The former prosecutor enjoys challenge of tough liability cases
“I always thought you can make the most impact in a socially responsible way through being a plaintiffs’ lawyer. That’s what I wanted to do,” said Joseph Brent, the principal for San Rafael-based Brent, Fiol & Pratt LLP. “But when I came to California (from Chicago), I was totally unfamiliar with how the system worked out here and how the courts worked here, and I told myself I need to get some experience.
“I was fortunate enough to get a job at a good law firm in San Francisco, and while there, I did defense work. I handled a plaintiffs’ class action there too, but it was mostly defense work. After about five years there, I left and started my own practice.”
Opening his own firm presented its challenges, but Brent remained unfazed. He took cases turned away by other firms and won them. He went above and beyond for his clients and soon made a name for himself among the top personal injury plaintiffs’ lawyers in the state.
Brent said running his own business certainly was a significant leap because it’s so much different from just practicing law for someone else. He and his partners spend an immense amount of time on the business aspect of the firm, he said, but the payoff is in being able to call the shots and see the benefits of his own successes.
“The advantage obviously is you get to be your own boss,” Brent said. “The disadvantage is you don’t know where your next case is coming from. I was fortunate. I had some people who were very much supporting my move, and they helped me a great deal. And I got lucky: One of the very first cases I worked on involved a head injury – a city bus struck some pedestrians. It was a very good first case for me.”
Since 2008 – with the help of partners David Fiol, who joined in 2009, and Wesley Pratt, who joined in 2013 – Brent’s firm has obtained more than $25 million in judgments and settlements for its clients.
For his dad, himself and social justice
Brent said his father always hoped to see his son become an attorney, both for the intellectual aspect and for its service to social justice. A book store owner and author, his dad may have been the biggest influence on Brent’s decision to pursue law.
“He had a strong feeling that social justice could be achieved through the legal system, and he wanted me to participate in that,” Brent said.
With roots in the Midwest, Brent stayed close to home for his undergrad studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota. He went on to attend law school at Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago, Kent College of Law.
During law school, he was fortunate enough to land a job as a law clerk at a leading plaintiffs’ firm in Chicago. There, he participated as a clerk in a number of trials and loved it. That firm recommended the state’s attorney’s office as a starting point right out of law school, he said.
Brent followed his stint with the Cook County prosecutor’s office by becoming a partner at the Chicago-based firm of Fumagali, Tecson, Hyman & Brent, Ltd. While there, he focused his trial practice on personal injury and class action cases before relocating to the West Coast in 2000.
Brent’s decision to move west came upon the very suggestion from his sister and brother-in-law. “They really encouraged me to come out to California to practice law, and so I took the plunge, he said. “And I can tell you, the Illinois bar is a lot easier than the California bar. So that was a daunting thing for me. The passage rate in Illinois was between 85 and 90 percent, and California is about 50 percent.”
After gaining the necessary experience while working at a boutique firm in San Francisco, Brent decided to go it on his own, and after that first case basically put his practice on the map, he maintained the momentum.
Another case referred to Brent was passed over by a number of different firms. It involved a young man crossing the street who was hit by a police vehicle that was purportedly responding to a call but did not have its lights and siren on. The police report put the plaintiff 30 to 50 feet outside of the crosswalk, basically jaywalking, and going against the light, Brent said. The police also claimed the man was intoxicated. During their own investigation, Brent and his associates found some witnesses who said the plaintiff actually was walking in the crosswalk with the light when the police officer sped through the intersection.
The city initially offered no settlement, believing Brent had zero chance of winning the case. Then just as the case was set to go to trial, the city settled for $2.4 million.
“That was a huge deal because you had the police claiming this young man was intoxicated, and when we go to get the blood samples that were taken, they were lost or gone,” Brent recalled. “There was no chain of custody that was appropriate for the testing done on the blood. Then, the police report had my client well out of the crosswalk, and that really was not the case; it was totally made up.”
One witness in the case was an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who shortly before trial had to be extradited. He had been sent back to Guatemala, and Brent’s firm went down there to bring him back to the U.S. so he could testify in the case.
“We had people go to Guatemala, and then we had him re-admitted for the purpose of giving his testimony in the case,” Brent said. “That case was all over the place.”
Cyclist run over by taxi
More recently, Brent went to trial in a case involving a man riding his electric bicycle in San Francisco. The bike conked out on Sixth Street, Brent said, and his client had been walking it across the street when a Yellow cab ran him over. A police officer claimed to be an eyewitness to the accident and said the cyclist had taken a sudden left turn in front of the taxicab, and there was nothing the cab driver could do, Brent said.
“We got video from the cab, and it showed not only that the police officer was not anywhere in the camera frame, but also that the cab was speeding,” he said. “If it had just been going the speed limit, the accident would have been completely avoided.”
Brent got a $1.3 million verdict.
Finally, one of Brent’s most memorable cases involved “a star-crossed Silicon Valley executive”: Nextdoor CEO Nirov Tolia, whose company promotes neighborly values. Tolia had been driving home on Highway 101 from San Francisco International Airport in his black BMW when he merged into another lane, causing a Mazda Miata to spin out of control, cross a number of lanes and smash into a median. Instead of stopping and calling police, Tolia unlawfully left the scene. He was later arrested and charged with felony hit and run.
In the criminal case, a judge reduced the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor and ultimately Tolia pleaded no contest to leaving the scene of an accident. For Brent’s part, the civil case ended up settling for an undisclosed amount. “The irony is clear: Here’s this CEO touting this company for its neighborly values, and in a situation that calls for the precise values he’s touting, he runs away,” Brent said.
In trial, Brent’s approach typically centers on telling his client’s story through visuals, rather than through a long, drawn-out narrative. He believes whole-heartedly in showing the jury exactly what happened to his client and putting them at the scene so they may see what it looked like. That technique, he said, is very helpful to explaining why the defendant is at fault.
“So in the (taxicab) case, we had the video broken down frame by frame so (the jurors) could go through it themselves and see what could be seen,” Brent said. His firm also uses computer-generated animations in cases where reconstructing accident scenes and property flaws better illustrates a defendant’s wrongdoing.
Alternative career: Chef
When he’s not working, Brent is an avid foodie who loves cooking. In fact, he said if he hadn’t gone into law, he would have become a chef. He had always dreamed of going to cooking school in Paris, and as it turns out, he was able to take a couple of months off to attend a leading chef’s school in the French capital.
“It was a pretty amazing experience,” he said. “It was extremely intense, I can tell you that. Chef’s work is so hard; those guys really work hard. But I love cooking.”
Brent also enjoys sports, yoga and bicycling. At one time, he had been an avid runner, but that was before his knees completely gave out, he said.
For those whose dreams may be more along the lines of his successes, Brent advised such aspiring lawyers to buckle down and do the necessary work. But also don’t be afraid to make waves when it feels right.
“Try to make a difference in this world – for the better,” he said. “As a lawyer, I would say work as hard as you can to achieve a just result. That’s the best you can do.”
2017 by the author.
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