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A VOICE For Victims

Cynthia Chihak’s Demands for Compensation for Victims of Medical Malpractice and Catastrophic Injuries Resonate Loudly in the Courtroom and Beyond.

AttorneyoftheMonth_2013Long before Cynthia Chihak actually says that she believes in “telling it like it is,” her candor is undeniable.  “I was trained to do nothing,” she says of her decision to go to law school.  “I had a degree in Chemistry and Psychology and was a cocktail waitress with no career path,” she recounts with a comfortable chuckle.  “My dad had always asked if I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer.  A nurse or legal assistant was not an option,” she adds.  But it wasn’t until after she graduated college that she decided to accept a bet from a friend which would set in motion a remarkable career as a voice for victims of medical malpractice and catastrophic injury.  “My friend bet me that there was no way I could score in the 90th percentile on the LSAT.”  Chihak won the bet, scoring in the 98th percentile, and enrolled in law school at Pepperdine University.


No Shrinking Violet
“Law school was a major turning point in my life.  Less than 10% of those enrolled were women and women trial lawyers in plaintiff firms were non-existent,” she recalls.  However, that didn’t change the fact that Chihak loved law school. “It was the first time I was studying material just because I wanted to learn, not for the grade,” she says.  Her passion for law and her GPA ultimately landed her the position of Assistant Editor for Pepperdine University Law Review, and in 1977, she earned her J.D.

During her second year in law school, Chihak worked with Wylie Aiken, whom she considers “one of the most prestigious and well respected personal injury lawyers in the nation.” From Mr. Aiken, she learned to “value her clients’ interests first,” she says.

When she moved to San Diego and started her firm, like many young attorneys starting out, Chihak was initially eager and willing to work on all types of cases.  “I did divorces, bankruptcy, personal injury cases,” she says.  However, she had discovered that her passion was in advocacy for tort victims.  “Although I cannot give my clients back their previous lives, we can help them regain their independence and self respect,” she says.  In virtually no time, Chihak set about to do just that, establishing her practice, with the philosophy that is now the firm motto: “We are trial lawyers, not settlement lawyers.”

Chihak’s determination to represent victims in the fields of medical malpractice, serious personal injury and wrongful death matters meant that she was going to have to play by the unspoken rules of these contentious cases.  “These cases are confrontational from day one.  If you are easily intimidated, or shy away from confrontation, this is not the field for you,” she says frankly.  Moreover, she adds, “you have to be willing to work whatever time it takes to win.  And if you’re doing this merely for the fee, you will never be a success. I think anyone who works in this field does it because they love it. If it’s otherwise you fail.”

Fortunately for Chihak, despite the fact that she was working in a field of law that was extremely male- dominated- and she’s by her own account a petite woman- she has always been a naturally competitive person.  “I don’t play sports, because I don’t like to lose, and for me there is nothing like getting the verdict.  That is winning.”  Chihak established herself early on, as someone who was willing to do whatever it takes to win for her clients.  The results of her tenacity were clear from the start.

Chihak says she learns with every trial. “In one of the first cases I tried, the jury came back with a question: ‘Can we give more money than the plaintiff’s lawyer asked for?’ she recalls.  In this case, the jury had found that the MICRA-limitation of $250K was not sufficient compensation for Chihak’s client who had gone to a surgeon for a breast reduction for the third time, only to have the surgeon perform a double mastectomy.  “I learned to value not just the case, but how it goes to the jury when I make my closing argument.” Chihak explains.  The jury found the surgery to be a battery, rather than merely negligence, and therefore awarded Chihak’s client $500,000 in general damages.


Telling It Like It Is
Presently, Chihak’s caseload is 60-70% medical malpractice suits, with a large portion of her caseload stemming from referrals which come to her –ironically- from physicians she has sued in the past.  “Horrendous mistakes happen.  Very, very rarely have I sued a doctor who intentionally hurt someone,” she says.  However when she does sue a physician, that physician isn’t likely to forget the experience, and in fact frequently sends new business to her door.

“When someone close to a physician I’ve sued or deposed gets hurt, they know I will do a good job for their friend.  They know I’m a trial attorney and work up every case as if it will go to trial.  They want someone who will spare no expense in getting their loved one the compensation they deserve. When I’m in the middle of a trial, I’m in my office until 11:30pm or 12:00am, and back in the office by 5:00am. So is my entire team.  That is a job requirement that is non-negotiable. You have to be willing to work whatever time it takes to win,” she declares.

If Chihak sounds blunt, it’s no accident, and in fact is one of the reasons that her practice continues to flourish.  “I never sugarcoat anything to the client.  If I get a call from a plaintiff who has been injured in a rear-end accident and has $3,000 in medical bills, I tell them that we are not the law office for them.  I am very honest, and whenever possible I will advise clients how they can settle on their own. I tell them when they don’t need me.”

That means of course, that there are a lot of cases that Chihak doesn’t take.  As a guiding rule, Chihak & Associates only carries 20-25 active cases, with an additional 20 cases under review.  Furthermore, the firm only takes on larger cases.  Automobile accident cases generally need to reach the six-figure mark before Chihak accepts representation and medical malpractice cases must exceed the $250,000 MICRA-cap.  “I don’t chase the fee, and I don’t settle a case for the fee,” she says. Instead, she takes cases that she knows her clients deserve

to win. She says she doesn’t win every time and she tells the client that “they have to understand the risk and the potential benefit. I give them my advice, but it is always the ultimate decision of the client.”

“Many personal injury lawyers settle their cases, and while they may claim to want to spare clients the stress of a trial, it may be time or money or experience they are concerned about,” Chihak says.  By contrast, “we are open to settlement opportunities, but we will resist all offers that do not provide clients with fair compensation. We are trial lawyers, not settlement lawyers. We are not afraid to try cases,” she adds.  As such, all personal injury and medical malpractice claims are on a contingency fee that does not increase as -or if- the case proceeds to trial.


A Big Voice For Victims
Chihak & Associates can afford to be selective in its caseload due in part to the reputation Cynthia has worked so hard to build through tireless representation of victims of medical malpractice, catastrophic auto injuries, and premises liability.  The majority of the people she represents are paralyzed, dying, or suffering from brain injuries.  Her efforts for victims over the last thirty years have earned her an astonishing number of awards and accolades including 8 Outstanding Trial Lawyer Awards and Trial Lawyer of the Year.  She’s been named to Super Lawyers Top 100 Lawyers and San Diego magazine’s Top Lawyers since 2006.  She has routinely been named one of California’s Top Woman Litigators, and in 2007, earned the Daniel T. Broderick III Memorial Award for Integrity and Civility.

However, Chihak isn’t only active in the courtroom.  Her visible presence in the legal community at large is equally well-documented. She’s a Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and a barrister in the International Society of Barristers.  She served as Secretary of the Consumer Attorneys of California in 1989 and 1990, and was the President of Consumer Attorneys of San Diego in 1992 and 1993. She became the first female president of the American Board of Trial Attorneys-San Diego in 2008, and has been a lecturer for organizations such as the American Board of Orthopedic Surgeons and the American Board of Urologists.  She’s also taught dozens of seminars and workshops for audiences at UCSD- School of Medicine, ABOTA, San Diego County Bar, San Diego Inn of Court, Consumer Attorneys of San Diego, American Bar Association and the San Diego Trial Lawyers Association amongst others.  Chihak has also published several works and served as Editor of Legislative Analysis Column, for Trial Bar News.

A second reason that Chihak & Associates can afford to be selective in their case load can be traced to the substantial recoveries that she and her team consistently deliver for clients.  Her clients routinely receive compensation totaling in the millions, which allows them to make the best of their lives following a tragedy.  While Chihak acknowledges that the satisfaction that comes from a plaintiff’s verdict is indeed personally rewarding, it is the opportunity to help her clients to make the best of their lives that keeps her working so hard for victims.

One of the cases that best illustrate the rewards she reaps from helping victims came in 2000.  A 27 year old man had thrown himself under a falling movie sign in order to save a four year old child who would have otherwise been struck.  “He became a hero and a paraplegic in a single moment,” she remembers.  Chihak was able to recover nearly $13 million for her client, and says that he has gone on to live an extraordinary life in spite of the injury.  “He made a substantial donation to the Sharp Memorial Spinal Cord Foundation, with the money recovered” Chihak says.  But even more amazing, “Since the case settled, he’s gotten married and has two little girls of his own.  It’s very rare for paraplegics to be able to father children.”  Like many of her former clients, to this day, Chihak keeps in touch with him, and has even been honored to meet his children.


Future Plans For The Powerhouse Attorney
Chihak’s ability to command a courtroom, and to demand –and fight for- fair compensation for her clients is testament to her steadfast resolve to go to any lengths for her clients.  However, as her experience has obviously proven, she doesn’t need a big firm to produce big results.  Chihak & Associates presently includes attorneys Amy Rose Martel and John A. Hammerstrand, as well as a small support staff.  Chihak describes her firm as a “boutique practice with specialized staff and special clients.”

To that end, Chihak has no plans to make changes either in the size or direction of the firm.  “Hopefully, our firm will remain the same.  I never want it to be so large that everyone does not recognize and understand the importance of every case.  We’ve found our present workload of 20-25 active cases to allow us to all know what’s happening on each case.  We have multiple eight figure awards and numerous seven figure verdicts and settlements.  Every person here will devote whatever amount of their time or our money that is needed to advance our clients’ case and if the offer is not reasonable, we have the experience and resources to try the case, and we will,” she explains.


Cynthia Chihak & Associates
12555 High Bluff Drive, Suite 150
San Diego, CA 92130

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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