Articles Posted in Lawyers

Happy New Year’s readers!   In my last blog I talked about my New Year’s plan to volunteer on a week-long assignment in an immigrant detention center near the Texas-Mexico border. I was to help asylum seekers advance their claims.  Not really in my wheelhouse, since I am a New York personal injury lawyer.  But I speak Spanish, and am married to a Guatemalan, and wanted to help out with all the Central Americans claiming asylum on our border right now.  I am writing now to report that my efforts were successful.  Here is an article by a reporter at the Finger Lakes Times about my journey.  Thanks for reading!

Mike Bersani

BORDERLINE: PART II: Freedom fighter

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Most lawyers, whether they make their living representing personal injury victims or others, have a few heroes who inspire them to fight the good fight, to go above and beyond, and to be courageous warriors for their cause.  We at Michaels & Smolak are no different.  So let us tell you about one of our heroes, George Michaels.

To tell the George Michaels story, we need to take a walk through the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center (located right next to the historic William H. Seward museum and about a mile from the Harriet Tubman home, in our home town of Auburn, New York), which had its grand opening on November 13, 2018. The Center celebrates New York State’s progressive history of promoting social and equal rights by luminaries such as Harriet Tubman.

As we start our tour, the first thing we see is a seven-and-a-half-foot commemorative statue of Harriet Tubman, which adorns the entrance.

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We are proud to announce that U.S. News & World Report  has once again honored Michaels & Smolak with its “first tier” ranking in its “Best Lawyers in America” listings for personal injury litigation firms in the Syracuse, New York metropolitan area. In the 2019 edition, just as past editions, the firm was ranked “first-tier” in the categories of both “personal injury” and “product liability”.

These days, personal injury trial lawyers like us are bombarded with letters and “announcements” notifying us that we have been selected as part of an “elite group” of trial lawyers.  These letters go on to tout the very “stringent requirements” that attorneys must meet in order to qualify for the elite listing.  Only a very small percentage of lawyers, the letters say, have been selected.  And guess what?  YOU have been selected!

There’s only one hitch:  You have to pay for it.  These type of “award” or “honor” letters almost always end with a sentence like this: “to have your name registered as a member of this select group of top attorneys, simply make payment of (a few hundred dollars) to ____”.

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I hate to break it to you, but despite all the cute auto insurance ads on TV, insurance companies are not “nice guys”.  At least not if you were injured through the negligence of their insured.  You have to understand this very important fact right from the get-go:  In personal injury litigation, insurance companies are not your friend.  They are not a “good neighbor”.  They are not a cute little lizard.  They are not “by your side”.  You are not in “good hands” with them.  They are a business.  Their business is to pay you as little as possible on your claim so they can yield a bigger profit.

Case in point:  Last week I settled a case for a woman who fell off a horse at a local riding stable during a riding lesson in upstate New York (near Syracuse).  It was her first time on a horse. The saddle spun around while she tried to mount, throwing her to the ground, where she suffered a serious femur fracture.  Turns out she weighed more than the saddle setup could handle. The stable owners knew it, but failed to warn her.  Here was the original position the insurance company took (you need to click the image to read it):

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After we got that letter, we sued  the stable owners.  We then took the deposition testimony of the owners and witnesses.  The insurance company lawyers then asked the trial judge to toss out our case because our client had “assumed the risk” of horse riding lessons, and had signed the waiver.  The trial judge dismissed our case.   We then appealed to the appellate court in Rochester, New York, got the trial judge reversed, and the case reinstated.  Last week, at a mediation, we settled the case for $130,000, which by the way was the amount of money we always thought the case was worth.

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M&S’ senior law partner, Lee S. Michaels, is not only a top New York personal injury lawyer, but also an award winning adjunct professor at Syracuse College of Law.  He teaches young soon-to-be lawyers how to try a court case.  This is called “trial practice” in law school.  The Syracuse College of Law website recently featured an article about Lee’s amazing trial teaching techniques.

Lee’s trial teaching philosophy is simple:  The best way to learn to try a case is – well – to try a case.  So his students all have to try one to get their final grade. It’s just a simulated trial, sure, but a very realistic one nevertheless.  The students take on roles such as prosecutor, criminal defense lawyer, and witnesses in a fictitious criminal trial.

Lee tries to make the simulated trial as realistic as possible, “with a little help from his friends”.  He calls on former students – now judges – to act as trial judges.  Lee’s class’ most recent  “trials” starred Auburn NY’s City Judge David Thurston and US Northern District Magistrate Judge Thérèse Dancks, both former students of Lee’s. Also participating were Auburn City Judge Michael McKeon and Lee’s former student Kevin Kuehner, a Syracuse trial lawyer

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This morning I was at the radio studios of Finger Lakes Radio Group in Geneva, New York.  They wanted to interview me about my new book, “Understanding Your New York Personal Injury Claim“.  Geneva’s station – WVGA – ran the interview live.  It’s sister station in Auburn, NY  – WAUB – will run it at a later date.

It was fun to be on the radio again.  Ted Baker is an excellent interviewer.  He has interviewed me several other times about my volunteer work for the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva.  He made me feel right at ease and asked very on-point questions about my book.  For example, he asked me:

Why did you write the book?

money-doctor-300x200I just read a disturbing article in the New York Times about a large-scale personal injury insurance scam in New York City.  It works like this:  A gang of fraudsters lines up “scouts” to go into poor neighborhoods in search of people willing to “fake” accidents and injuries in exchange for money.  The “victims” are then coached on how to fake both the accidents and the injuries.  Suitably trained, they then “fall” in potholes, deliberately trip outside of restaurants or other businesses, or crash cars.  The fake accident victims then visit doctors whose pockets are also being lined with the fraud ring’s money.  The dishonest doctors then “treat” the “patients” for broken bones or internal injuries that do not exist, and of course keep copious records of all the “treatment” they provide.  The doctors even go so far as performing unnecessary medical procedures to bump up the settlement value of the injury.

The five men who orchestrated this particular scam have now been indicted.  The indictment alleges that the scam lasted for five years and cost insurance carriers about $30 million.

This is the kind of dishonesty that gives New York personal injury lawyers, and personal injury victims, a bad name.  And this is the kind of news article that jury members I empanel will have in mind when I am presenting a legitimate personal injury case to them for a seriously and legitimately injured victim.  Unfortunately, juries have to wonder whether my client, and perhaps even I, am trying to pull the wool over their eyes.  And a lot of it is the fault of scammers like these guys.

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We blogged a few weeks ago about Lee Michaels, the firm’s founding member, getting tapped for a big award from his alma matter, Syracuse University College of Law.  Well, the ceremony took place on the evening of October 20 in the beautiful Dineen Hall.  Above are a few of our favorite pictures.  The top left shows Lee being bestowed with the award. Lee was one of only five award recipients. The top photo on the right shows three of the other recipients standing with Lee.  Starting from left to right in the photo above, are:  Laura H. Harshbarger, a labor and employment lawyer at the law firm of Bond Schoeneck & King; Frank W. Ryan, US Chair of DLA Piper’s Intellectual Property and Technology practice; the Honorable Jonathan M. Feldman (a United States Magistrate judge),  and our Lee Michaels.   The other recipient was the Honorable Theodore A. McKee, a judge sitting on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (who was not present for the ceremony and thus does not appear in the photo).

The final photo shows Lee lined up with some friends for a photo op at the party that followed. From left to right are: Anas Saleh, Justin St. Louis, Annie Millar, and  Tom DeBernardis, all former students Lee taught; Marnin Michaels (lee’s nephew and also an SU Law alum), Mike Bersani (CNY Injury Law blogger and Lee’s partner).

A good time was had by all!  The food (drink!) and company were great.  It was an amazing way to celebrate some high achieving SU Law grads.  Congrats once again to our own Lee Michaels!

LeeMichaels1Lee Michaels is the senior attorney here at Michaels & Smolak.  He was personally responsible for hiring and grooming the rest of us.  To the other lawyers at our firm, he has been a mentor, teacher, friend, and role model.  It’s good to know that others appreciate Lee, too.

Syracuse University’s College of Law is going to bestow upon him a great honor this October 20.  You can read all about it on the Syracuse University College of Law website. Lee’s list of achievements  is too long to include here, but you can check it out on that website.  Suffice it to say Lee was a top law student at Syracuse, then because a top personal injury lawyer in the Syracuse area, and a top teacher of trial practice at the Syracuse College of Law, and has been a terrific community leader in many capacities.

As I said before, Lee has been a great mentor, teacher and friend to all of us here at Michaels & Smolak.  We are not alone.  One of Lee’s former students (Lee has been teaching Trial Practice as an adjunct at the law school for almost three decades) had this to say about Lee on the College of Law website:

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For the tenth straight year I am traveling around the great State of New York this fall to deliver my annual update on New York personal injury law to my fellow New York personal injury lawyers.  As always, my topic is governmental liability for personal injuries and wrongful death.  In other words, I am explaining to other New York injury lawyers how to hold the New York State and its counties, school districts, villages, towns, and other “public corporations”, liable for carelessly causing injuries and death. I have already knocked off Albany and Syracuse, and will be hitting Buffalo and Rochester in the weeks ahead.

I am deeply honored that the New York State Trial Lawyers Academy keeps inviting me back year after year to impart whatever wisdom I have on this topic to my brethren of the Bar.

Although my lecture tour is only once a year, I field calls from other lawyers on this topic all year long.  That’s because New York lawyers who have read my articles or have attended my lectures consider me a “expert” in this area.  They want to “pick my brain” to help them with cases they have against New York governmental entities.

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