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Seeking Justice in Medical Malpractice Cases

Lake Lytal, Jr. says most physicians do an excellent job in treating their patients. But when a doctor’s error results in serious injury or death, the state’s judicial system must continue to hold them accountable. “I am convinced that most doctors are caring and compassionate professionals who can learn from their mistakes, says Lytal, a board-certified civil trial lawyer who focuses his practice on medical malpractice cases. “In that regard, I believe plaintiffs’ attorneys are helping to improve the quality of medicine in our community.”

For more than four decades, Lytal, 72, has been a leader in Palm Beach County’s legal circles, representing a wide range of clients. He a founding partner of Lytal, Reiter, Smith, Ivey & Fronrath, a 19-attorney plaintiff’s firm in West Palm Beach, and an opponent of tort reform.

“The Florida Legislature has whittled away the rights of patients,” he says. “But our state’s justice system must continue to provide some type of compensation for patients and family members who are victims of medical malpractice.”

Lytal was one of the first attorneys in the country to be certified as a civil trial advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. He is also a past president of the Florida Justice Association and has received that organization’s highest honors, including the Perry Nichols Award in 2000 and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.

Tradition of Leadership

A native of Palm Beach County, Lytal has deep roots in the region. His grandfather came to West Palm Beach from Louisiana in 1918 at the age of 12 and later owned and managed a furniture store. His father Lake Lytal, Sr. was a lifelong civic leader who was elected to the Palm Beach County Commission in 1941 and served for 32 years. His mother, Ruth, was a longtime area school teacher.

“As I was growing up, my parents emphasized the importance of helping others,” says Lytal, who graduated from Palm Beach High School in 1958. At that time, Lytal was planning a career in engineering, and took classes in math and science at Palm Beach Junior College, while doing drafting at a local engineering firm.

“I had a wonderful professor at the junior college named Joe Payne, who got into all kinds of arguments with me about politics and government,” Lytal recalls. “Eventually, Joe told me that I should go to law school.” Lytal heeded that advice, and transferred to Florida State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, followed by a law degree from the University of Florida in 1965.

After becoming a lawyer, Lytal went to work for a small general practice firm for the spartan salary of $100 a week. “My wife Susan was teaching and making more money than me, and it became apparent that we needed more income for a young family,” he says.

In 1968, Lytal joined Howell Kirby Montgomery and D’Aiuto, an insurance defense firm whose legal team included trial attorney Robert Montgomery, A week later, Joe Reiter, another young trial attorney also joined the firm. For the next few years, Lytal, Reiter and Montgomery focused their practices on insurance defense until 1977 when they decided to become plaintiffs’ attorneys. “Bob, Joe and I all felt we would enjoy the practice of law more by helping people who were down on their luck, rather than institutional clients,” Lytal recalls. “We felt that Palm Beach County could use an aggressive plaintiff’s firm, so we took the risk and went out of our own.”

For the next few years, Lytal focused on general tort matters, until he and Reiter left Montgomery in 1985 to open their own firm. “Bob was my mentor in many ways,” Lytal says. “The success I have enjoyed has been attributable to the training he gave us, not just in litigation, but in building a practice and managing a law office.”

Lytal began handling medical malpractice cases, while Reiter took on products liability matters. “I soon found out that there’s a big difference between representing a plaintiff against a corporate giant in a liability case, and taking on a doctor who has delivered the children of the jurors,” he says. “In fact, I think there is no greater challenge for a plaintiff’s attorney than handling medical malpractice cases.”

In a malpractice case, a plaintiff’s attorney has to dedicate a great deal of time to study the field of medicine while learning the specific facts of the matter. “While it’s easier to do that research now with the Internet, it’s still a learning curve every time,” Lytal says. “You also need to find experts who can teach you the subject, and convince them into going up against the high-powered experts the defense will bring into the case.”

To build a successful practice, Lytal says it’s essential for plaintiff’s attorneys to select the right cases. “Unless you thoroughly understand the issues, it’s easy to be trapped into taking a case that is not meritorious,” he says. “So, you have to build up your own medical knowledge and learn by trial and error.”

That’s something Lytal has done extremely well through the years, according to Marci Fuentes Ball, a 16-year plaintiff’s attorney who joined the firm in 2000. “Lake has taught me so much about how to work up a case and take it all the way to jury verdict,” says Ball. “I have never met someone who has more knowledge about the law, yet still has common sense and ‘street smarts.’  He has come up with novel legal arguments in cases that I would never have even dreamed of making.  He can cross examine an expert neurosurgeon about complicated medicine and then go in front of a jury and communicate the information in a way that everyone easily understands.”

Going to Bat for Clients

Reflecting on his long career in South Florida, Lytal says one of the biggest differences is the acceptance of women and minorities into the legal profession — an attitude that didn’t exist back in the 1960s. “Today, we just take those things for granted, but it’s taken a lot of effort to get to that point,” says Lytal, who has endowed a scholarship for African-American students to attend the University of Florida College of Law.

Another big change is the increased acceptance of attorney advertising. “ Today it’s part of the business for plaintiff’s attorneys,” Lytal says. “It costs a lot of money but it is effective.”

When he’s not going to bat for his clients, Lytal plays softball regularly on a senior league in Jupiter. He also enjoys hunting and fishing, and spending time with his wife Susan, their sons Chris and Lake Lytal, III [“Trey”], as well as their spouses and five grandchildren.

In fact, Trey Lytal, 41, followed his father into law and has been practicing at the firm for more than a decade. “Not many attorneys have an opportunity to work with their sons, so I consider myself privileged to do so,” Lytal says. “For me, this law firm is an extension of the family. It’s a pleasure to see our younger attorneys grow in their careers, and do excellent work.”

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