Chapman Alumni Win Landmark $161 Million Verdict
May 25, 2023
Chapman Law School alumni T. Gabe Houston (JD ’08) and Robbie Godinez Munoz (JD’20) have recently been awarded a $161 million verdict in a civil case against a major motorcycle manufacturer. The verdict, eight years in the making, has $11 million compensatory, and $150 million punitive damages attached to it, represents the culmination of a legal marathon for the lawyers and their client. The story of Soulliere v. Suzuki Motor Corp. is a matter of public record now, but the story of the remarkable partnership of Chapman alumni Houston and Munoz is one which shares a great deal with plaintiff Thomas Joseph “Joey” Soulliere’s own struggle for justice and explains some of the passion and persistence these two Chapman graduates brought to this extensive legal battle.
Robbie Munoz is a recent Chapman Law graduate who had a circuitous route to his career in law. As a youth, Munoz loved boxing and was a regular at Santa Ana’s TKO Boxing Club. Sustaining an injury in his teens while training for the 2008 Olympic Trials, he underwent surgery to rectify the problem. Emerging from anesthetic following the operation, Munoz realized that his doctors had operated on the wrong knee, effectively ending his Olympic hopes, his boxing career, and his life plan all at once. Devastated, Munoz worked closely with local medical malpractice attorneys for two years who, Munoz explains, “really opened my eyes to what the law can do.”
After representing Munoz in his case, the law firm took Munoz on as a law clerk. The work was interesting to Munoz, who worked hard at it but, at this early stage, remained a little circumspect about law as a full-time career. One afternoon clerking at Hodes, Milman and Liebeck–while assisting a client with her medical malpractice case–Munoz disclosed that it was his 26th birthday. The client, horrified that Munoz should be working on her case on his birthday, insisted that he return home to spend time with his family. It was then Munoz realized that there was no place he would rather be on his birthday than working on her case–if that’s what it took to bring her justice. After that realization, Munoz adds, “Everything shifted. I knew that [being a lawyer] is what I wanted to do.”
Clerking at Hodes, Millman and Liebeck had introduced Munoz to the world of practicing attorneys; principal among them was Fowler alumnus and associate attorney, T. Gabe Houston. It was Houston who suggested that Munoz consider Chapman Law for his studies, and Houston who helped Munoz manage his expectations of law school, and of himself, for the three years of training he would undergo at Chapman University. At the time, Munoz was in his mid-20s, and it was here that Gabe Houston first introduced him to the Soulliere case, asking Munoz to assist him with the case documentation. Houston and Munoz would part ways soon after, Houston heading into practice for himself and Munoz joining the Chapman Law student body. Munoz remembers the beginning of his 2L year at Chapman fondly; during this time, he attended court to see his friend and early mentor, Gabe Houston’s successful closing argument for what he imagined was the culmination of the Soulliere case he had first caught a glimpse of as a clerk. This trial ended in September 2018 with a verdict in favor of Houston’s client. While Houston and Munoz both believed the Soulliere case would end there, the case would go on to be appealed by the defense, leaving its future in question and creating an opportunity for Houston and Munoz to join forces again.
By 2019, Munoz had secured a coveted summer internship at a local firm, the Simon Law Group, and was already being presented with a number of opportunities “to rise to the occasion,” as he put it. “They were always giving me chances to grow,” says Munoz about the Simon Law Group giving him the chance to try two cases to verdict (as a certified law clerk) while still in his 3L year. However, COVID-19 upended the bar exam schedule in 2020, creating a seemingly unending series of false starts to an exam date which saw Munoz miss on his first attempt, but successfully pass in July of 2021. Munoz would go on to try two more cases for the Simon Law Group before eventually partnering with Houston again on the Soulliere v. Suzuki Motor Corp. case, which was back from the court on appeal and remanded for a new trial.
As chance would have it, Houston had worked closely with the Simon Law team to prepare for the first Soulliere v. Suzuki trial. For the 2023 trial, Houston looked to the office of Simon Law again for partners to team up with in presenting the case for a second time. When asked whom he needed to demonstrate the human impact of the accident on the plaintiff’s life, Houston’s response was unequivocal: “Give me Robbie [Munoz],” he said.
Gabe Houston is nothing if not a determined litigator, with those who know him best describing him as a seasoned, mature attorney. Houston is also a man who knows and understands his own limitations, which was the principal driver in his seeking co-counsel support from Davis and Munoz. Together they would each tackle a different aspect of what promised to be a tough retrial after a 2018 jury produced a favorable verdict for Soulliere–nearly $1M in compensatory damages and $8M in punitive damages. In Houston’s own words, “There are so many fingerprints on this verdict I can’t take that much credit.”
By his own admission, Houston follows a somewhat unconventional approach to trial preparation and presentation. Thus, one of the “fingerprints” on this case is his work with focus groups as well as his participation in working group workshops with several colleagues familiar with non-traditional trial techniques. Houston attended several such working groups, one a week prior to the trial with Munoz and their client, to finesse their methodology and courtroom presentation in an effort to bring a positive outcome to their courtroom battle–and it seems like it did just that.
Munoz’s own take on Houston’s request to have him assist with the appeal reveals a very frank conversation between the two alumni.
“I was honest from the start,” says Munoz, “I told him, you’re not getting an attorney with ten years of experience here–more like one with ten months experience! But I’ll give you everything I have.”
The final element of the Soulliere v. Suzuki trial team was Travis Davis, an accomplished attorney in his own right, current head of the Law and Motion department at the Simon Law Group, and a partner of the firm. Munoz describes Davis as being responsible for all their motion writing during the trial and for protecting the evidentiary record, “He could keep the defense at bay all day; he’s not just an incredibly good writer–he’s a savant!”
Houston would tackle the science and engineering aspect of the case himself, as well as the practicalities of courtroom deliberation. Munoz’s role was the human aspect of the case and successfully presenting Soulliere’s ten-year struggle to the jury–showing the jurors how Soulliere must manage a leg length discrepancy, a knee that won’t bend correctly and how much commitment is required in the rehabilitation and recovery work Soulliere must still do. Munoz had to unpack the struggles of the entire Soulliere family, from a little sister who had to help her big brother go to the bathroom, to a fearless and unstoppable mother who would load the entire family into her car on weekends, driving them to medical conventions with a folder of x-rays under one arm, to seek out medical specialists with only one question on her mind: Can you help my son?
The parallels between Soulliere’s struggles and Munoz’s own are striking. Munoz wonders if the defense did not simply dismiss him (and his perceived inexperience) from the outset–overlooking the years Munoz had put into his own recovery and malpractice struggle, the years of experience garnered from clerking in malpractice and liability, added to the time and commitment he had poured into this case. Candid about his own growth through the process of taking this case to trial, Munoz reflects on his partnership with Gabe Houston, and his partners’ personal growth throughout the process, “I watched a real evolution in Gabe, watched him moving from anger and frustration to a place of real care and concern, not just for our client, but for Suzuki as well,” he comments. The case, it seems, matured each attorney in ways they could not have foreseen at its outset.
Asked about how he feels about the remarkable verdict, Munoz is humbled more than anything, “I’m still trying to process what this means; I don’t quite know yet.” This is understandable, given the verdict and size of the achievement: The famous Erin Brokovich case was settled for $333 million dollars–a settlement, for the whole town; Soulliere v. Suzuki produced a $161 million dollar verdict–a jury verdict, in favor of a single individual.
Reflecting on the synchronicity that played a constant part in this trial, Munoz remarks how things just seemed to fall into place sometimes, how help came from unlikely quarters in the nick of time and how it often felt like, “this was just meant to be.”
“When you are in a five-week trial, there are going to be tough days,” adds Munoz, “We would remind ourselves: We are on the side of right, we’re on the side of good–and we kept that as our anchor.”
And anchor them it did. Producing not only a remarkable outcome for these Fowler School of Law alumni but a favorable verdict for Joey Soulliere, who has been seeking justice and relief in this case, every day since his accident.
Welcoming the opportunity to work with Houston again, Munoz reflects on the experience of working with a Fowler alumnus, “Chapman does a great job of getting you ready to practice,” he says, “There are so many people who are focused on trying to help you to succeed, just like Gabe has been trying to help me become a better attorney through the process of this trial. There’s something that’s alive in the Chapman experience–the ‘Chapman family’ is a real thing–you can feel the community, which is really what you are trying to tap into in a jury trial, that feeling of community.”