Where are you from, and where are you currently based?
I'm originally from Daytona Beach, Florida, where I resided until I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1996. In 2020, after 16 years of living in Orlando, I moved with my wife and two children to Ormond Beach, Florida, which is where both my wife and I were raised. My kids are running around on the same streets, and playing on the same baseball fields that I did, so it's pretty surreal.
Did you want to be an attorney from a young age?
When I was 16 years old, I was involved in a car accident while driving home. My sister and friend were in the car at the time, and I had just come around a corner in a neighborhood when my car suddenly went airborne and into a tree. I got out of my car and noticed that the median had these big railroad ties that jutted out into the middle of the road, which was the reason my car was sent airborne. A young police officer showed up, and as I was bleeding fright in front of him, he gave me a ticket for reckless driving.
Once I got over the shock, I went out to the scene and began to use my amateur ‘CSI’ skills. I discovered skid marks, measured the distance of the spots, and created a whole tri-board science fair project that illustrated what really happened. I made my way to traffic court wearing the suit and tie I had bought for graduation, and when the judge called me up, I set up my board and began to walk them through the event with my pointer in hand.
After I finished my presentation, the judge said, “Mr. Cook, I simply asked if you plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest? However, let me help you out. ‘No contest’ means you leave it up to me to decide the outcome, and based on the evidence you’ve presented to me, I’m going to dismiss the charges if you’ll agree to pay the court costs.” I agreed and left with a positive sense of the system.
While I did not immediately embark on a quest to become an attorney, I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment in that I was able to use science and logic in defense of conduct that was pre-judged as reckless. I eventually abandoned an idea of going to law school, and instead enlisted in the Marines. After years of service, I returned home, was Honorably Discharged, and moved to Florida to begin a teaching career. A few years into teaching, I started dating an old high school friend of mine who worked at Morgan & Morgan when the firm was called Morgan Colling & Gilbert—over 20 years ago. I began working as an investigator for the firm, and within a week of joining, resigned my teaching positions and enrolled in law school.
Did you have any preconceived notions about personal injury attorneys?
I had gross misconceptions of this area of law. To me, this was the proverbial “ambulance chasing.” My perception of lawyers handling those types of cases was that they were driven solely by monetary gain.
Then, I actually got out there and saw catastrophically injured people firsthand. I asked my wife if these people would eventually get paid for the harm they’ve experienced, but she said that they usually have to fight the responsible party for years until they reach a resolution. That harrowing statement grabbed my attention, as it reminded me of my time in the Marines. Why is it always the most vulnerable who need to put up the strongest defense? It is because they are vulnerable. My time in the service was marked by deployments wherein we were sent to help those vulnerable to powerful aggressors. The disconnect between the weak and the strong was very apparent in this setting, and so I stopped teaching and started law school at night. At the firm, I began learning as much as I could about every aspect of claims including work as a case manager and paralegal.
How Did You Get Involved in Medical Malpractice?
I started doing personal injury on my own after graduating from law school and ended up representing a doctor in a medical malpractice case. This got the attention of another medical malpractice defense attorney who hired me to litigate medical malpractice cases full-time. Medical Malpractice immediately became a passion as I am a big fan of the healthcare industry and healthcare providers in general, and given the additional challenge of being proficient in so many areas of medicine. After a few years of representing the interests of physicians and healthcare facilities, I switched over to exclusively representing patients and their families. Around that same time, I began specializing in Birth Injury and Birth Trauma litigation, and had an opportunity to litigate and try birth injury cases around the country. That’s why I was so excited to return to Morgan and Morgan and help with the launch of the birth injury and birth trauma department. We’re operating nationwide, which is undeniably fantastic.
This endeavor is my pièce de résistance, and life’s work. Simply put, we want to help as many of these aggrieved families as we possibly can, and we have the both the talent and resources to take even the deepest pockets to task over these horrific injuries.
Do you see a lot of overlap between your life in the Marines and your career as a medical malpractice attorney?
I’ve always been a systems guy. The military develops systems and plans that they know will work across different mediums and allow people from other countries to communicate and coordinate. Whether you’re having a plane drop bombs or you have boots on the ground, you need to have all of that so meticulously coordinated that it almost feels redundant. And the goal of such systems is, of course, safety, efficiency and accountability. The healthcare industry is similarly reliant on systems and with the same goals in mind. This allows us to analyze those systems to determine where shortcomings may have led to mistakes that resulted in injury.
I also find parallels between trials and operations/missions. For starters, although there will be a plan in place, plan on it going out the window as soon as things start going. We used to say “Semper Gumbi - Always Flexible” (a play on the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fidelis - Always Faithful”). The ability to pivot and make split-decisions on the fly is a necessary skill. In trial, it is one of those things that seperates the goods from the greats.
Would you say that this field of law is more complicated than others because of how complicated medicine is?
Absolutely. There’s always an added challenge to learn and know the medicine that you’re dealing with. I’ve taught my lawyers to never walk into a room with a doctor or nurse unless you feel like you know the medicine better than they do. It’s extremely rare that I’m taking action against a bad doctor, nurse, provider, or hospital, but they’re definitely out there. It’s like most other industries: there’s 5% of the people causing 95% of the problems. Sure, there are bad elements out there, but that’s not the typical case we handle.
Usually, we see the good doctor or nurse that studied at a good school and received the proper training who made a mistake on the job. You have to ask the question, “What would a reasonably prudent provider do in this situation?” A bad outcome does not mean that there was negligent conduct, however it could be what drives a patient or their family to ask questions about what happened. If the bad outcome was due to an unreasonable case, the law says the injured party is entitled to bring a claim for damages.
Within our Birth Injury/Birth Trauma department, we consider ourselves as being on the same side as the healthcare providers, in that we’re helping regulate the industry as a whole, and advance patient safety measures. I have done this work long enough to see policies and procedure implemented based on claims or lawsuits we have filed. These changes help save an immeasurable amount of lives, and that is a latent benefit of this system that all sides should be given credit for. The client deserves credit for having the courage to bring the case. The defendants deserve credit as they made proactive changes to their policies and procedures in order to prevent the bad outcome from happening again. It’s a system that works to save lives, and unfortunately, we don’t discuss that too much or give the system enough credit for providing that societal benefit.
Is your area of law difficult to deal with emotionally?
It’s very tough. Our attorneys and staff are close like a family, and we watch out for each other because we know how difficult it can be. It has nothing to do with numbers or recovery; it has to do with our own anxieties as we recognize that clients are trusting us with the most important thing in their lives—their children. Many of these children are catastrophically injured, including ones that are non-verbal and/or unresponsive. There’s also the stress of litigating a case for three, four, sometimes five years, as the other side has become very talented at stringing these matters out. There’s a major emotional toll in this, and we do our best job of trying to keep that in check as much as possible. It is important to have people around you who appreciate the gravity, and who know-well how to balance the stress and emotional too.
Our great birth injury lawyer in Tennessee, Jenney Keaty, told us about a mother who contacted the office after we visited her farm for the initial consultation. The mother, already overwhelmed with the level of attention her case is receiving, said, “I already feel like we’ve won everything.” She felt validated, which matters so much to someone in her position. We try to make the process as cooperative as possible for everyone involved because we know how grueling it can be. Mental health is important for everyone involved, and for that reason we make sure that our clients and our team gets the emotional support they need to see the matter through.
What would you say is the best advice you’ve heard?
The best advice I’ve ever received is to truly believe in your case. I love trial because it is finally time to bring the matter to a fair and impartial jury after years of trying to convince people who are paid to disagree with you. I feel strongly that the entire gambit is so much easier than everyone lets on. I believe juries decide cases because they trust one side more than the other.
At the end of the day, one side or the other flinches, and that’s what the jury perceives. If you can get the jury to trust you, and if they see that you TRULY believe in what you are arguing to them, you go into deliberation with a winning advantage. There’s an entirely different gear that you get to by truly believing in your case, and the more you try to complicate things, the less likely you are to reach a favorable outcome.
What about the worst advice?
As for the worst advice, that would be to focus on the opponent or the other lawyer.
I’ve coached some sports, and when you’re down in a game, you have to tell your players to stop focusing on trying to come back and win the game. Instead, let’s just get the next goal, or have this possession work in our favor, or just make the next basket. The more you focus on winning, the less chance you have of actually doing it. It’s like quicksand; the more you fight it, the quicker you sink. You can have a great deal of success by simply chipping away at the problem rather than running head first into it.