Character Witness

How I made a career in mass torts

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Diandra "Fu" Debrosse Zimmermann co-founded Shades of Mass to expand the appointment of attorneys of color in national mass tort actions. (Photo courtesy of DiCello Levitt)

As a teenager attending the Bronx High School of Science and now as a mother and a lawyer, I knew and know that I want to be a person of action—someone who doesn’t just speak of injustice but uses all that I have to fight those who harm, oppress or seek to unjustly control people, both externally and internally. The law appealed to me for many reasons, the primary one being that one person, regardless of socioeconomic status, can take action and stand against a company or governmental actor that had wronged them and realize some modicum of justice—unlike many other legal systems found around the world.

Raised by an immigrant family in Brooklyn, New York, that was obsessed with global politics, literature, free thought and moral imperatives, I learned early to seek meaning in all things. A deference to and love of changemakers, intellectual and moral revolutionaries and those fighting injustice were core to my childhood. By the time I was 15 years old, I’d read about dozens of people who sacrificed their safety, their lives and their freedom to force change, to help others, to fight hatred and oppression—and ultimately, to do good. Among those people were Rigoberta Menchú, Archbishop Óscar Romero, Carl Lutz, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

They may have been imperfect, but they each chose to become a light in the darkness of wrongful government and corporate action and corruption, and their actions led to real change in the lives of their countrymen and countrywomen and set an example for the world.

Change agent

As a young lawyer, I became involved through one of my first law partners as a special master in cases against Monsanto pertaining to the exposure of thousands to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which can cause serious health complications. I learned that by filing cases en masse, where thousands have been injured by wrongful devices, drugs, toxins and other products, there could be systematic accountability and, ultimately, change. But it’s not an easy field—mass torts requires a lot of grit, hard work and dedication.

Currently, I serve as co-chair of DiCello Levitt’s mass tort practice, where we lead some of the most significant mass and complex litigation cases of our time—game-changer cases.

Fifteen years after I first learned of the power of the mass tort framework, I was appointed as the first Black woman to serve as plaintiffs co-lead counsel in a significant multidistrict litigation, In re: Abbott Laboratories, et al., Preterm Infant Nutrition Products Liability Litigation, which alleges that bovine-based formula in premature infants causes necrotizing enterocolitis, a terrible disease that can result in catastrophic injury or death. Our firm is also representing thousands who allege a pesticide manufactured by the defendant caused their Parkinson’s disease (In re: Paraquat Products Liability Litigation). And another high-profile case, In re: Social Media Adolescent Addiction/Personal Injury Products Liability Litigation, alleges social media platforms—including Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube—are defectively designed to maximize screen time and encourage addictive behavior in adolescents, which can result in various emotional and physical harms, including death.

In addition to co-chairing our mass tort practice, I also represent victims in civil and human rights litigation, including representing seven of the families murdered in the Buffalo, New York, mass shooting and the family of a former NFL player killed in law enforcement custody, among others.

Diversifying the MDL area

Yet despite having the privilege and luck to represent so many amazing clients over the years, I realized that I was one of the few women of color to hold any significant roles in mass tort and other complex litigation. Ultimately, both in the plaintiffs bar and in the MDL context, attorneys of color struggle to obtain leadership seats and control of significant litigations.

This is especially problematic since communities of color are disproportionately impacted by contamination and certain products, usually via water or inhalation. As a result, in 2022, I founded, alongside Ben Crump of Ben Crump Law, Shades of Mass—an organization dedicated to rectifying the lack of diversity in the mass tort realm through education, publishing, mentoring and networking. Trailblazers Larry Taylor Jr. of the Cochran Firm; Navan Ward of Beasley Allen Law Firm; LaRuby May of May Jung Law Firm; and Greg Cade of Environmental Litigation Group comprise the rest of the founding board of Shades of Mass as we take action to ensure a more representative future for our clients and for the bar.

This story was originally published in the April-May 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Making a Career in Mass Torts: Grit, compassion and paying it forward.”

Character Witness explores legal and societal issues through the first-person lens of attorneys in the trenches who are, inter alia, on a mission to defend liberty and pursue justice.

Diandra "Fu" Debrosse Zimmermann is managing partner of DiCello Levitt's Birmingham, Alabama, office and a co-chair of the firm's mass tort division, where she also specializes in personal injury, public client and civil rights law.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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