By Phil Johnson
When the unimaginable hits a family, the result can be a tragedy.
When the victim is a child it is always a tragedy.
And when the wrangling over responsibility for the tragedy goes on and on, the tragedy is compounded by the passage of time
In the new book Blindsided, Florida attorney James L Ferraro lays out in detail Castillo-vs-DuPont, the story of a young man who was born without eyes after his pregnant mom was sprayed by an agricultural additive one afternoon during one of her pre-natal strolls near some farmland in Florida.
This is not a novel or a TV production. It is a real legal case that took a decade to resolve. The book is a fascinating look inside the legal jousting that went on. The action is told in full detail by the attorney who devoted 10 years to bring this case to a successful close.
In 1993, attorney Ferraro was introduced to a Dade County Fl. couple Juan and Donna Castillo whose son Johnny, then three, had been born with no eyes. He was not merely blind but literally had no eyes on his face. The condition was incurable. He would never be able to see. Ferraro had a healthy young son, Andrew, so the connection was immediate and personal.
At the time, there was an investigation of linkage between a product, Benlate, an agricultural spray produced by the chemical company DuPont, and the contamination of farmland and the possibility of birth defects in children. There was no legal precedent for a decision against a chemical company over such a circumstance. And DuPont was the biggest of the big when it came to chemical companies.
That was the challenge. And, says Ferraro in the book, “I knew the Castillos didn’t stand a chance of going the distance against a behemoth like that. They surely didn’t have the money or the stamina it would take to stare down DuPont, let alone win.”
So why take the case?
“I started my law firm two years out of law school and was never mentored by anyone. Maybe not having a mentor to talk me out of it is what made me both naive and brazen enough to take on a case like the Castillos’. I was free to do it if I wanted. I didn’t have to answer to anyone else.”
“Besides,” he added, “At the time, I was very idealistic – almost to a fault.”
What happens in the next 200 pages is a blow by blow account by Ferraro on behalf of the Castillos against DuPont and co-defendant, Pine Island Farm, where the spraying had occurred.
After detailing his upbringing in Greenwich Ct., his college days at the University of Miami and his early law career, Ferraro outlines his three rules of life:
There is nothing wrong with having fun
Try not to hurt others; and
Help as many people as you can.
While he never states it explicitly, perhaps the most important rule that comes out in the book is “Don’t be afraid of hard work.”
Blindsided, more than anything else is the story of hard work and a determination to do what is necessary to see a crusade through to the end.
“To make real change requires real work,” said Ferraro in a recent interview.
“My goal in writing this book is to raise awareness of an amazing story that needed to be told. But beyond that, it is to get laws passed that protect consumers. In this and other cases, it is important to have scientific evidence be admissible in trials. It is an added protection for consumers. Then, when you get a jury together, they usually get it right.”
But first, the story had to be in print. Ferraro worked with long-time book collaborator Laura Morton, acclaimed for writing more than 40 books, many of them best-sellers.
“I wanted to work with Laura because of her track record,” said Ferraro. “She does not have a science or law background but a solid background in storytelling, so she was perfect to work with to make the case understandable to readers. It was a true collaboration.”
The Castillo case was finally resolved by the Florida Supreme Court in 2003. The outcome was an award of just under $7 million. The family subsequently moved to Massachusetts where Johnny, now a young adult, is recognized for his musical abilities. A highlight: singing the National Anthem before a Red Sox game one Easter Sunday.
Ferraro is no one-hit wonder. He is a very successful attorney whose law firm specializes in mass tort cases, most recently related to asbestos-related mesothelioma. The Castillo verdict was his first precedent-setting decision.
At times, Castillo versus DuPont, as described in Blindsided, reads like a John Grisham novel. At other times it is reminiscent of All the President’s Men where it took months and years of hard work to uncover the Watergate scandal. There is a real-life David versus Goliath story here too.
No matter what the proper analogy, Blindsided is a great read for anyone interested in the law and the practice of law in the wake of a tragedy.
Blindsided by James L. Ferraro with Laura Morton, is published by Gildan Press, 2017 and is available in libraries and bookstores everywhere.