As a litigator, role model and community leader, Eugene K. Pettis is making a difference in people’s lives. “My parents taught me the importance of education to success in life,” he says. “Now, I’m fortunate to be able to help others along that path.”
Pettis is nationally recognized for his courtroom skills, representing leading corporations and other clients in commercial, personal injury and medical malpractice, (both plaintiff and defense) and employment cases. The co-founder of Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm in Fort Lauderdale is also an advisor on today’s hottest legal issues, such as trial strategies, social media in the workplace and cyber-bullying in the schools.
Both personally and professionally, Pettis is closely tied to the field of education. “I believe it’s important to give back to the community,” says Pettis, who speaks regularly to students and school groups. With other family members, he organized the Sara Jones Pettis Scholarship Fund, which has given dozens of college scholarships to students from Dillard and Stranahan High Schools. He and his wife, Sheila, also started the Pettis Family Endowment at Broward Community College (now Broward College). He also represents Broward and Palm Beach County School Districts.
“Eugene has a particular interest in helping young people who are disadvantaged,” says Ken Stevenson, PhD., associate vice president for development at Broward College Foundation in Fort Lauderdale. “He has a strong commitment to the transforming power of education in young lives. He’s also an outstanding attorney. I have seen him in action and would not want to go up against him as a litigator.”
A native of Fort Lauderdale, Pettis was the youngest of seven children, growing up in the turbulent social climate of the 1960s and ‘70s, the last days of racial segregation in the South. As an elementary school student, Pettis was confronted with his own personal experience of racism. After being stopped for running in the cafeteria, two coaches took Pettis in the back of the office and beat the 12-year-old with a leather strap. A neighbor who happened to be behind the curtain in the clinic counted 67 lashes that they gave to Pettis. “I was black and blue all over,” he recalls. “When I pulled my pants down, my parents hit the ceiling. They had to take me to the doctor that evening, and the next day, we went right to the school.” Cyrus and Sara Pettis’ anger at the treatment of their son led to a school district investigation of abusive practices and the firing of the two teachers.
After that year, Pettis was bused to a middle school that was previously all-white. The beating incident and the integration into a school that did not welcome us led to many problems, Pettis said. “I was in a tailspin, getting in fights every week and feeling rebellious about everything,” he says. That continued all the way to the second week of his freshman year in high school. “One of my teachers told me that if I got into one more fight, I would be suspended. Suddenly, it was like a light going off in my head. I changed my attitude, stopped fighting and graduated from high school with every honor.”
Focusing on his future, Pettis enrolled at the University of Florida. He had originally intended to follow an older brother into dental school. “But my mom told me that I needed to be a lawyer because I talked so much,” he says. “Of course, she was right.” At first, Pettis thought he would get into environmental law, but found he was far more interested in political science than chemistry or biology. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he stayed in Gainesville for his law degree as well.
“In college, I was able to put my past behind me and see there is good in every group of individuals,” he recalls. “But I feel very fortunate I was able to get through that rough time, because it gave me a life lesson that there is good in everyone, no matter the path their life has taken.”
Returning to Fort Lauderdale, Pettis joined Conrad, Scherer and James, where he rapidly learned the fine points of litigation under the mentorship of Rex Conrad. Six years after graduating law school, Pettis became the first African-American appointed to the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board.
In 1992, Pettis left this firm and developed his own practice with partner James Haliczer in a new law firm, later joined by partner Richard B. Schwamm. As a litigator, his big step forward came in 1994, when Pettis defended a South Florida hospital in a major medical malpractice suit relating to a brain injury of a baby. Facing a stellar plaintiff ’s legal team, Pettis won the case in a four-month trial. After the plaintiffs appealed, Pettis went back to work, and prevailed a second time in a five-month trial.
“I love litigation in general,” Pettis says. “I really enjoy preparing for trial and presenting the case to the trier of fact — the judge or jury. You have to put together the building blocks to support your theory of the case, all the while having a vision of how you are going to create the most persuasive argument.”
Pettis is a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers and American Board of Trial Advocates, both invitation only organizations, and has served on the executive committee of The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors. He’s also a trustee at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law.
Much of Pettis’ legal work now involves matters of high-profile cases for both individual clients who have been harmed personally or in business, and corporate and public sector clients like Exxon, Starbucks, the Broward Sheriff ’s Office (BSO) and the Broward School District. “After 25 years of litigation experience, I am fortunate that clients entrust me and my firm complex matters from bet-the-company litigation to life changing injuries” Pettis says.
“My job is to pull together the evidence and convince a jury that my client is right and deserving of the verdict,” he says. “While there might seem to be a huge difference in medical malpractice cases, police matters and commercial disputes, there is a common thread. You have to believe in the client, and then commit all your skills and time to be an effective advocate.”
Pettis is also in the forefront of the social media revolution, which is impacting employers, schools, parents, teachers and students. He’s believes employers should establish a social media policy, educate employees about the consequences of negative postings on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, and be willing to enforce violations of that policy.“This is an evolving area of law where employers’ concerns run up against employees’ privacy expectations,” he says.
Parents also need to pay attention to their children’s online activities to avoid problems like cyber-bullying, Pettis says. “It’s much easier for kids to post a nasty note on someone’s Facebook wall or send a hateful text message, rather than say something to their face.” Those after-hours messages pose a challenge for teachers and principals, he adds, “since a student attack can take place at the school without forewarning. That’s one of the challenges for our schools — to secure against that type of occurrence.”
Pettis and his wife Sheila are the parents of two daughters, a junior at UF and a junior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, and their nephew, Yohance, is an associate with the law firm. To relax, Pettis enjoys family time and golfing on weekends. He’s also heavily involved in community activities, which take up a substantial amount of his free time.
“Not only has Eugene been instrumental in raising money for the foundation, he established a peer-to-peer tutoring program and he has e-mentored Broward College students as well,” says Stevenson. “His volunteer efforts have had a significant impact, helping one student at a time.”
Pettis says he can draw on his own experiences as a teenager in connecting with today’s African-American youths. “A lot of the positive skills and attitudes I now use on a daily basis were actually developed during that time,” he says. “Now, I try to help young people realize they can do the same thing, and with some guidance they, too, can achieve their goals in life.”