Matter of trust: Personal injury attorney searches for the 'truth'


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

With more than five decades of experience in personal injury law, attorney George Potter revels in the challenge of the courtroom, and the competitiveness of a trial.

“I’ve always been quick on my feet and litigation allows me to display that talent,” he says.

Of counsel with Girodat & Marienfeld in Jackson, where he has worked since 1981, Potter has had several memorable cases, including one that hinged on a tape recording. An elderly man was injured on a city bus that made a sudden stop when a car pulled out.  Prior to obtaining an attorney, the man – who had a very distinctive voice – gave a recorded statement to an adjuster in which he admitted the bus driver had no choice but to make an abrupt stop because the car was too close; but at the trial, the plaintiff testified the bus driver had plenty of time to make a normal stop as the car was several hundred feet away. 

Calling the adjuster as a witness, Potter had him play for the jury the tape-recorded statement.

“While it was playing the plaintiff – in a loud voice that sounded exactly like the voice on the recording – claimed it was not his voice on the tape,” Potter says. “Even the plaintiff's attorney knew better. It took the jury about 30 minutes to return a verdict of no cause for action.”

In another case, a graphic artist who claimed shoulder tendinitis as a result of an auto accident, owned and managed a local theater organization; and a month before the trial, played Fagin in the musical, “Oliver,” sporting long hair and a scruffy beard. Before opening night, the local paper ran a full-page article with photos showing the plaintiff and others building stage sets. 

The plaintiff, who had lost no income from his regular job and was still working, appeared at trial clean-shaven and with short hair – and claimed he had lost income from his theater business because he was unable to build sets and had to hire others.

“I confronted him with the photos from the paper and he quickly backpedaled, admitting he still helped building the sets but claimed he couldn’t do as much of that work as he did before the accident,” Potter says. “He also admitted he had cut his long hair and beard for the trial.” 

It was a case of admitted liability, and in his final argument Potter suggested to the jury a modest sum as an appropriate award.

“During its deliberations the jury sent the judge a written question asking if it could award the plaintiff less than I offered,” he says. “The judge responded that the amount of the award was entirely within the jury’s purview. The jury then returned a verdict of less than what I offered.”

According to Potter, civility and courtesy among lawyers have declined over his half-century in practice – a factor that led him to choose semi-retirement in 2006.

“I strongly believe a lawsuit should be a search for the truth,” he says. “Too many lawyers have the philosophy that winning is everything. They withhold information they should disclose, and look for technicalities that benefit their client at the expense of a just result. I’ve seen too many lawyers engage in smoke and mirrors, and even outright lie to the judge, if it helps their case.”   

Potter’s path to a legal career started with an undergrad degree, cum laude, from Albion College in political science and economics.

“Law seemed a logical extension of that interest,” he says. “Also, I came from a banking family – my father and grandfather were bank presidents. However, they worked for others. I’m fiercely independent and did not want to answer to anyone but myself. I knew that as a lawyer I would ultimately be working for myself and could come and go as I please.”

A huge fan of the University of Michigan from the age of 10 – and not just of U-M athletics – Potter set his sights in high school on attending Michigan Law. Married with one child during the 27 months he was at U-M on an accelerated year-round program, he was a member of Delta Theta Phi law fraternity that provided him and his wife with a great social life.

“I loved everything about law school including the instructors, the ambiance of the law quad, my fellow students and the social life,” he says.

After graduating cum laude in 1960, and passing the bar examination, Potter worked for a law firm with a large insurance defense practice, a career choice that led to his niche of personal injury law.

Potter’s name is well known in Jackson, his home since he moved from Flint in 1954 when his father became president of City Bank & Trust. He is particularly associated with Jackson Community College, where he served 44 years as a trustee – the longest serving community college trustee in the country at the time – and where the George E. Potter Center bears his name and legacy.

In the ’50s, Potter attended Jackson Junior College, then owned and operated by a local school district.  In 1962, he served on a Citizens Committee established to place on the November ballot a proposal to create an independent community college district covering the entire county with its own board of trustees.

He also threw his hat in the ring as one of eight candidates for six positions on this board. The proposal to create the community college district passed, and at the ripe old age of 25, Potter was elected to the board of trustees.

“Through a number of coincidences I ended up as the principal founder of the Michigan Community College Association and became the first trustee to serve as it board chair,” he says.

He then became involved nationally and in 1976-77 served as board chair of the National Association of Community College Trustees. 

After leaving that office, he wrote “Trusteeship: A Handbook for Community College Trustees,” that was eventually published in three editions, sold 15,000 copies, and became the “bible” for community college trustees. 

“I ultimately was recognized as an expert on community college governance – two federal courts have qualified me as such an expert – and I served as a consultant to more than one,” he says.

He has served as a consultant to more than 100 community colleges in the United States and Canada; and been honored as “America’s Outstanding Trustee,” by the Association of Community Colleges Trustees; and with the “Trustee Award” from the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

Potter’s principal passion, after community colleges, is travel; he and Donna, his wife of 58 years, have visited all 50 states and all 10 Canadian provinces, more than 70 foreign countries, and all seven continents, including Antarctica.

“My other main hobby is reading, and I read more than 100 books a year,” he says.

The Potters also enjoy spending time with their three children, six grandchildren, and great-granddaughter.