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Making a Difference

Ervin A. Gonzalez believes a trial attorney can help make the world a better place. “I most enjoy the cases in which the outcome makes a difference for the community, as well as for my clients,” says Gonzalez, a partner at Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables.  “When people lose their lives, their health or are financially crushed as a result of negligence, a trial attorney can go to court to dramatically impact someone’s life or to prevent similar situations from happening again.”

Over the past 25 years, Gonzalez’s cases have had a powerful impact on South Florida and the entire nation. After a 12-year-old boy was electrocuted at a bus stop in 1998, Gonzalez dug into the case, and the firm’s legal team found that more than 100 Miami-Dade Transit Authority bus shelters, operated by an outdoor advertising company, were improperly wired. In 2005, a jury awarded a $65 million verdict to the boy’s father, and today most bus stops are lit by solar panels mounted on the roof. “It’s extremely gratifying that there have not been bus stop electrocutions since then,” Gonzalez says.

In another “game-changing” case, Gonzalez teamed up with Neal W. Hirschfeld, shareholder at Greenspoon Marder in Fort Lauderdale, in a 2003 grave desecration lawsuit against Service Corporation International for overselling cemetery plots at two Menorah Gardens cemeteries and moving bodies to make room for new ones. The case resulted in a $100 million settlement.

“I’ve known Ervin for many years and he is one of only a handful of lawyers that I look for guidance on complex legal issues,” says Hirschfeld. “He is the consummate lawyer’s lawyer. He’s top in the state on mass tort litigation, and when it comes to issues involving ethics or procedures, he knows the material like a book.”

A Miami Native

Gonzalez was born in Miami in 1960 after his parents, Amado and Esther Gonzalez, fled from Cuba after Castro’s takeover. “They felt that kind of tyranny wouldn’t happen in the U.S. because Americans respected the laws here,” Gonzalez says. “Growing up, I wanted to be part of that system of justice, so I began thinking about law at an early age.”

When it came time for college, Gonzalez, as an only child, received a scholarship to go to a Catholic school provided it was close to home. He enrolled at Biscayne College (now St. Thomas University), and earned his bachelor’s degree, followed by a law degree at the University of Miami.

Knowing that he wanted to be a trial lawyer, Gonzalez joined the well-established Miami firm of Fine Jacobson Schwartz Nash Block & England in 1985, and began learning his trade. Three years later, he joined Colson Hicks Eidson, where he has practiced ever since. “At our firm, everyone shares the same philosophy of upholding the highest ethics, while doing the right thing for the client,” Gonzalez says.
Through the years, Gonzalez has built a plaintiff’s trial practice that focuses on personal injury, products liability, and mass torts, as well as commercial litigation. He is board certified in civil trial law (personal injury and wrongful death cases) and business litigation law by The Florida Bar and The National Board of Trial Advocacy. To date, he has obtained more than 32 verdicts in excess of $1 million for his clients, including a $61 million award in a medical malpractice case – the highest award in a Federal Tort Claims Act case.

With Colson Hicks Eidson partner Deborah Gander, Gonzalez represented Air Force veteran Robert Meltzer in the first trial involving a medical malpractice case against a U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) hospital for improperly sanitizing medical equipment and infecting patients with blood-borne diseases. The result was a $1.25 million award to Meltzer and his wife for pain and suffering and economic loss. “I hope this verdict will go a long way in promoting quality health care for our veterans,” he says. “The men and women who serve our country deserve the best in medical care.”

While the volume of civil trials has been declining in recent years, Gonzalez still looks forward to every opportunity to go to court. “I’ve handled four major trials this year,” he says. “Being ready to try a case puts you in a better position if your opponent is considering a settlement.”

Asked about his success in the courtroom, Gonzalez says, “As a trial attorney you first have to understand your client’s case and feel a sense of connection. Then, you have to be able to reach out and connect with the jurors. Finally, you have to explain very clearly what your client has gone through and why your client has suffered, so that justice can be served.”

Handling National Cases

In the past four years, Gonzalez has played a key role in two of the largest cases in the nation, serving on the Plaintiff’s Steering Committee (PSC) for the multidistrict litigation (MDL) over Chinese drywall, and the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.

Appointed to the Chinese drywall PSC in 2009, Gonzalez spent two years helping to secure a $600 million to $1 billion settlement with Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, a major manufacturer of the defective drywall imported from China. In a separate action, Gonzalez also became the first plaintiff’s attorney in the country to try a Chinese drywall jury case, resulting in a $2.5 million verdict in 2010.  “This was the bellwether case that everyone was looking to,” he says. “It was very satisfying professionally to be able to help the homeowners.”

In the BP oil spill litigation, Gonzalez chaired the PSC’s written discovery committee, led numerous strategy sessions to determine the best possible resolution for victims, negotiated with BP, and signed the 2012 settlement agreement. “Every attorney selected for a PSC is a very accomplished litigator who is used to being in charge,” he says. “So, you have to take a diplomatic approach and strive to reach a decision via consensus. If you go into an MDL with the attitude of ‘my way or the highway,’ you will be rudely disappointed.”

While BP estimated the value of the oil spill settlement at $7.8 billion, Gonzalez says the total is open ended, and will depend of the actual outcomes of the court-supervised claims processes. “The ongoing ability of the victims to bring claims may provide a template for long-term protection from future disasters,” says Gonzalez. “Hopefully, it will serve as a deterrent to oil companies engaged in risky drilling practices in offshore waters. Deepwater drilling must be done correctly and safely or not at all.”

A Teacher and Mentor

In addition to his trial work, Gonzalez has been an adjunct faculty member at the UM School of Law since 1992. He has published numerous works on civil and trial procedure, lectures frequently and mentors younger lawyers on fundamental trial skills. Gonzalez also serves on the UM Citizens Board and the Board of Trustees at Saint Thomas University, which gave him its “Leaders for Life” Award in 2004 – one of a long string of community service and professional service awards he has received in his career.

With his wife Janice, Gonzalez enjoys swimming, scuba diving, biking, and riding their two rescued horses, Hammer and Duke. “I also enjoy playing acoustic and electric guitar, but I’m a far better lawyer than a songwriter,” he says with a smile.

Looking ahead, Gonzalez says he wants to continue handling cases for his clients and community, while nurturing future leaders in his firm. “We have a very talented team and a collegial environment,” he says. “I want that positive spirit to continue into the future.”

South  Florida Legal Guide 2014 Edition

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