TIME HONORED: Fatherly advice continues to pay dividends for malpractice lawyer

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Jerry Thurswell is a counselor who regularly sought counsel.

It was a daily habit that he came to treasure, especially in the waning days of his father's life.

His dad, Harry, shared a legal lineage from Wayne State University Law School with his son. They graduated from Wayne some 37 years apart, but that is where the legal similarities end, according to Thurswell, head of the Southfield law firm that bears his name.

The term "gentle giant" comes to mind when Thurswell talks about his father, a man raised in Detroit who spent the bulk of his career handling collections work.

"I talked to my dad every single day of my life," Thurswell says. "He had a way of giving me advice, but at the same time never giving me advice. He had a special knack for that, a way of leading you to the right course of action with a few well-chosen words. He was an absolute master of the craft."

Thurswell has mastered a few legal crafts of his own during a 42-year career in the law. He has been recognized by legal publications far and wide as one of "The Best Lawyers in America" in the specialized fields of medical malpractice and birth injury.

He admits to being driven, hard charging, no nonsense, and assorted other character traits that fit nicely into the term "workaholic." Yet, Thurswell would politely, or perhaps not so gently, object to such a convenient characterization.

"I absolutely love what I do," he says amidst an office piled high with case folders and jam-packed legal files. "It's not work to me. It's a passion, something I enjoy seven days a week."

His colleague, Judy Susskind, a medical malpractice attorney with the firm since 1990, echoes the remark, saying that Thurswell "works harder than anyone else" in the office, displaying a remarkable zest for the challenges of life in the legal fast lane.

"He works almost exclusively on birth trauma cases and he has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in that field," says Susskind, former president of the Michigan Association for Justice, an organization that represents the interests of trial lawyers in the state.

Susskind professes that Thurswell is "demanding," yet "compassionate and fair" with an uncanny connection to his clients from days near and far.

"Clients from 20 or 30 years ago might walk into the office and Jerry has an incredible ability to remember virtually everything about them, their spouses, their kids," Susskind relates. "He'll remember some fact about their family that is indicative of how much time and effort he invests in each client, in each case he takes."

He may have acquired such a talent upon the "advice" of his father, hands down the "smartest" and "nicest guy I've ever met," proclaims Thurswell. His dad died at age 84, but not before he would beam with pride at his son's gift for the law.

A graduate of Oak Park High School, Thurswell earned his law school degree with distinction in 1967 at age 23, receiving scholarship recognition each year at Wayne. He also won the Lawyers Co-operative Book Award for finishing at the top of his class in taxation, serving on the Law School Moot Court Board and the Student Board of Governors. He entered law school after just three years of undergraduate study, earning the opportunity for the accelerated program based on his outstanding academic performance.

"I originally thought I wanted to be a tax attorney, mainly because I did well in that class during law school," Thurswell says. "I had job offers from corporate tax firms, but I was -- and still am -- a liberal, and I didn't fit in well with that culture."

So instead, Thurswell cast his lot with a Detroit firm that specialized in labor law. The firm represented such clients as the UAW (United Auto Workers) and AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), powerful unions that were more aligned with his political and legal philosophies. A year later, Thurswell would take his first "leap of faith," opening his own personal injury firm in Southfield -- at the tender age of 24.

Following the passage of the No-Fault auto legislation in 1972, Thurswell shifted his legal focus to medical malpractice work, taking on a case that was laced with irony.

"I ended up suing the doctor who just so happened delivered me," says Thurswell of a birth trauma case in which the child suffered severe brain damage. "It was a case filled with complications and emotion, but one in which we were able to serve the long term interest of parents facing the challenges of lifetime care for their child."

It is another twist of irony that Thurswell now devotes "nearly 100 percent of my practice" to such cases. Science was not his bag in high school or college. In law school, "my lowest grade was in torts," but now he "reads more medical journals than law books." He doesn't mince words when he says, "I know more about medicine than some doctors."

His bio backs up such a claim, spiced as it is with such labels as a "Super Lawyer" and one of "The Best Lawyers in America," reputedly from the oldest and most respected peer-review publication in the legal profession. For more than 20 years, Thurswell has been ranked by Martindale Hubbell, based on peer review, the "highest in legal ability and ethics." He has served as president of the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and was a member of the Michigan Association for Justice Executive Board.

Admittedly, the titles, the acclaim, the financial success "are all nice," Thurswell says. But what he can't begin to quantify is the meaning of the myriad "thank you notes, thank you letters, pictures of children he has represented," and other mementoes he has bundled in various albums and binders throughout his office. They are his real treasures.

"When you get a card or a note from a client thanking you for what you did in their case, that's what makes all this worthwhile," he says. "There is a real sense of satisfaction in knowing that you made a difference for them, that you were there in a time of need, fighting for them."

He remembers well the details of a 1993 verdict for the family of a Detroit woman killed in the 1983 crash of a Korean Air Lines jet. The civilian airliner, KAL Flight 007, was shot down by a Soviet fighter pilot after it strayed into Soviet air space, killing all 269 aboard, including Margaret Zarif, a client of Thurswell's at the time of the tragedy.

"She was a client of ours in a case that was pending at the time of her death," Thurswell explains. "That case, obviously, was superseded by the action we took on her estate's behalf against Korean Air Lines."

Ten years after Zarif was killed in the crash, the case went to trial in federal district court with Thurswell winning a $1.2 million judgment against KAL, $100,000 for each minute of "pain and suffering" she experienced from the time the airliner was shot down until it crashed into the Sea of Japan 12 minutes later. Thurswell, along with other lawyers representing families of crash victims, was able to show that Korean Air Lines willfully erred in straying over Soviet air space, reportedly in an attempt to save fuel on the flight from Anchorage to Seoul.

"It was a very involved case, but one that we were committed to win, however long it took," Thurswell says.

He continues to relish the challenge of tackling complex cases, particularly when "they seem unwinnable" at first glance.

"To me, those are the best, the ones that prove to be the most challenging."

His pro bono work follows a similar legal path, backing causes that typically mirror his liberal political philosophy. He is particularly proud of his role in striking down an anti-loitering ordinance in West Bloomfield, a measure found to be unconstitutional by a state appeals court. Likewise, he was delighted to have helped with efforts to elect Diane Hathaway to the Michigan Supreme Court last year, altering the political balance of the seven-member judicial panel.

"We now have a Supreme Court that will give litigants a fair shake," says Thurswell, who spent 11 hours at the polls on election day in 2008 lobbying on behalf of Democratic candidates.

His wife, Sarah, a medical malpractice attorney specializing in birth injury with The Thurswell Law Firm, Thurswell.com shares his political views. A graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, she majored in history and French at Albion College, serving as a guest professor of law at a university in France prior to beginning her career in private practice.

Thurswell's son, Larry, a graduate of UDM School of Law, also is a member of the firm and specializes in Social Security disability cases. Daughter Jenny lives in Chicago with her husband and three children, while son Jeremy is a screenwriter in Los Angeles where he writes for a popular TV show. Thurswell's daughter, Lindsey, will graduate from law school in May.

Her graduation from law school will be a proud family moment for Thurswell, undoubtedly rekindling memories of the day he wore cap and gown at Wayne State, posing for a keepsake photo with his parents. The photo, which appeared in the local paper, has a rightful place in Thurswell's collection. It is a reminder of the important role his parents played in launching his legal career.

"They did all they could in terms of laying the educational foundation," he says. "The rest was up to me."

Published: Thu, Jan 7, 2010