I have to admit this to you. I felt that I was the wrong lawyer in every way. I felt that it was not my field, not my competency. There was all these other lawyers, who I had heard of, who had big names and did these huge product liability cases. I was just a lawyer who handled medical cases at the time.
I called the son of my client. By that point the mom had died, she lived for 42 days. I sat with her and her family for about 14 of those days. I was there every day. From the time when they asked me to look at the car, until the day she died I was at the hospital with the family at least for a short period of time.
I just felt compelled to move forward. I filed the case, then I psyched myself out that I was the wrong lawyer. I remember very will the conversation with one of the sons, where I told him that I thought this was a very important case, and maybe a good lawyer should handle it. Maybe somebody with a lot more experience than myself.
He told something that I still get a little teary eyed saying even now as I’m thinking about him. I got to speak to him not long ago, he was a soldier and recently retired from the military. But he looked at me and said, “Nobody will love us more than you do. You will hurt my feelings if you ask me again for another lawyer to handle the case.”
I think he meant all the best by that. But what he did was, put tons of weight on my shoulders, so that became 20 hour days for me. The case became my life, 20 hour days, seven days a week, learning, studying, digging, getting materials from Ford, and other places. Studying fuel system engineering, because that’s what the case ended up being about.
It ended up being just like the Pinto case. What struck me was that Ford never learned its lesson. They got caught on the Pinto, and were ultimately forced to make changes there. But nobody forced them to make changes on the Mustangs, so they had….
We had a car that had a fuel tank that was just six inches inside the rear bumper, and nothing in that regard had changed. It had been beefed up, but not really solved. So the case became something that was my life. I ended up somehow being involved in other Mustang case around the country.
People heard about the ridiculous amounts of time and energy that I was spending on this case, and they didn’t want to do the work. They didn’t see the vision that I had for wanting to change this. At one point I had seven or eight of these cases going at the same time, and Ford was mocking me. They were pushing all the buttons to say, “You’re not a lawyer enough.”
Scott Glovsky: How did that make you feel?
Joe Fried: They were winning that battle, I’m embarrassed to say. If it hadn’t been for the partners I had at the time, who I look back on and say, “I wonder if I had the trust in this young lawyer to allow me to spend over $1 million on this single case.” Ford was not going to lose, they got more than two dozen experts, and the case continues.
I told Ford, once I had a lot of the case, “If you will just change the design of the Mustang, I’ll stop suing you.” I got thrown out of the Detroit Auto Show for crawling underneath the Ford Mustang to see what changes they were making in this new Mustang that was coming out.
I had designed a fuel system that I thought would work, and they took that design and improved on it a lot thankfully. Ultimately, they changed the design of the Mustang.
Scott Glovsky: How did that happen? In other words, you’re a lawyer who they’re mocking, and you design a fuel system that ends up affecting the safety of millions of people on the road.
Joe Fried: Let me tell you what happened. I credit Ford for teaching me how to be a lawyer at first. There’s this thing we’re sitting at now that took me from there, which is a place called the Trial Lawyers College, that maybe we could talk a little bit about also.
But what happened was, Ford brilliantly… My great case, the one I really wanted to try first. They somehow finagled a way to get another case to go to trial first that was much harder. Their plan was to win that case with great fanfare, and publicize the result to destroy any value in the other cases. I know this to be true.
They spent millions and millions of dollars defending these cases, and maneuvering this one particular case into position. We tried that case, and it was the hard of my cases because it was the hardest impact from behind. The product was the same product.
They expected, and their lawyer flauntingly said, how they were going to “roll me out of the courtroom.” It wasn’t going to take the jury an hour to find for Ford, is what he kept saying, to me they had every opportunity. We tried the case for a couple of months.
It was several months long. I was far away from home. The case went to trial in California. After a grueling long trial, the jury came back deadlocked. We were one juror shy of a verdict in our favor. So we had to get ready to try it again. Something happened during that trial, the only thing I can tell you is that I think it has something to do with respect and fear.
I’m not saying that I created fear, but I am saying that what happened there… They ultimately told me this, “If you can deadlock this jury on that case, then we don’t want to see what would happen on the others.” Ultimately, I got a phone call as I was leaving for California, or getting ready to go try the case again.
After the case had been totally reworked up again, another million dollars in the cost. They said, “We changed the design.” I said, “Yes, I know.” “We heard about the Detroit Auto Show.” I said, “I had to see for myself.” They said, “One time you told us, I don’t know if you remember this, but you would stop suing us if we changed the design.” I said, “I still believe that.”
So they came down to Atlanta, over the course of about a week we went through case after case. It’s funny, I’m sitting here and I seeing my clients in my eye. The case still haunts me. I can’t look at a Mustang, before the 2005 vintage, and not see the car in flames even now.
I’m very proud, Scott, of being able to get a design changed for the future. But there are still many of those car that are on the road before the design change. While I’m proud of what I did, there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed to say that I maybe didn’t go far enough with it.
Scott Glovsky: Tell me more about how you got to the point where this case still haunts you?
Joe Fried: It never stopped haunting me. I don’t believe in coincidences anymore. Of all the lawyers out there, and we have so many, why did I get tapped to go on a humanitarian mission one day, to go to a hospital to talk to a family? A woman who got hit from behind and whose car burned up.
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I feel it became a calling, if you can appreciate what I’m saying. My wife would say it became a sickness, because it invaded my life, it took me away from my family. The reason it still haunts me is, I made a conscious decision that I would stop suing Ford.
They came in and paid my clients a lot of money. There’s a part of me that feels like I sold out, even though good things happened. I know fewer people have died and will die, because of the changes Ford wasn’t going to make unless somebody took them to the max.
But I’ve said no to cases of real people, families who have lost people. There’s a part of me that feels like I still let them down. Maybe if I had done more, I would have been able to cause some additional change. But as I’m saying that to you, I’m also cognizant of one thing.
I really went on a mission, internal journey, at the time I agreed to settle that case, to figure out if I really thought I could affect another change, a bigger change, and go back retroactively. I don’t think I could have. The only thing that could have happened was those cars taken off the road. That’s never happened, and I don’t think it ever will. People love their old Mustangs.
Scott Glovsky: I can feel the fight in Joe Fried, your drive and passion. Where does that come from?
Joe Fried: Your listeners can’t see the stunned look on my face. If I sit here in silence they won’t be able to see the wheels turning as I try to find the right words to answer your question. I don’t know. I think it has to do with spend most of my life and feeling like I had not been good enough. I think that is a reaction to that.
At some point in my teenage hood, I had to make a decision about how I was going to deal with that, maybe even before. I chose to spend my life trying to convince myself that I am. That sounds too noble to say.
Scott Glovsky: How far have you come in that journey?
Joe Fried: Scott, I want to say a long way but then I find I don’t know how far. It’s been a journey, you know this, and your listeners may not, but I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years on a very active journey that’s started through a professional college that you and I are both part of.
I’m much further along, because I would never been able to understand myself enough to answer these questions that you’ve asked me. But for that journey, I recognize it. So I know I’ve come a long way, but I still feel that I have a long way to go. I think that’s my life’s work. It may not only be mine, but maybe there’s other people who are listening to this, who feel the same way I have in their life.
So it’s part of our life journey, our mission, to do something to leave this place a little better than we found it. While that sounds noble, it is also serving this internal psychosis, this internal need to feel that I have done something that makes me worthy of… You can fill in the blank. Worthy of love? Worthy of attention? Worthy of life?
Scott Glovsky: Can you share with us the story of why you became a lawyer? In fact, I have to back up and have you tell us your journey from the time you finished school and you started to work in your first job, and how you became a lawyer?
Joe Fried: Sure. I think it has to go back a little bit further than that for you to fully understand what I think is the answer to your question. I have always been someone who was a safety advocate. I’ve always been somebody who has abhorred the bully.
I’ve told of times that I don’t even remember, that have been shared with me of when I was very young. When I would stick up for people who were picked on, and sometimes I would end up in fights with people and get myself in trouble. But it was about me trying to stick up for somebody.
I have to admit something that’s not easy for me to admit in a forum like this, where I don’t know who may listen. Part of that has to do with the fact that I grew up the son of an alcoholic. There were people in my family who had to be protected, and I was the oldest son. Those who have had that experience know where I come from.
In many ways my life is a string of these situations, where I have collect to me, people who are not the most popular, maybe are the brunt of the joke. I’ve tried to do my part to protect them. I’ve not always succeeded. I have some sad stories that I won’t tell, because they’re not mine to tell, only mine to be involved in.
That’s how you can quickly go from there, at a very young age, to becoming a police officer. In the role of police officer, I viewed my job as to protect against the bully.
That’s really what I looked at my job as, the bully was not safe with me. That was my role and sometimes that got me into trouble. But it was my noble role.
I could tell you countless examples of that. I won’t bore you with them. But that has to be at the foundation of what took me to a point as a police officer… It’s a hard job, and those men and women out there, from everything I’ve seen, are out there doing a righteous thing.
Those people who do the righteous thing are just as horrified as anybody, and more than most when they see some bad policing. The press loves to cover that these days, disproportionately from the great things, the heroic things that those men and women are out there doing. I’m so thankful that I live in place where I have police officers.
I’m also horrified that there are some bad ones, but I’m getting off topic. One day, in the midst of my police career, I was approached by a judge who I had been in front of many times, and he asked me if I would go to lunch with him. I thought surely I had done something very wrong. He basically asked me what the hell I was doing in life.
By then I had spent enough time in courtrooms, including his courtroom, to have this feel about the place. I could feel the energy in a courtroom. I knew important things happened there, and I knew it wasn’t always the right thing. Lives were changed there, and it was a great place to fix the bully.
As I started thinking through that, and he pointed it out to me. Fast forward, I go to law school and come out. Now as a civil attorney, I still view my job as I was in law enforcement. My job is to hold those responsible accountable, that’s it. It’s not to invent things. It’s not to anything other than to hold those who are responsible accountable.
I have much better resources now, than I ever had in law enforcement. It’s different resources, but I can do things and bring my creativity, and all the things that I’m interested in life, I can pull together. I didn’t tell you I was a physics guy in school. Maybe that’s why it made me look at that Mustang and say, “Why the hell did this crush damage cause that fire?”
So law became something that was a continuation of what I had done. Fast forward and you can see why something like the Ford case happens, and why now. I told you I had to go a little bit further, I won’t go much further. After I woke up the day after all those cases were settled, I had no cases. For a lawyer, that’s a scary place.
I fumbled around for a good year trying to figure out what I needed to be when I grew up. Further into not believing in coincidences, about two weeks leading up to a particular day, everything I had looked at has to do with truck accidents. I would turn the TV on and there would be a horrible tragedy involving a truck.
I’d open the newspaper, and there would be a truck story. I even got on an airplane and in the seat pocket in front of me somebody left a trade magazine that was trucking. It was opened to an article about safety problem in trucking. A couple days after that, I was tossing and turning at night, asking myself what I needed to be when I grew up.
I said, “I don’t believe in coincidences. So I think this is what I’m supposed to do.” The very next morning… Keep in mind, at the time no truck cases. The very next morning I went into work invigorated for the first time in a while. I was waiting for…
I wrote some personal notes and emails to some lawyers who had been really important in helping support me as a product liability lawyer. By that time I had left the med mal firm, and I was all by myself. I was waiting for the one staff person that had pulled away with me when I left to tell her what my midlife crisis was, and the phone rang.
It was a little after 8:00 am, the woman on the other end asked for me by name, what can I do for you. She told me that her husband had died at 3:00am on the side of the road. I asked her, “What happened?” She said, “A truck killed him.” I asked her, “How did you know to call me?” She said, “I don’t know.”
I said, “I’m leaving right now to come and see you.” So that day at 3:00 am, when I was tossing and turning, making the decision, my commitment, my new role in life was going to work on safety-related problems. Cases that involved safety related problems in the trucking world. It was almost 10 years ago now.
The vast majority of my cases, almost 90-100% of them are truck cases. Truck cases is my life now, and I’m blessed in my life. I think we’re making a difference. I’m surrounded by other lawyers around the country who I’m so proud of because they stepped up to the plate time and time again to do the thing. Together we can make a difference. So that’s my story.
Scott Glovsky: You’re flying around the country, working around the clock away from, weeks on end at a time. Has being a trial lawyer taken something from you?
Joe Fried: Somebody, I can’t remember who it is, is credited for saying, “The law is a jealous mistress.” They should meet the modern day trial lawyer. The world has gotten smaller, which means geographic diversity in the practice of law, and specialization in the practice of law has made it …
I’m an Atlanta-based lawyer and I handle truck cases. I think someone counted recently and said 31 states that I had worked in. A part of that is the more narrowly you draw your boundaries on what kind of cases you’re going to handle, the bigger you have to allow your geography to be, if that makes sense.
But to answer your question, it’s taken a huge toll. People really have a misconception to what it’s like to be a trial attorney. They think its simple and all about cashing the check, working the system, and those kind of things. Maybe that’s exists, but I’m not really seeing that. Somebody’s got to figure it out, or call me after they hear this, and tell me how to do that, I would like to hear it.
But my truth is, it has taken a huge toll. I have recently been going through some things with family stuff that involved addiction. By sitting in meetings, trying to support that situation, I realized my work is my drug of choice. It’s where I have run to, to not deal with anything else in my life that I didn’t want to deal with.
It has almost cost my marriage. I has cost years of me missing things with my children, although I’ve worked hard not to. I make sure they know that. It’s cost health as I sit here, the state of health that I would like to be in. Because it’s hard when you’re on airplanes constantly to stay in shape.
But it’s also been a tremendous honor for me, it has validated me. It’s my life’s work, and I would choose to do it again, even knowing the heartbreak and challenges that it would bring sometimes. There might be a few things that I’d try to do a little differently, but I would choose it again, even if I had to do all those things over again.
Scott Glovsky: What do you want your tombstone to say?
Joe Fried: Here lies a man who made a difference. I don’t know if I need to say this on my tombstone, but my dad passed away about five years ago. I was fortunate enough to be by his side when he did, with me was the only woman who he had been married to, 60-year marriage, his five children, and a couple of grandchildren.
We laid there with him as he died. It redefined my definition of success. Because surely at the end to be surrounded, not because a sense of duty or responsibility, but because every one of us wanted to be there. There’s nowhere else we would have rather been. This man who meant so much to all of us, who made a difference. That has to be the definition of success, I think.
Here’s my real answer, Scott. I don’t care what it says on my tombstone. What I want to leave people with … It’s written somewhere, people will forget what you gave them, and those kind of things, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. What’s more important to me than what it says on my tombstone, is how by the end of my life, how I made people feel.
If I can leave my wife such that she feels how much I cherish her. If I could leave my children so that they would know the depth of my love for them. If I could leave my friends with a knowledge that I was a true friend to them. I could leave my profession, my colleagues, feeling that I lived my life to a significant degree and service with them. If I could leave my clients knowing how much I feel gratitude for the trust they put in me. If I could be surrounded in the end by those who I love and love me most, then I don’t even need a tombstone.
Scott Glovsky: Joe, you’re making me cry.
Joe Fried: Well, I don’t mean to make you cry. I’m at a point now, where…. Your words at the beginning of this were so kind to me. I appreciate what you said. I don’t feel those things about what I’ve accomplished. I know I’ve accomplished good things but I don’t feel those things. I don’t let myself feel them.
Now I’m at a phase in my life where I still have important things to do safety-wise with trucking. Those who know me, know that I don’t hate truckers or trucking, I just hate danger. I hate bad decisions for bad reasons that cause people’s lives, including truckers.
Now I’m also blessed because I’m given increasing opportunities to help teach, mentor, train other lawyers. It’s come to the realization that, if I have learned what I have learned along the way, if I could just give that away to as many people who are willing to fight the bully. Then they can accomplish a whole lot more than I can accomplish, I’m only just me.
Somewhere along the line, that validates me too. So it’s a true blessing. It’s especially a blessing for you to ask me to be a part of what you’re doing. I’m proud of you and I’m so happy that you’re my friend, and that we’ve gotten some time to spend together.
I always leave you, and I think I say it every time, I wish we had more time together, and I do. You’ll live far, as my daughter, who is now 15, used to say when she was much younger, “You live fa-ya fa away.” It’s not always easy for us to stay in touch, but when we do I know we start right back up, and there’s a method measure of a friendship to some level.
Scott Glovsky: I’m very honored and blessed to have you in my life. I truly, truly, from the bottom of my heart want to thank you on behalf of your clients. On behalf of the hundreds trial lawyers around the country that you’ve mentored. On behalf of all the folks who are not in danger because of the great work that you have done. You are the epitome of a true powerful human being, powerful trial lawyer, and absolutely lovable man.
Joe Fried: You’re kind. I want to hug you, but you’re going to have to take those ear things off before I do that. Nobody else can see those, but they are there. He’s wearing them right now, and listening to all of this through these huge ear things.
Scott Glovsky: Thank you so much for doing this.
Joe Fried: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it very much.
Scott Glovsky: Thank you.
Thank you for joining us today for Trial Lawyer Talk. If you like the show, I 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.com, and I would 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. 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.
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