The Podhurst Orseck partner is representing the families of victims of the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in several lawsuits.
By Zach Schlein | November 01, 2019
Stephen Rosenthal is the rare jack-of-all-trades who might actually be the master of them all.
Long before he moved to Miami and joined Podhurst Orseck, the bespectacled attorney earned his initial legal bona fides clerking for U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolfe and retired federal judge Rosemary Barkett. He subsequently worked as a trial attorney for the federal programs branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, and called upon his education in constitutional law to defend federal initiatives from legal challenges.
Although Podhurst Orseck is the only law practice you’ll find on Rosenthal’s resume, it’d be presumptuous to assume he’s grown comfortable or settled into a conventional routine. Since joining the firm as an associate in 2001, he’s tackled an intimidating variety of practice areas. On top of operating as a trial attorney and representing clients in everything from personal injury and wrongful death cases to aviation litigation, Rosenthal also works as an appellate lawyer. Somehow, he also manages to dedicate time toward pet causes, such as addressing gun violence and election litigation.
“I tend to be a workaholic,” Rosenthal admitted. The Podhurst Orseck partner has no illusions about his workload, and is fully aware he bites off more than the average lawyer — nay, human being — might be willing to chew. A sign gifted to him by Mindy Zane Rosenthal, his wife of 24 years, says, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
The placard now hangs in Rosenthal’s downtown Miami office, although he points out it’s placed behind a door and often winds up obscured.
“I’ve worked on vacations, and that’s one of the prices you pay sometimes for having said yes to a case,” Rosenthal said, adding he’s wound up writing briefs in ski lodges and hotels all around the world. The lawyer called the sign his “little reminder” to stay tethered to the parts of his life that fall outside the purview of courtrooms and office settings.
“By nature I work a lot,” he said. “I enjoy the work, but I also always tell young lawyers and people who are thinking about going to law school that you cannot be good at this profession without working hard. You might get lucky or get a pass once or twice, but the minute that you think that you can stop working hard is the time when your reputation will suffer, and you won’t represent your client as well as you can.”
Rosenthal’s dogged approach to his trade seems to have worked out favorably for him and his clients thus far. The litigator’s esteemed track record and reputation has led to his involvement in a number of notable cases, including the multidistrict litigation concerning Takata airbags and the concussion lawsuits brought by football players against the NFL. He’s currently defending NBCUniversal Telemundo in a defamation case, and representing the families of victims of the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in multiple lawsuits. One of the cases is currently awaiting a decision from the Florida Supreme Court, and could have a major ripple effect on liability cases brought against state agencies and municipalities.
“What it boils down to is whether the events on that day constituted one or multiple incidences or occurrences,” Rosenthal says. He’s representing several Parkland victims’ families in a legal action against the Broward School Board. Officials have argued shooter Nikolas Cruz’s attack on Stoneman Douglas constituted a single incident, which would mean the school board’s potential liability would be capped at $300,000 under the Florida Statute waiving sovereign immunity. While the state law places a $300,000 cap on suits arising from the same occurrence, individual wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits are capped at $200,000.
Rosenthal argued on his clients’ behalf that the deaths and injuries caused by the shooting represented separate instances, which would mean each family could potentially receive as much as $200,000 from their respective claims. If the high court rules against them and in favor of the Broward School Board, any theoretical awards proffered by the state agency would pull from the $300,000 limit outlined by state law.
“It has huge, wide ramifications because it’s not just mass shootings necessarily. It could be any circumstance that involves multiple victims,” Rosenthal said. “In my personal view, the legislature made it clear enough that it should actually be regarded as different occurrences every time somebody shoots somebody else [in a mass shooting.] We address that in detail in the argument. I think it’s an issue for the legislature to fix.”
‘Most extreme statute’
Rosenthal is also providing legal counsel to the parents of Jaime Guttenberg in a lawsuit against American Outdoor Brands, the parent company of Smith & Wesson and the manufacturer of the AR-15 assault rifle allegedly used by Cruz in the Parkland shooting. The suit also names Sunrise Tactical Supply — the store that purportedly sold Cruz the gun — as a defendant, and seeks to confront a Florida law that Rosenthal contends was drafted to deter state and local governments from litigating against the firearms industry.
“Our clients wanted to sue the gun industry, because they feel like putting out these weapons of war into civilian use just can’t be right, and there should be some accountability for it,” he said. Rosenthal said he discovered the law while researching how his clients could pursue litigation against the gun manufacturer.
“It is the most extreme statute I’ve ever seen,” he said, adding the 2001 law was likely written with input from the National Rifle Association. “It basically says you can’t sue a gun manufacturer. If you do, you automatically lose, and the court must sanction you with not just attorney’s fees for the gun manufacturer and costs, but also any damages that they may incur as a result of your having filed suit. So that certainly makes a private person sit up and say, ‘Wait a second. Can I even sue them? Because this is saying that I automatically lose, and I’m going to have to pay all their lawyers’ fees and any money that they lose.’”
The complaint is seeking a declaratory judgment that would declare the law does not prevent private parties from suing gun manufacturers. Rosenthal said the statute’s legislative history supports his clients’ good-faith basis for the suit.
“It’s pretty clear it was designed to prevent governments from suing gun manufacturers,” he said, noting the law was passed just as Miami-Dade County was seeking to force firearms companies into compensating gun-violence victims for their health costs.
“If we can succeed in that suit and get a declaration from the courts that this does not restrict private parties from suing, that’s a small victory,” Rosenthal said. “Then we can go forward with the actual substantive damages claims and injunctive relief claims that we want to bring against the gun manufacturers, and then we face another federal statute that makes it really hard to sue gun manufacturers. So it’s a real uphill battle.”
Rosenthal said the opportunity to tackle challenges, issues and injustices posed by cases like the Parkland lawsuits is what’s kept him enthralled with the legal profession.
“That’s why I went to law school—to try to really make a difference for people,” he said. “Some of the most satisfying cases are ones where you have a client who’s a great person, got a raw deal in life, and it was something that was the result of somebody else’s negligence. And had they done things properly … this person would not have lost a husband or a child. And you can’t bring those people back, but you can at least use the legal system to bring them some measure of justice.”
Stephen F. Rosenthal
Born: April 1970, New York City
Spouse: Mindy Zane Rosenthal
Children: Benjamin, Emma
Education: Harvard Law School, J.D., 1996; University of Sussex (U.K.), 1993; Harvard College, B.A., 1992
Experience: Partner, Podhurst Orseck, 2005-present; Associate, Podhurst Orseck, 2001-2005; Trial Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Division, Federal Programs Branch, 1999-2001; Law Clerk to Hon. Rosemary Barkett, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, 1997-1998; Intern, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, Fall 1997; Law Clerk to Hon. Mark Wolf, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts, 1996-1997