Damond Garza has been a defense and a plaintiffs attorney in San Antonio for almost 20 years. He has tried over 40 cases to juries and leads San Antonio’s trial lawyer association. He is a good friend and offices next to us at Hill Law Firm.
Justin Hill: Welcome to Hill Law Firm Cases, a podcast discussing real-world cases handled by Justin Hill and the Hill Law Firm. For confidentiality reasons, names and amounts of any settlements have been removed. However, the facts are real and these are the cases we handle on a day-to-day basis. All right.
Justin: All right. Welcome to Hill Law Firm Cases podcast. Today, I’ve got Damond Garza with me. Damond is a lawyer in San Antonio, a friend, and he’s also a lawyer that we work with on some cases. He is the current president of the San Antonio Trial Lawyers Association and his reign ends tomorrow, right?
Damond Garza: I think officially on the 21st, actually.
Justin: He’s also a stickler for technicalities as you will learn. I asked Damond to come on and talk about practicing law. Really, the point of these has been younger lawyers. That’s been the thought process and that’s been the response from people. When I tell you who will respond about you being on here, then you’ll understand. You’ll be like, “Oh, okay. I understand your audience now.” You’re not the first SATLA president I’ve had on there.
Damond: That makes me a little-
Damond: -less special feeling, but that’s okay.
Justin: First [unintelligible 00:01:22], I mean. I think that’s what they say in that one show. Javier was on. I think he’s the only one that would have been SATLA president. Bill Marler was on. There’s been books written about him. Mikal Watts was on. He’s been indicted and has a book and movie coming.
Damond: No books or movies based on me yet, unfortunately-
Damond: -or fortunately. No indictments that I’m currently aware of.
Justin: I think you would know. What is SATLA?
Damond: SATLA a local trial lawyers association that is comprised of a little bit over 400 members these days. Primarily lawyers here in the Bexar County area, but we have a good contingency out of South Texas and we have members really spread as far as Alaska, even because it’s a group of lawyers who represent folks, who represent people against companies, organizations, insurance companies who tend to have a lot more power and influence in the courts. We represent those folks against those powerful folks whenever they suffered a loss, injury, death, economic loss, something like that.
We put our minds together to share information, to help each of us better represent our clients. The folks who usually defend injury cases have large organizations, they share information to help strengthen their defenses. We try to pool our resources to better combat against those forces who would otherwise deny the availability of the courts to regular people who have suffered a loss.
Justin: San Antonio Trial Lawyers Association is not limited to San Antonio lawyers. I think there used to even be in Alaska person.
Damond: We still have a very active member from the State of Alaska, we’ve got people from the East Coast, the Midwest, the Southeast, and everywhere far-flung in between.
Justin: A very robust idea and document sharing through our Listserv, but the rules are just lawyer and do not regularly represent insurance companies. Is that basically the breakdown?
Damond: More or less. Yes, you have to be a lawyer who represents people for the most part, but the biggest thing is you cannot represent insurance companies or any corporation or governmental entity regularly.
Justin: To get in, they apply, they have to have multiple people that vouch for them, pay their dues, which are really not bad.
Damond: Our dues are actually significantly lower than a lot of other trial lawyer organizations that do what we do. That’s intentional. We don’t want to be exclusive only for lawyers who make money over a certain amount or who can afford a certain entry point from a cost perspective. We want it to be open to virtually all lawyers who do what we do because we believe that a high tide raises all boats. Our whole thing is get the information out to folks who represent folks like we do and it will be better for everybody in our industry because when those people are represented well and the right results are coming out of the courthouse, that helps all of our clients.
Justin: Our San Antonio Trial Lawyer Association Listserv was the model for Texas Trial Lawyers Association Listserv. We were ahead of the curve long before you and our lawyers probably.
Damond: Yes, absolutely. That Listserv is such a great resource and one of the main reasons why a lot of folks who don’t live or practice in Bexar County, or at least in Texas, still maintain their membership with us is because our members are really good about sharing that stuff and it’s super helpful, especially for young lawyers or folks who are striking out on their own, hanging a shingle as it were because it becomes like a virtual law firm where lawyers who have more skins on the wall, a lot more years in the practice under their belt are willing to share their ideas, their thoughts, their forms, their documents, transcripts of folks that you might be having to cross-examine.
They’ll even volunteer to do some feedback on your cases. It’s all stuff that people volunteer without any expectation of return other than the hope that when you, one day, have material that could benefit another member, that you will also be willing to pay it forward and share your stuff.
Justin: You become San Antonio Trial Lawyer President, you’ve been in for a while, you’ve been on the board, you’ve held some positions, what is your lawyer history?
Damond: When I graduated law school, I initially started doing I guess what you would call insurance defense work. I went to work for a defense firm based here in San Antonio that I had clerked for in law school. After about a year there or about a year or so after I got my license should I say, I decided to leave there and go work for another San Antonio-based defense firm who specialized more on products liability defense.
We represented some of the largest companies in the world who manufacture automobiles, watercraft, things like that, farm equipment, what have you. I was there doing mostly products liability defense work for about five years with a little bit of insurance defense work sprinkled in that. Then sometime around the six-year mark of being licensed or so, I decided to come over to the side of the good and the right and represent individuals doing plaintiff’s work. That was about 10 or so years ago.
Justin: You went to work for a plaintiff’s shop in the Southside of San Antonio. You also are a disciple of Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College which has a cult following. What is that? What is the science and thought process behind trial lawyers college?
Damond: Sure. Gerry Spence, for those of you who are not indoctrinated into his mystique as it were, is largely regarded by many folks as the best or the greatest trial lawyer that America has ever known. He has a long track record, both in civil cases like I do now, and also in criminal cases as well, trying cases all across the country, some of which were very, very widely covered by the media especially back in the day. He is a lawyer for the people. That was his thing is he wanted to help folks fight against those who had more power namely the government and large corporations and defend our individual rights.
When he really started to gather a lot of notoriety for his talent and his skills, he bonded together with other notable trial lawyers, many of whom were from Texas but around the country, and said, “Look, these insurance companies and these defense entities, these groups that were put together by large companies to try and help themselves, insulate themselves from liability for their wrongdoing are holding these seminars and they’re teaching these defense lawyers all these tactics and methods to basically prevent our clients from getting what their just due is and we need to create a college or a school for lawyers for the people.”
We want to train lawyers in the best ways to approach their cases and ultimately to try their cases, to give regular people a more even footing in the courthouse. We need to do it in a way that doesn’t make those lawyers beholden to anybody.”
When they were trying to put together this idea of the college, there were some companies who came forward and said, “Hey, we’ll be your corporate sponsor. We will fund this college that you’re trying to put together,” but Gerry and the others who helped him put it together, knew that whenever there’s money being given, there’s oftentimes strings attached. They didn’t want to be beholden to anybody. They created this organization that is run entirely on donations from individuals. It’s all raised and run almost entirely by volunteers.
There are, I believe, at the time that I was last aware only three or four full-time employees of the college. Then, everybody else who works for, including the board and all the instructors, are lawyers who just volunteer their time. They were trying to teach lawyers to be better lawyers, but their concept was that to be a better lawyer, you first had to be a better person, the best version of yourself. Gerry and a few of the other guys that he helped found the college were teamed up with a world-renowned psychologist whose last name was Moreno. He, I believe, was based out of New York.
They knew that he was using a tactic or a strategy or a type of, I guess you’d call it, therapy in which folks who were using it for therapeutic purposes would get together and they would use this psychodrama technique to delve into what’s going on with folks on a deeper level, to understand their motivations, to understand why they do some of the things they do. They decided to adopt that methodology for use in delving into a legal case and determining the individuals involves true motivations, their true feelings exactly, maybe what really went down on a given incident, and then you could mine that for information to use in your case.
Prior to being able to use those techniques or those strategies in a legal case, you first learned the skills or the techniques by using them on yourselves. That’s where Gerry and all of the other faculty talk about becoming a better version of yourself. If you use these techniques to delve into your personal life and the issues that you’re struggling with, because we’re all human, we’re all fallible, we all have shortcomings, we all have baggage from our life experiences.
If we stop ignoring those things but actually take a really hard look at them, we can hopefully become happier, better people. We can work on our things that maybe need to be worked on personally and when we get to a better place, personally, we can then be a better lawyer for our clients. Those tools and those techniques are fungible across both personal lines and professional lines when it comes to working with clients on a case.
Justin: They do small seminars, but you actually went and did the holy shit package three weeks in Montana. It used to be once a year, but now they do twice a year, I think?
Damond: Yes. It’s actually based in Wyoming. It used to be–
Justin: Is there much of a difference, Wyoming, and Montana?
Damond: [laughs] Stickler for detail?
Justin: Yes, exactly.
Damond: It’s about a three and a half week course now. I think it originally was a full four weeks, but they’ve shortened it down to about three and a half. I did one of the small regional events first which is the ones they do in local areas spread out around the country several times a year which is just a long weekend. It’s like a three-and-a-half-day deal. That wet my beak for the possibilities of what the program can offer. Then, I signed up for the full college up in Wyoming. It’s out in the middle of nowhere. It’s down in a river valley in the middle of some mountains, in the middle of Wyoming, and the campus was set up on Gerry’s actually family ranch.
He purchased what used to be the double diamond cattle ranch because at the time I think in the early 1900s may have been the largest cattle operation in the country for a period of time. He bought this ranch years and years prior. What he did was he carved out a small piece that he donated to the college under a lease that said as long as they maintained a trial lawyers college there as a nonprofit, they would continue to have the opportunity to use the property. I believe he carved off a couple of little pieces for his children. I’m not sure if he retained any for himself.
Then, he donated the overwhelming majority of it back to the Shoshone native tribe that used to live on those lands generations ago. This campus was in the middle of this river valley down below these mountains. There was virtually no cell signal. They didn’t offer us internet and the ideas for the three and a half weeks that you were there, you’re disconnected from your job and your family so that you can focus on working on yourself as a person and as a lawyer and you’re not constantly distracted by all the bells and whistles coming off of your phone or your iPad or your laptop and everything else. It’s a super-intensive three and a half weeks.
Justin: All the stories I heard about it I thought it was gobbledygook. It was touchy-feely in some of the stories. Everybody likes it. Some people like it more. Somebody, in particular, had a discussion with me and it was like wild stories of things people admit to in sessions, but I had you come and help me prepare a client. It was really eye-opening and watching her go through what you made her go through made her really reconsider and think about what her loss was. It was really eye-opening to me. I did apply. I was rejected. It’s the story of my life, constant rejection, but it was really interesting to watch. You have tried 30, 40 cases?
Damond: Yes. I think it’s about 40 at this point.
Justin: I tell people in San Antonio, I really don’t know anyone that’s tried more ca- probably, it’s a deal but in our contemporary age group. You and Toscano really are the only two guys I know that have tried a bunch of cases, and Desi who tried a bunch of cases with. Any of them stand out? Any specific trials you think, “Man, that was so eye-opening and/or changed who I am as a lawyer”?
Damond: Yes, there’s a lot of those moments sprinkled in there. I can think of a few.
Justin: Let’s go with a few.
Damond: One of mine had to deal with a case where my client was on an unrelated matter, something that transpired many months after the crash in which he was injured and for which we were representing him, he was incarcerated in a federal penitentiary up in New Mexico. He was there on some pretty nasty charges for, if true, some pretty despicable behavior. He was there. We had to go up to New Mexico to take his deposition and we videoed it, but then we ended up needing to call him live to trial. There was no way to transport him from New Mexico to Texas. He had to testify telephonically during his case from the penitentiary in New Mexico.
Justin: That hurts your case.
Damond: Yes, it does. There’s all kinds of reasons why, not to get into too many of those details, but yes, it does hurt your case. The defense, in that case, was just salivating at the idea of a defendant being locked up in federal prison in the hopes that a jury would ignore the law and ignore the facts of the crash for which the case was being tried and rather would punish him again for being a criminal. We’re all raised to believe that there’s right and there’s wrong. As a kid, I was raised to look up to police officers and to respect them, and to look down on criminals. We played cops and robbers as a kid. That’s just the thing.
I believe that the defense lawyers and probably more specifically, the insurance company that hired them that they working for, when they found out this guy was incarcerated, they thought, “Well, great. No jury’s going to award money to a criminal even though the law says you focus just on the facts of the incident, not on the entirety of somebody’s life.” We knew we were going to be fighting against prejudice against criminals. Whether it was intentional by a juror or not, we all come into the courtroom with our own internal biases.
That’s one of the things that we worked out at the trial lawyers college is recognizing that we all have internal biases and then drawing them to the forefront so that we can call them what they are and not allow them to be driving our decisions in a case. For this particular case, we fully expected that the jury would hear a lot about it, that the defense lawyers would take every opportunity they could to remind the jury that this guy was a criminal and to highlight that. Well, the defense really wanted the jury to know why he was in prison, which the rules of evidence only allow in certain circumstances.
There are certain procedures you have to go through in order to be able to introduce that evidence.
Justin: One being moral turpitude, which is still the only time you’ll ever use that word is in our industry with that one thing.
Damond: Right. Had he committed a crime of moral turpitude, which is basically theft or fraud, something involving deceit.
Damond: Right, then that the rules say, “Hey, that’s fair game for a jury to know,” because if this guy has been convicted of the crime, essentially of lying or deceit, then the jury deserves to know that because maybe they want to use that when they’re weighing the credibility. If it’s testimony in a case where he’s testifying under oath, tough to tell the truth. Well, he didn’t commit crimes of moral turpitude or any of the other crimes that would normally be admissible.
Justin: Not a felony.
Damond: But it was a felony. Which is sort of a catchall, and the defense has to go through certain steps to be able to prove that it’s admissible, which they had not done by the time of trial. We properly moved to keep that out, basically because his criminal case was still under appeal and it hadn’t been finalized, and it’s only admissible when it’s been finalized or exhausted the appeals. They didn’t have proof that it had been finalized. They couldn’t prove or disprove whether it was on appeal. The judge said, “Well, you haven’t met your burden, so you don’t…