Fifty years ago, the crash of an Eastern Airlines jetliner into the Everglades thrust Miami attorney Aaron Podhurst into the center of the victims’ case against the airline. He’s since built one of the world’s leading air crash litigation firms while serving as a steady presence amid unimaginable events.
Just before midnight on Dec. 29, 1972, a clear and moonless night, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 prepared to land at Miami International Airport. It had been an uneventful flight from New York JFK, but as the crew prepared for landing, a burned-out landing gear indicator light confused them. As they swung the jet back west over the Everglades to buy time to sort out whether the aircraft’s landing gear was deployed, the crew failed to notice the autopilot had been disengaged. No one was flying the plane.
Eight minutes and seven panicky seconds later, the aircraft crashed into the black mud and water of the Everglades. Of the 176 passengers and crew members on board that night, 101 lost their lives.
Life for Aaron Podhurst, a Miami attorney who was safe on the ground that night, was never the same again too.
Eighteen months later, he led the steering committee of plaintiffs’ attorneys to a settlement for crash survivors and those who had lost family members in the catastrophe, cementing an international reputation in air crash litigation and building a track record of success as one of the nation’s top plaintiffs’ counsels. The firm Podhurst founded with his childhood friend, the late Robert Orseck, has played a part in almost every major airline incident since, along with other disasters and high-profile controversies, including: Class-action cases over deadly automotive design failures; mediation efforts in the custody battle over Cuban boy Elián González; concussion claims against the National Football League brought by former players; and lawsuits related to the Parkland shooting and the collapse of the Champlain Towers. His firm also filed suit in federal court on behalf of a dozen young women who were victims of Jeffrey Epstein.
“I enjoy getting people through difficult times because I have the background to calm them down,” says Podhurst, now 87 and still actively leading the boutique downtown Miami firm which only numbers 15 attorneys — a count which has barely changed in decades. “I have the background to tell them life will go on. Your life is not over.”
The road to Miami
Unflappable and unfailingly polite, Podhurst arrived in Miami a little more than a decade before the fateful night of the Eastern Airlines crash. A native of New York’s Catskill Mountains, he was the youngest of three sons in a poor family; his father had immigrated from Hungary and his mother from Austria-Hungary, escaping the violent anti-Semitism of the times. Between them, they scraped together a living repairing mattresses for the storied resorts that dotted the region. Podhurst worked summers, squirreling away tips he earned as a bellhop and waiter at the resorts that catered to wealthy Jewish families from New York City. “One summer, I made $3,000. To me that was a million dollars,” he says.
He had a several things going for him: His work ethic, his height and some skills in a different kind of court. “I could shoot a basketball. I wasn’t the fastest. I couldn’t jump the highest, but I never missed. I don’t know where it came from.”
The University of Michigan came calling with the offer of a basketball scholarship. Podhurst would become the first in his family with a shot at an education. “I always thought I was very fortunate because of all the people I knew, none of them went to college. They said, ‘You are a really lucky guy.’”
At Michigan, he played guard and forward, worked toward a bachelor’s degree in business and in his senior year met Dorothy Greenberg from Miami Beach. After graduation and marriage, she followed him back to New York where he earned a law degree at Columbia University. For the poor kid from the Catskills, graduating from Columbia was the glide path to one of New York City’s well-heeled tax law firms. Podhurst briefly served in the military after finishing law school, but then came time for the young married couple to figure out their future.
“My wife is pregnant, and I have $100,” he recalls. “I am a hungry kind of young lawyer and I have to succeed. You are driven to succeed. I always wanted to be a trial lawyer; I didn’t want to be a tax lawyer. To me it’s dry and boring.”
And so, Miami beckoned. Podhurst clerked for an appellate judge and worked as a bellhop at Miami hotels to earn extra money for his new family. He moved on to a well-known local firm headed by personal injury law pioneer Perry Nichols. A year later, he was joined by his boyhood friend, Robert Orseck, who had become an appellate law specialist. It was there Podhurst played a role in his first air accident case when a Northwest Orient Airlines jet on its way to Spokane, Wash., crashed in the Everglades in 1963, killing all 43 on board.
In 1967, Podhurst and Orseck hung out their shingle as new law partners. Podhurst says he loved representing plaintiffs from the start, which made those lean early years some of the best. “I don’t care what occupation you are in — you must do something you enjoy,” he says. “You can’t get up every day of your life if you hate your job and you hate going in.”
In 1970, Olga Scarpettta, the 32-year-old daughter of a wealthy Colombian family, traveled to New York pregnant, unmarried and resolved to place her baby up for adoption. At the time, New York law gave mothers months to change their minds, and when she did several months later, the private entity that had brokered the adoption bungled the case. When New York courts ordered the baby returned to her mother, the couple who had adopted the child fled to Florida and hired Podhurst.
Florida courts later ruled the best interest of the baby, dubbed as Baby Lenore, was to stay in Florida with her adoptive parents. Appeals courts later upheld the Florida decision in what became a significant landmark case in adoption law. Podhurst says he still hears from the woman who was known as Baby Lenore, who calls to simply say “thank you,” all these decades later.
Then came the night of the Eastern Airlines crash.
Airline crashes are notoriously difficult and technical cases to litigate. Podhurst says he had no earlier preparation to litigate the complex airliner systems and crew actions that would be at issue in assigning responsibility in the case. But victims’ families needed representation and by then Podhurst Orseck had become well known, so the calls for survivors and their families poured in. The firm ended up representing a number of victims and their families.
One was Navar Harrika Estigarriba, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of her daughter, Maria Elena Gonzales of Floral Park, N.Y., who was just 21 when she was killed in the crash. “One of the things the mother is going to ask is why me? There’s no answer to that,” Podhurst says.
Podhurst still remembers being in the crowded courtroom as dozens of attorneys, observers and reporters gathered at the federal courthouse in Miami in early 1973. The judge looked across the sea of suits representing scores of cases. “He looked at me and said, ‘You seem to get along with everyone. You seem to be good bringing people together. You’ll lead the lawyer’s committee.’” The scores of cases were organized under the legal committee.
The case was settled by May 1974, almost a year after the National Transportation Safety Board ruled the cause of the crash was a combination of human error and technology failure. As it turned out, the landing gear was found to be in the down and locked position the entire time.
The crash had occurred at a particularly fraught time for airlines, with an uptick in crashes worldwide; flying is considerably safer today than it used to be due to technological and engineering advances. But the conclusion of the Eastern Airlines case brought the firm recognition and Podhurst doubled down on building his expertise, taking courses to learn more about the technical nature of air travel so he could cross-examine pilots and technicians and examine reports. “Air crashes are very technical, very specialized cases,” he says. “But driving a car is more dangerous, statistically.”
His research nearly caught up with him once: While on vacation in Europe, he was summoned to New York to meet with the widow of a man killed in a crash and was sitting on a TWA flight out of Lisbon when an engine caught fire. Podhurst and the other passengers scrambled out of the plane; he got to New York a day late for the meeting but still got the case.
As of this year, Podhurst Orseck has represented victims in more than 150 crashes and air disasters both domestically and abroad. Podhurst says no matter the circumstances, he has some hard rules about how to proceed as a plaintiff’s attorney. “The funeral has to take place so the grieving can start. The lawsuit can start after that,” he says. “Lawyers who file cases so fast are disgusting. There needs to be time for grieving.”
When the cases end, Podhurst’s relationship with his clients frequently carries on. “I have clients who still call me after 40 or 50 years for my advice or opinions,” he says.
“In most cases, closure is a process; it means you are going to get to stop being preoccupied with lawyers and depositions,” he says, adding that settlements and awards allow people to restart their lives, take care of surviving children and re-establish some sense of security when their world has been upended. “I tell them, ‘You will never forget. This is a terrible thing that has happened to you, but you are going to go on with your lives.’ Time heals. You want to give them solace, as well as a lot of money.”
In 1978, Robert Orseck drowned off a beach in Israel trying to rescue six children from a rip current in the Mediterranean Sea. He was just 43 and was vacationing with Podhurst and the law partners’ families. Orseck’s name has lived on in the firm’s name, in an Florida Bar moot court competition and in Podhurst’s outlook on life. “I tell my children, if there’s ever anything they are upset about or if they’re in a fight with their spouse to ask themselves, ‘Is this something you are going to be upset about six months from now?’ If the answer is no, which it almost always is, then I don’t worry about it. It’s not important.’’
Few events of recent decades have had Miami as on edge as the federal government’s decision on the fate of Elián González, a 5-year-old Cuban boy found on Thanksgiving Day 2000 clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. His mother having drowned when the small boat they were in took on water, Elián was placed into the custody of relatives in Miami while his father in Cuba sought his return. As tensions grew, Podhurst led a group of neutral community leaders seeking to broker a peaceful solution to the custody standoff.
A close friend of then Attorney General Janet Reno, Podhurst was blindsided when she ordered the boy seized by federal agents during a nighttime raid just as he was in negotiations with the family’s attorney to move Elián to a neutral site.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that the response from family attorney Manny Diaz to my having communicated the latest terms proposed by the Attorney General would be, ‘My God, Aaron, the marshals are here.’ My subsequent conversation with my good friend, Janet Reno, was one of the most difficult and painful moments in my life,” Podhurst wrote days later in a Miami Herald op-ed calling for calm. “Above all, I believe in respect for the rule of law. The events of Saturday morning will test our community’s commitment to this democratic ideal,” he wrote.
On Community Service
Podhurst is as well known in Miami for his community service as he is for the high-profile cases his firm takes on. He is a past-president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the current chairman of the Pérez Art Museum Miami board of trustees, serves on the University of Miami Board of Trustees and has worked to address homelessness. Podhurst became active in Miami civic life from nearly the start of his legal career, in part, he says, because he felt obligated to give back, recognizing his own good fortune of being raised in the United States by Jewish parents who had fled oppression in Europe and amidst a Catskills community where Holocaust survivors found solace. “I always feel today, even as an old codger, I have to do better to build something for the next generation,” he says.
Small Firm, Giant Cases
COLLAPSE OF THE CHAMPLAIN TOWERS: Represented victims of the June 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers condos and working in partnership with other firms secured a landmark $1.1 billion wrongful-death settlement.
BROTHERS TO THE RESCUE: Won a $187-million judgment against Cuba for the shootdown of a humanitarian mission flight by Brothers to the Rescue in 1996.
VALUJET CRASH: Won $250 million in damages for the families of passengers who died in the May 1996 crash of a ValuJet airliner, which plunged into the Everglades about 10 minutes after taking off from Miami as a result of a fire in the cargo compartment caused by mislabeled and improperly stored hazardous cargo. All 110 people on board died.
BANK OF AMERICA OVERDRAFT FEES: Secured a $410-million settlement with Bank of America over excessive overdraft fees charged to 13.2 million customers.
TAKATA AIRBAGS: Obtained a $1-billion class-action settlement against several automakers over rupture-prone airbags.
NFL CONCUSSIONS: Brought some of the first lawsuits against the National Football League on behalf of former players who suffered brain injuries while playing. Representing 83 players in the 2013 lawsuit, the cases were later consolidated in federal court in Philadelphia and in 2015, a 65-year settlement agreement that could cost the league up to $1 billion was approved.
GAY MARRIAGE: Represented several same-sex couples who wanted their out-of-state marriages recognized in Florida, leading a Florida federal judge to declare the state’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional in 2014.
PAN AM FLIGHT 103 BOMBING: Took on the cases of families of victims, both those killed on the plane and on the ground, of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am’s Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The claims were filed in Dade Circuit Court because two Pan Am subsidiaries had headquarters here.
JEFFREY EPSTEIN: Represented victims of Jeffrey Epstein, including the 16-year-old girl who was the victim in a mysterious plea deal that ended Epstein’s initial prosecution. Neither the girl nor her attorney were ever informed it was her case that ended Epstein’s prosecution. The firm later helped other victims recover attorneys’ fees that were promised but not paid.
Kristina Infante was still a new attorney at Podhurst Orseck when she was asked by Fred and Jennifer Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, to take on their civil case against the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI for failing to investigate tips about shooter Nikolas Cruz. “Aaron Podhurst, the great genius that I am, tells her: ‘You know, it’s very hard to win a case against the government.’ Young Kristina, who is very educated and smart, says, ‘Mr. Podhurst, I want to handle this case.’ She takes the case and brilliantly prepares it, gets a break with some witnesses with knowledge of the tips.” The government settled with the victims for $127.5 million after three years of litigation. Podhurst says teaching younger attorneys how to represent victims and guide them through the court process remains one of his great joys. “I told her, ‘You have to be very, very sensitive. You have to tell them you know they are grieving and be as sympathetic as you can — but you have to tell them the real-world truth, too.’”