John Elliott Leighton wants to make the world a safer place – particularly for children, the elderly, travelers and other vulnerable people. “As a plaintiff’s attorney, I want to see that the work I’m doing is making a difference for individuals, families and our society as well,” says the managing partner of Leighton Law, P.A. in Miami.
For Leighton that means changing people’s behaviors as well as state and federal laws. “We have made it socially unacceptable to drive drunk or to smoke indoors,” he says. “But we have not yet done so with distracted driving, which is the number one cause of motor vehicle crashes.” Noting that Florida is one of the few states that have refused to ban texting while behind the wheel, Leighton says, “People want 24/7 access but we have to say it is simply not acceptable for drivers to text or send emails.”
During his long career as a personal injury attorney, Leighton has handled many cases with wide-reaching social implications. In fact, several cases have resulted in policy or procedure changes by businesses or governmental entities. One example is premises security.
When Leighton began litigating these cases 26 years ago, shopping centers, hotels, offices and apartment complexes often didn’t hire security guards for fear of “scaring people away,” he says. “Since then, it has become safer to go shopping, enter an office building or go home to your apartment because of litigation results. We have seen crime levels decrease and risky places become safer locations –a lasting benefit from PI litigation.”
The same trend has occurred in product liability cases, such as installing airbags in cars and adding other safety features. “I’d like to see the same thing continue with other areas of tort litigation,” he adds. “I’ve always had a sense of advocacy on behalf of the little guy. I think that’s in the DNA of plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
A Strong Sense of Advocacy
Born in San Francisco, Leighton grew up in Hollywood, Florida. “My father was a lawyer,” Leighton says. “When I was about 6, he talked at the dinner table about a man who had been badly burned internally after drinking lye from a soda bottle that had not been properly cleaned and rinsed at the bottling plant. I knew even then that I wanted to help fix those kinds of problems when I grew up.”
As a teen, Leighton became editor of his high school newspaper and wrote articles for The Miami Herald. He also led his high school debate team to a state championship. But rather than go into journalism, he focused on law, earning his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Florida.
Early in his career, Leighton took up the challenge of an “unwinnable” negligent security case involving a good Samaritan who was shot in the chest after chasing down a thief who snatched a purse from a woman in the parking lot of an Aventura shopping center. “There had been a rash of assaults and robberies at that center,” Leighton says. “I had been litigating inadequate security cases for about five years, and this was the first time my client was a rescuer who was injured as a result of violent crime.” In the 1993 case, Leighton argued that if it was reasonably foreseeable for a crime like purse snatching to occur, the shopping center owner owed a duty of care for the rescuer. The jury agreed and awarded his client $1.5 million. As Leighton says, “He was a true hero, who took a bullet for someone.”
On the other hand, other people’s negligence has been the key factor in many of Leighton’s high-profile courtroom battles. In 2007, for instance, Leighton represented the family of two teenage sisters from Ocala who were parasailing in Pompano Beach when the rope snapped in high winds, throwing them into a hotel roof. Amber May White was killed and Crystal White suffered serious head injuries. “There were warnings about thunderstorms and all other businesses on the beach had closed up,” Leighton says. “However, the parasailing operator wanted to make a little more money, with tragic results.”
Drawing on his on-the-scene observations and extensive legal research, Leighton was successful in showing that the parasail operator was acting as an apparent agent of the beachfront hotel. The case was settled, and Leighton became a staunch advocate of stricter parasailing regulation in Florida, urging the state Legislature to pass the proposed “Amber May Law” in its last two sessions.
“Having a personal connection with my client is important,” Leighton says. “I don’t take a case if the client’s story is not compelling. But if I do feel strongly about it, that connection provides me with an additional motivation – like flipping on the afterburners in a long-distance run.”
Today, much of Leighton’s PI work revolves around what he calls Resort Torts™, a term he trademarked that includes cruise ship, maritime, and violent crime/negligent premises security cases. “For the past three years, I have been giving legal seminars about Resort Torts, which encompass many types of resort, vacation and travel liabilities,” he says. His two-volume treatise, “Litigating Premises Security Cases” (Thomson-West, 2006), is a comprehensive text on evaluating, preparing and trying premises security cases.
A nationally recognized authority on inadequate security litigation and other issues, Leighton is often asked to comment for the media, including NBC’s Today Show, Inside Edition, and other news programs. In his practice, Leighton also handles legal malpractice and institutional child abuse cases, and volunteers his time as guardian at litem.
Outside his legal work, Leighton enjoys skiing, running and spending time with his wife Caryn Bellus, an appellate lawyer with Kubicki Draper, and daughter Taryn. “My wife and I try not to talk shop at home,” he adds. “We focus on being parents first, lawyers second.” Leighton also serves on the board of Temple Beth Am and is involved with other community activities.
Professionally, Leighton is chairman of the American Association for Justice Inadequate Security Litigation Group, and chairman of The Academy of Trial Advocacy, a national invitation-only association of the nation’s leading catastrophic injury trial lawyers. He sits on the board of advisors of the National Crime Victim Bar Association, which honored him with its 2007 “Advocate of Justice” award.
Looking ahead, Leighton would like to see the United States do a better job of protecting children from pedophiles, predators and other criminals. “We need to stop the institutional support of child sexual abuse through tort accountability,” he says. “Individuals may be subject to criminal prosecution, but businesses need to feel it in their pocketbooks. That’s the best way to stop criminals from infiltrating our institutions and gaining access to children. Ultimately, it may be the plaintiffs’ lawyers who change the law and make a difference in our society.”
South Florida Legal Guide Midyear 2012 Edition