Nicholas Rowley: Justice on Wings

Nicholas Rowley
2024 Feature Nominations

It’s 2019, and Attorney at Law Magazine catches back up with Nicholas Rowley on the heels of yet another victory. But this win was not on one of the multimillion-dollar trials he has come to be known for throughout the country. This was personal.

The sixth time as a finalist and one of the youngest recipients, Rowley was recognized as Trial Lawyer of the Year by his peers in the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles. It was an experience he describes as humbling and beautiful.

“Settle less, try more.”

“The night when I won the award and gave the speech was one of the most memorable moments of my career,” says Rowley, a partner at Carpenter Zukerman & Rowley and founder of Iowa-based firm Trial Lawyers for Justice who tries medical malpractice, catastrophic-and personal-injury, and wrongful-death cases. “As people, we often doubt ourselves and wonder if we’re good enough.” Am I a fake? Am I a fraud? Am I a great trial lawyer? Am I a good person?

“All those things run through your mind, and it feels really good when not just one person but the biggest trial lawyers’ organization in the country votes and says you are worthy of recognition as the premier trial lawyer in the country. It is a distinction that really means something.”

Much Deserved

Few could deny Rowley was worthy of this or any award. He is well known as the trial lawyer who will try any case anywhere against anyone if the cause is just.

Rowley says he gets a call from fellow lawyers who need trial help every week from New York to Alaska and everywhere in between.

“Most of my cases—I’d say 90 percent—are cases where other lawyers call me in, sometimes at the last minute” he says. “They’ll say, ‘The insurance company, the corporation, the government entity—they’re not taking me or settlement negotiations seriously and we’ve got to go to trial.’”

A good example is a medical-malpractice case Rowley recently finished trial on in Iowa. He was first contacted about the case on a Saturday evening, agreed to be lead trial counsel, got on a plane less than 24 hours later and picked the jury on Monday morning. He tried the case start to finish and got a verdict on Friday. The jury came back with a unanimous record-setting non-economic-damages verdict of $12.25 million in less than three hours.

Where Rowley estimates that most civil trial lawyers who are actually trying cases stand in a courtroom in front of a jury three or four times per year, he had finished a run of 14 trials in a 15-month period at the time the vote was cast for Trial Lawyer of the Year.

Rowley credits his teams at his CZR offices in California and TL4J offices across the country, as well as the other lawyers who call him in for the trials after they’ve worked up the cases, for relieving him of most deposition, pre-trial-court-appearance and mediation duties, which allows him to handle more trials. “As the trial lawyer I have become, I’m kind of a trial-to-trial-to-trial guy.”

By his side in most of these trials is Rowley’s wife and best friend, Courtney Rowley, who is one of the two authors and founders of Trial by Woman, a book and an organization that is working to open doors and pave the way for more women not only in the law, but also as professionals.

“We’re a husband-and-wife trial team and it’s great,” he says, adding that they’ve also co-authored a book called Running with the Bulls, which aims to help lawyers and injury victims get full compensation and civil justice.

Their partnership doesn’t stop there. With seven children at home ranging from 2 to 14 (Rowley has 10 total and plans to stop after one more), the couple make it a point to spend most all their non-courtroom time with the kids. The two youngest children travel everywhere with them.

To make it all possible, Rowley has started his own private-plane corporation, Justice Air Inc. Although he knows how to-fly a plane, he puts his full-time pilots in the cockpit so he can work along the way. The recent Iowa case is a perfect example of why he needs it. It would have been difficult to book a ticket to a rural airport, pack up trial gear, drive many hours to one airport, go through layovers and drive to a rural courthouse between the call on Saturday night and the time the jury got called in early Monday morning.

“It’s a big difference from living in my car when I first started law school,” Rowley says. “But we have planes so we can reach and help more people, not for luxury.”

“It’s a big difference from living in my car when I first started law school. But we have planes so we can reach and help more people, not for luxury.”

Rowley who is licensed in multiple states and federal courts, will be helping people in jury trials upcoming months in West Virginia, Iowa, Illinois, New Mexico, Washington state, Colorado and Alaska. TL4J has offices throughout the country, and Rowley has applications for licensure pending in Colorado, Washington and New Mexico. He has seven more trials set in California for CZR this year.

When Grounded

The Rowleys travel a lot, but when they are at home, they put the work aside and focus on family. If they are not in a courtroom in front of a jury, one can find them spending time with their children.

The day Attorney at Law Magazine interviewed Rowley, he was dressed comfortably at his expansive Spanish-style house in Ojai, California, which is complete with a mature orchard of citrus and avocado trees and a soccer field that doubles as a helicopter landing pad. He had been for a long walk with his kids, had exercised and had watched “Into the Spider-Verse” with his 4-year-old, Odan, and talked princesses with his 2-year-old, Greta.

“When we’re not full-time trial lawyers, we’re full-time parents,” he says.

Adding more to Rowley’s plate is his passion to remove the non-economic damages cap in the state of California known as the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act. Passed in 1975, MICRA, he says, was the work of insurance companies and lobbyists who convinced California politicians with “false and fraudulent information” that a $250,000 cap would stop a healthcare crisis resulting from personal-injury lawsuits.

Rowley explains that if a healthcare provider commits egregious act of negligence and injures, maims, scars or kills a patient, the maximum amount of money that that patient or that patient’s family is entitled to for the human losses under the law is $250,000. This is an insufficient amount, he says, for loss of a life, pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life and other non-economic damage that a person or one’s family would be entitled to in the state of California.

He cites the 2012 case of Sofia Blunt, a child who was negligently injured by health care providers in a botched delivery that caused her severe spastic quadriplegia and cerebral palsy. The jury had decided that the non-economic damages for life were worth $11.525 million, not knowing that the verdict would be reduced.

“This little girl will never be able to walk, to talk, to use the bathroom or to live outside of a wheelchair, and because of this law in California, they’re capped out at $250,000,” he says. “With attorney fees, they’re going to get less than $125,000—for her being trapped inside a body that doesn’t work.”

Rowley compares this case to another he tried in Sioux City, Iowa, in 2018. Carrie DeJongh, a 40-year-old farmer’s wife, Sunday school teacher and mother of four, experienced an agonizing death over an allergic reaction to contrast dye during a routine examination procedure. The cure for the reaction, Epinephrine, was an arm’s length away.

“When we came onto the case, the insurance company offered a million dollars,” he says. “We didn’t take what the insurance company offered and took it to trial. The jury deliberated for about two hours, agreed with us on everything, and offered every penny we asked for: $29.5 million. In the state of California, the entire family (four minor children and a surviving husband) would be entitled to a single lump sum of $250,000, which would then be reduced by costs and attorneys’ fees.”

In the case of the recent Iowa trial, in which the plaintiff’s pathology report was mixed up with a cancer patient’s, again, the award would have been reduced from $12.25 million down to $250,000 in California.

“After costs and attorneys’ fees, the client would have ended up with less than $150,000 for a life of impotence and incontinence resulting from a completely unnecessary surgery that he decided to undergo believing he had prostate cancer,” Rowley explains.

Rowley is taking his fight straight to the top. He’ll settle for nothing less than a face-to-face meeting with the governor himself to plead the case for medical malpractice victims in California. He says he hopes the governor has the courage to do what is right, but he and CZR are putting together a backup plan: a proposition to go on the ballot for 2020.

“The $250,000 cap was put into effect over 43 years ago based on insurance company lies that have been proved to be false,” he says. “Multiple states have ruled caps unconstitutional, and it is a disgrace that California, a progressive and liberal state, has failed to make any change.

“It’s despicable, and the politicians in the state of California are cowards and the judges who have refused to overturn it are also cowards—or biased. I am not sure which is worse,” he says.

“But now is the time for courage and change. Now is the time to scrape this horrific law off the books,” he says. “I believe that with current makeup of the Supreme Court of California, the judges we have in our state now, better politicians who are less controlled by insurance company lobbyists, and a new governor (a breath of fresh air and hope), we can get rid of MICRA completely and immediately.”

Rowley insists it’s not about attorneys’ making more money. In fact, his suggestion is to let judges make decisions about every dollar of attorneys’ fees on a case-by-case basis just like they do in many other types of cases in California—like those involving all minors and dependent adults, as well as some employment and discrimination cases.

“It is interesting that there are no legislative caps or judicial reviews on what lawyers hired and paid by insurance companies and corporations get paid.”

“It is interesting that there are no legislative caps or judicial reviews on what lawyers hired and paid by insurance companies and corporations get paid,” he says. “Let’s make attorneys’ fees reviewable so that all parties to a trial get fair access to counsel and the justice system.

“Big corporations, insurance companies and the government have unlimited war chests so there’s a big, big unfairness in what victims have available to litigate a case as opposed to their opponents,” Rowley adds. “We’ve got to bring balance in order for there to be justice.”

Keeping Trying

Rowley’s heavy workload doesn’t stop there.

“My other goal is to help motivate more lawyers to try more cases,” he says. “Settle less, try more. Stop selling out cheap. Develop the skill set and find the courage to stand in front of a jury and try more cases.”

He says there are other lawyers, even law students, capable of being even more effective trial lawyers than him or anyone out there trying cases. They just need to extend themselves and do the work to get comfortable doing jury trials. This, he explains, is what Trial by Human is about. It’s not only a book he wrote and published about six years ago, it’s also an organization that puts on seminars throughout the year to help other lawyers develop better trial skills.

These seminars have been held around the country and are now scheduled as far out as 2021 in Australia and Fiji. But recently he found a permanent home for them at the 80-acre Chimney Rock campground—which he visited as a child—about 10 miles south of the Minnesota border along the upper Iowa River. Renamed Camp Justice, it comes complete with a lodge and canoes, wildlife, crystalclear waters loaded with trout, and the spectacular scenery of the river running along limestone bluffs.

“It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of river you’ve ever seen,” says Rowley. “You’d have no idea Iowa has places like this if you only stay on the interstates and highways.”

A graduate of other trial lawyer training programs himself, Rowley says Trial by Human at Camp Justice will be different. “You’ll learn trial skills in a lodge, get your continuing education credits, and leave there as a better person and a much better trial lawyer.

“You’ll learn trial skills in a lodge, get your continuing education credits, and leave there as a better person and a much better trial lawyer.”

“One, it’s family-friendly. It’s not centered around alcohol and a weekend in Vegas or far away from one’s family for a long period of time,” he says. “We also make it about health, wellness and spirituality.

“Two, you’re getting actual on-your-feet experience working on trial techniques with lawyers who actually practice what they preach and have the track record that shows these techniques work in courtrooms with juries,” says Rowley. “There are some lawyer-training programs that are out there that are great, and there are some that are misleading because you’ve got these lawyers saying, ‘this is how you win a case,’ but they don’t have any track record to back it up and prove that their methods and teachings work.

“Three, we train people how to deal with judges in a way that’s respectful,” he says, “and how to follow the rules.”

Rowley admits he struggled with courtroom decorum in the beginning of his career. He didn’t know how to deal with a judge making the “wrong” ruling and would get upset and angry. His education on how to conduct himself came from the trial-and-error School of Hard Knocks. But along the way, “some really wonderful judges” demon strated patience with him and talked with him after his cases to give him advice.

Attorneys Gary Dordick, Gerry Spence (of the Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers’ College), Mark Geragos, Carney Shegerian (“Any judge he’s tried a case in front of will tell you he’s one of their favorite lawyers—so respectful.”), Roxanne Conlin, Paul Luvera and Rick Friedman (who practices in Washington state) were also huge mentors in his career, and he still looks up to them.

Of course, he can’t forget Courtney, from whom he says he still learns when they try cases together. “She’s amazing. She’s had a tremendous influence on me,” he says.

“Each of those people has made me become a much better lawyer, to the point where most of the cases I have now the judges name me as one of their favorite lawyers,” he says, adding an important lesson: “There’s an art and a science to impress every judge you walk in front of.”

Clearly, Rowley has much wisdom to impart to other trial attorneys far beyond the “Hold your hand a certain way” and “Fluctuate your voice a certain way” tutorials, which is what some other lawyer training programs advise.

“We teach people how to be themselves,” he says, “because there’s no one more powerful than you. Gerry Spence taught me that, and I am doing my best to pay it forward.”

Sarah Torres

Sarah Torres is the publisher of Attorney at Law Magazine Los Angeles. Sarah regularly interviews attorneys and professionals for Attorney at Law Magazine feature stories. She is a dedicated publishing professional

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