Thousands of women lost their hair, suffered perforated organs or died after getting a birth control implant. A pregnant woman lost her baby and was left a quadriplegic after her Toyota 4Runner flipped. A man lost his voice box to laryngeal cancer after years of smoking Marlboros.
They are some of the people attorney Justin Parafinczuk helped get justice. He represents plaintiffs who say Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and other multibillion-dollar giants hurt their health, leaving them unable to work and take care of their families.
“Predominantly I work in medical device defects, drug defects. If someone is taking a drug, an oral pill that harms them, or if someone has had some type of medical device that harms them, we handle all their mass tort cases,” said Parafinczuk, shareholder at Parafinczuk Wolf Susen in Fort Lauderdale. “You have the ability to really help a large number of people who have been negatively affected by products.”
Parafinczuk Wolf Susen was the first to file a lawsuit against Bayer AG’s Essure contraceptive, which reached a $1.6 billion settlement for 40,000 women who sued over health problems.
Essure coils were implanted in the fallopian tubes, but women say the device migrated to other organs such as the colon and uterus, perforated them or caused allergies, pelvic pain, hair loss or tooth loss. Some had several surgeries as a result.
Parafinczuk said the true champion is Angie Firmalino, who led the movement of women speaking out about their health problems and started the Essure Problems Facebook group. Her device embedded in her uterus, and she couldn’t continue working as a jewelry maker because she lost use of her hands from debilitating pain.
“We obviously had contact with her and other women and ended up representing several of the women who were administrators of the website and really researched the case and realized there was a real problem with the device,” Parafinczuk said.
The team represented 5,000 women whose cases were in a mass pool in federal court for Pennsylvania’s Eastern District. He declined to provide their share of the settlement.
After the team prevailed on Bayer motions to dismiss on preemption, cases were filed across the country, including 35,000 in California.
Bayer, which admitted no wrongdoing, said in a statement it feels for women with health issues but it maintains the science supports the discontinued Essure’s safety.
Bayer pulled Essure from the U.S. market in 2018 after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2016 issued a black box warning, the agency’s strongest. In 2018, the FDA limited sale to providers who use a checklist to warn of risks.
If Firmalino “hadn’t spoken out, it wouldn’t have gotten any lawyer’s attention,” Parafinczuk said. “What I believe is we — our firm and Angie — really stopped Bayer from producing a really bad product, continuing to put it on the market.”
Going after corporate giants isn’t easy, but Parafinczuk likes the challenge. Having a critical mass of plaintiffs is pivotal.
“If you try to handle a products case on a one-off situation against these companies, then they completely have the upper hand,” he said. “When you go to them and say, ‘We have 5,000 plaintiffs and we are ready to try these cases,’ then you have their attention.”
Parafinczuk started working on behalf of people alleging big corporations wronged them before he set off for law school.
While pursuing a pre-law legal studies degree at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, he clerked at the Levin Papantonio plaintiffs firm, mostly working on litigation over a Conoco underground toxic plume in Pensacola.
Plaintiffs alleged contamination from a fertilizer plant spread to groundwater, waterways and nearby properties as far back as the 1930s. The plant closed in 1975. The suit said Conoco predecessor Agrico Chemical Co. misled the Environmental Protection Agency about the cleanup plan, alleging it would leave pollution in a drinking water aquifer. Another lawsuit sought medical screening for residents and employees.
Conoco settled in 2004 for $70 million without an admission of wrongdoing and standing by its cleanup plan.
“I had a lot of responsibility,” Parafinczuk said. “I was responsible for all the documents in the case, which was a room full of boxes that was my office.”
When he wasn’t in the office or the courtroom, he went with toxicologists to people’s homes to test for water contamination.
“My time working at Levin Papantonio in Pensacola really pushed me 100%” to become an attorney, Parafinczuk said. “I was involved in multimillion-dollar class action and mas- tort litigation at 18 years old.”
Other cases that stand out include a $2.45 million jury verdict in 2012 for motorist Ritzy Romero, who lost her fetus and was paralyzed when her 1994 Toyota 4Runner rolled over. Romero, a mother of two, swerved but was unable to avoid a collision.
The jury determined the other driver was 80% liable and Toyota 20%, reducing the $12.25 million award. Damages were awarded for medical expenses, but not pain, suffering or punitive damages.
Parafinczuk also has obtained several $1 million-plus verdicts against Big Tobacco under a Florida Supreme Court decertifying a class of sick Florida smokers but allowing individual cases to move forward as the so-called Engle progeny.
Parafinczuk isn’t afraid to move off the beaten path. He was the first lawyer in his family, and the law allowed him to combine his competitive spirit and skills at speech and debate.
He pioneered UWF’s first mock trial team, which still exists 18 years later. He heard about a national competition and with a friend recruited students to the team, jumpstarted with a $200 check from his mother.
“As we signed up the lady kind of laughed because she said, ‘People prepare all year for these competitions, and you guys are coming in at the last second,’ “ Parafinczuk recalled.
They placed in the competition.
He worked for Dan Koch, and when the firm split, the two formed Koch Parafinczuk Wolf, which recently changed to Parafinczuk Wolf Suse with Parafinczuk as a co-manager since 2010.
He has a civil trial certification from The Florida Bar after meeting requirements, including trying at least 15 cases.
Parafinczuk set out to work for small firms to allow him to jump into big cases instead of spending time making his way up the ranks.
“I was interested in trying cases immediately and pursue mass tort cases and big class action stuff where you could really make an impact,” he said.
Born: 1979; Buffalo, New York
Fiancee : Lisa Stebbins
Education: Nova Southeastern University, J.D., 2006; University of West Florida, B.A., 2004
Experience: Shareholder, Parafinczuk Wolf Susen, 2018-present; Shareholder, Koch Parafinczuk Wolf, 2010-2018; Associate, Koch & Trushin, 2007-2010