Welcome to Trial Lawyer Talk. In this episode, we talk with another great Houston trial lawyer Ron Estefan. Ron is a wonderful personal injury lawyer. Ron discusses a powerful trial in which he deeply connected with his client and brought her story to life in the courtroom. Ron has a lot to teach us all about being real in the courtroom.
Transcript for Trial Lawyer Talk, Episode 2, with Ron Estefan
Scott Glovsky: Welcome to trial lawyer talk. I’m Scott Glovsky and I’m your host for this podcast. We’re going to talk to some of the best trial lawyers in United States. We’re going to talk to civil lawyers, criminal lawyer, jury consultants, and others that I think will have some interesting stories, that are both entertaining and insightful.
My goal here, is to give you a view inside the hearts, and the minds, and the souls of great trial lawyers. We’re not going to talk about the law, but I guarantee you that you’ll learn a lot about trial from the stories you’re going to hear from our great guests. So I hope you enjoy the podcast, let’s get started.
Very fortunate, with us today is Ron Estefan, who’s one of the most real, genuine, authentic trial lawyers that I know. Ron’s from Texas, and does tremendously great work in Texas, and helps lawyers around the country. Teaching other lawyers how to try cases, and how to be real. Ron, thanks so much for being here.
Ron Estefan: Thank you, Scott. You’re welcome. Thank you for asking me to do this. I’m humbled by the kind words you have to say about me. I appreciate that very much. Thank you.
Scott Glovsky: Ron, can you tell me a story about a case that profoundly changed you, either personally or professionally?
Ron Estefan: I’m happy to. I met Linda around 2008. Linda was a mother of twin boys. One of her sons, Matthew, was profoundly retarded and profoundly autistic, and had to be cared for in a home because Linda could no longer take care of him anymore.
He’s now, was 23 years old. So he’s a grown man. Linda had to finally put him in an assisted living facility for homes that specialized in dealing with people with Matthew’s issues. Well he got kicked out of that home. So Linda had to…
One of the things about people with profound autism and profound mental challenges, is that they are apt to lose their temper because they can’t communicate the way that you and I can. They don’t have all the tools in their tool bag that you and I have. So they use outburst and emotions when they get frustrated, which is sometime frequently.
Linda went and shopped for another home for Matthew to live in, as another assisted living facility. She went to many, until she found one. Each one she would go in, she would see how clean it was, and she would smell to see if the place had smelled sanitary. And she would look on the wall and see all the certificates, the plaques, awards, and all the training certification that these people had.
So after having done that for I don’t know how many weeks and months she did. She settled on one home in particular. This assisted living facility was a home, just a regular house, that was converted to an assisted living facility. Right next to that house was another house, where the owners of the home lived.
So they lived next door to the assisted living facility, and they had themselves a grown son. Their son was a college scholarship basketball athlete. He was a large kid. He was also in the business with the parents. So on one particular day, Matthew had been living in the home for a while. Matthew was having an outburst, and nobody was there to manage him except one kind of a housekeeper woman.
So she calls the owners of the home who lived next door, and said I need help. They send their son over, and their son restrains Matthew. But the way he does it is, he lays on top of Matthew, and as he does so Matthew is face down on the ground with his left arm under him. His full body weight pushing down on top of him, and then the neighbor’s son’s full body weight on top of Matthew, and Matthew dies. He asphyxiates, dies.
Linda, as you might imagine, went to pieces, really lost it and blamed herself for having put him in this home. We worked with Linda, on her case, before we went to trial. It was profound, the work that we did, the stuff that we learned. So we’re in trial.
Scott Glovsky: Can you talk for a moment about the profound things that you learned?
Ron Estefan: Yeah, it was apparent to me when we started doing the work that we do, to discover the story in depth, and discover where the emotional core of the story is. As we would reenact the scenes of Linda being told that her son had died and things like that, and how she responded in that moment.
It was apparent to me that Linda was either giving me a rehearsed response, or she was under some sort of medication. I wasn’t sure which, because it was flat. Her response was flat. So we worked all morning, at noon we took a break for lunch. Linda comes up to me and says, “I think this is going great. I really like you. Do you like me?” I said, “Linda, I do not like you.”, which was not an easy thing for me to say. Because I generally like people, and genuinely like and love my clients.
But I said to Linda, “Do you want to know why I don’t like you, Linda?” She said, “Please, tell me.” I said, “Because you’re not giving me anything to like. I’m seeing some two-dimensional version of you, something’s missing. I don’t know what it is, but I’m not seeing any feeling, any genuine emotion from you.”
Well we had lunch, and after lunch was a completely different Linda for the afternoon session, and the room felt it. There were 10-12 people in there helping. I mean, the dynamic was different. Linda really let it all hang out. I mean how much she felt guilt and shame for putting her son in that place. And how she should have never done that. And how she can’t celebrate Mother’s Day anymore, because she feels guilty.
Because the one son, the twin lived, and the other one died, and she feels like she just can’t celebrate Mother’s Day any more, and their birthday. They were of course born on the same day. She’s still got a living son, but she felt like it’s almost cheating on the dead son to celebrate the living son’s birthday. We found out all those sorts of things as we did the work.
So at trial, Linda was on the stand, and I’m asking her questions. One of the things that happened in the trial was that, I asked Linda, “Linda, how did it feel when you found out your son had died?” She looked at me and said, “What do you mean how did it feel?” I said, “I meant, how did it feel?” She just looked at me with a glaring look on her face, and just froze up. She didn’t answer.
Judge took a break. Linda and I had a little meeting, during the break, after which, trial resumed. I said, “Linda, when we took a break, I had asked you how it felt.” She said, “Ron, I apologize to you. I just froze up, and I don’t know why. I don’t have a good explanation. It’s just painful for me to think about the memory of my son, and all that happened.”
So we went through her examination, and it obviously went much better than it went before the break. Well, come closing argument time. I start my closing argument laying on the floor on the well of the courtroom. The way that Matthew was laying when he was killed. My words to the jury to being the closing argument were, “No donut for you.”
Those were the words Matthew said when he was alive to relate to someone, that he knew that he had been bad, and the he was being punished. That was Matthew’s way of saying, I get it. I know I did something wrong, no donut for you. Because his grandmother used to tell him, when he was a little boy, whenever he did something wrong, no doughnut for you. So his way of saying, I understand, I’m bad, is no doughnut for you.
So I started off the closing argument laying there. The jury all stood up and was looking over the rail watching me. And I said, “No doughnut for you.” I stood up, and I said, “Those were likely the last words Matthew Vick ever said on this Earth.” I went through my closing argument, and at some point I turned to Linda, who was sitting at the counsel table.
I turned away from the jury and turned to Linda. I said, “Linda, two days ago during your testimony, you apologized to me. And I need to tell you that I apologize to you for having opened old wounds, and had gone into painful places. And I’m sorry I had to do that. Will you accept my apology?” She just bowed her head, and acknowledged it. I took that as an acceptance.
And I went back to the jury, and I’m talking with the jury. We asked the jury for a lot of money in that case in a very conservative county in Texas. Keep in mind Matthew was never a wage earner and was never going to be, so we didn’t have an economic model. We just had what we had, a loss of a mother’s love and affection of one of her adult children. That’s what we were asking the jury to compensate Linda for.
So the jury goes to deliberate, and they come back. They awarded Linda a million and a half dollars. The most remarkable thing happened after that. The jurors came out from around the jury box and they all went over to Linda, and they hugged her. Then the jurors went over to the defendants who owned the home, and they hugged them.
It was in that moment that I recognized how powerful and how career changing that case was, and the methods were. And I hope I have answered your question. Because if you asked if there was a case that let me know that changed my career.
Scott Glovsky: Ron, that story is so powerful and frankly painful. How do you deal with that in working on a case like that, in having such a huge responsibility to help someone who’s life has been damaged so deeply?
Ron Estefan: Well, the only way I can answer that is to say, how can I not deal with it. I can’t have any meaningful connection with a jury unless I’m feeling it too. So I guess the easy way out would have been just to hear Linda tell me the facts, and then me get up and tell the jury, hey, these folks killed her son, give her a lot of money. But that didn’t have the emotional impact on me. And in turn, I would not have been able to deliver that emotional connection to the jury.
So how do I deal with it? I deal with it because I know I have to deal with it. I have to form that connection, because I can’t ask the jury to connect with my client, if they see that I can’t even connect with my client. I would feel like a fraud standing in front of that jury, telling them how terrible this thing was, if I didn’t actually experience it.
I’ll tell you this. This is another little side note that nobody ever knew about. This is the first time anybody is hearing about it. The night before closing arguments, I couldn’t sleep. I was up about 2:00-2:30 in the morning. I was walking around the house. I sat on the sofa, and I crossed my arms. I was sitting there, and I was thinking about how I was going to make this closing argument to this jury. All I could think about was my own children, and how I would be feeling if one of my children had been taken from me that way, had been killed. Then the closing argument was easy.
Scott Glovsky: How did you feel after you saw the jury hug your client, hug the defendant?
Ron Estefan: I felt as close to the surreal Atticus Finch moment. I know that To Kill A Mockingbird was a different outcome for Atticus and his client. And there was no hugging by the jury of anybody. But it felt like the reason that I became a lawyer. If anybody would have said to me ahead of time, you can try a case so well that the jury can actually award your client a lot of money, and still love both her and the defendant, the people she sued.
Scott Glovsky: Frankly Ron, I’m not understanding. What led the jury to hug the defendant?
Ron Estefan: You need a little more back story, and I’ll give that to you. The defendants were a very nice couple from Africa. I had to cross-examine the wife, one of the co-owners of the home. In the process of examining her, she immediately broke down and started bawling on the stand. Then told the jury that she was completely devastated by Matthew’s death. Because she cared for him very much.
But then she shared that her own son, the college athlete on scholarship, had been shot and killed a year before trial. So it was clear to the jury the she and her husband had suffered loss too, not just Matthew’s death, but their own child’s death. They didn’t view making an award for Linda as something that was harmful or detrimental to the defendants in this case, the folks who owned the assisted living facility.
Scott Glovsky: When you were cross-examining her, how did you deal with that when you find out about her tragedy and her loss?
Ron Estefan: I can tell you exactly, because I will never forget this as long as I live. She was blubbering on the stand, and rightfully so. She literally was losing it, and I sat patiently and just let her cry. When she started breathing again, because she was crying that kind of cry where she couldn’t get her breath. When she stared breathing again, she was still crying. I stood up and said, “Your honor, may I get the witness a tissue?” He gets his gavel and slams it down and says, “The bailiff will take care of that.” And of course, I just sat back down.
I think in that moment, it wasn’t a lawyer for a plaintiff trying to cross-examine, in some legal way, a defendant in a case. The owner of a home, whose son had killed Linda’s son. It was just two people that had a common connection, and that connection was just pain. So I responded in just a human way. All the lawyer stuff was not even in the picture.
It was just one human’s seeing another human going through an ordeal and suffering. And doing what any of us would do, if we weren’t in a courtroom. If you walk by a woman who was in that much pain, you’d offer her a tissue, would you? That’s all I did, I responded out of a place of, I believe, human connection.
Scott Glovsky: It’s very apparent that you’re caring not just for your client but caring even about the defendant you’re cross-examining, is so clear. Do you have a connection in your life? Is there something that you draw on, or that resonates with you on working on a case like that?
Ron Estefan: Yeah, I do as a matter of fact. I think about what could have been in my life. I was told the stories, but never more than that. My mother had a son before me, and he lived only a short time, maybe only six weeks and died. I was told that he was buried in a cemetery, and I never saw his grave, and I never had another brother. I have a younger sister, and she’s my only other sibling.
So I think about, when I relate, when I hear people’s stories. I try to imagine what my life would have been like if I had a brother, or a twin brother for example. Or not a twin, my younger sister, and someone had taken her from us. Yeah, I connect on that level. I try to put myself as much in the shoes of the people I’m representing and the people I’m questioning as I can.
Scott Glovsky: That sounds so scary and quite frankly painful. Is it?
Ron Estefan: To answer the question simply, yes it is scary and painful. And both of those feelings you’ve just pointed out are welcome companions to me in trial. If I don’t feel fear, if I don’t feel pain, I need to go find something else to do with my life beside be a lawyer, be a trial lawyer. I need those things. I need to feel that, because I would be robotic if I didn’t feel those things.
Scott Glovsky: What was your proudest moment as a trial lawyer?
Ron Estefan: In a short response to that, Scoot, I’d have to tell you my proudest moment was representing a young woman, who’s cause I knew to my core was righteous. I was fortunate to be asked to try the case as co-counsel of Jamie Leigh Jones versus Halliburton and KBR. And we did not win that case for Jamie, but that didn’t diminish how proud I was to stand in that courtroom as her lawyer.
Because to my bones, I believe that woman was raped, and was wronged, and should have gotten justice. So I was proud to stand up for her, and fight that fight. That’s probably my proudest moment in a courtroom, was just starting that Jamie Leigh Jones trial, standing next to that girl, standing next to that young girl.
I believe to my core, Scott, that most lawyers particularly lawyers who do plaintiffs, person injury work, and criminal defense work. Go into the law because they want to do right, and they want to make a difference. That’s what I felt I was doing by representing Jamie.
I was taking on a righteous case and trying to make a difference. So the win or the loss was not the measuring stick of how proud I was. Because it was more about doing the right thing for the right reasons for me. So that’s why I was so proud to be Jamie’s lawyer.
Scott Glovsky: But that loss, meaning that Jamie walked out of that courtroom ultimately with nothing, that must have been painful.
Ron Estefan: It was devastating, mostly for her, mostly for Jamie. Less so for her lawyers.
Scott Glovsky: Well Rob, I want to know how you felt? Maybe I asked that the wrong way.
Ron Estefan: No, I’m going to answer that. She put all of her trust in us. That’s why I need to give you that. I asked Jamie to sit through two days of deposition testimony, while the defense lawyers cross-examined her for two days. She was on the stand during her trial for nearly four days.
Every time she would get in terrible spots, she would look over to me at counsel table. All I could offer her was just stay with your feelings, Jamie. I did that by putting my hand over my heart. She would look at me, and she would keep on going.
To feel as though, I couldn’t deliver justice, or help justice be delivered to Jamie, was crushing to me. It was devastating to me. Particularly because beyond any doubt, I know she was drugged and raped when she was over in Iraq. She had been there less than three days. They slipped her a mickey, and they raped her.
I know that, and I believe it, and I’ll go to my grave believing that. So yes, it was devastating to hear the jury come back and turn Jamie away, and turn her down. It was crushing.
Scott Glovsky: How did you deal with that?
Ron Estefan: I talked with the people around me, who I cared about the most. They kept reassuring me that there was not a thing we could have done better than what we did. That we gave Jamie every chance at justice. Even with that, you can’t guarantee a victory. So I took comfort in the knowledge that I really couldn’t think of another think I could have done differently.
Scott Glovsky: Ron, I want to thank you for being a phenomenal fighter for people, for standing up for those who don’t anyone to stand up for them; for being a phenomenal teacher and helping lawyers for the people around the country, and for the wonderful work you do. I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
Ron Estefan: You’re welcome, Scott. Thank you very much.
Scott Glovsky: 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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