A Magna One-on-One Interview with

Sonia Valdes

Vice President at Medmarc Insurance Group

Straight Outta Cuba 

Sonia Valdes was only 3 years old when her family fled Cuba but that still gave her time to witness a battle (from the beach no less) before her family landed on U.S. soil at a detention center. The next step, obviously, was law school (Brooklyn Law) and now she’s landed the perfect job for an attorney with a BS in zoology and biochemistry: Vice President at Medmarc Insurance Group in charge of life science litigation. 

Your one memory of Cuba is the Bay of Pigs invasion whereby a U.S. backed force tried to invade the island nation and dislodge Fidel Castro from power? 

I remember being on a beach with my mother. We were suddenly surrounded by Cuban soldiers who were expecting the Bay of Pigs landing to occur. I was frightened and cried. I was so nervous. 

But the United States was in your future. 

My parents were violent anti-communists and anti-revolutionary. The Castro regime tried to get rid of such people and gave us visas. We didn’t see a life for ourselves in Cuba. We were never going to be signed onto the Castro program. My father’s side of the family was poor; my mother’s was not, but they gave it all up. 

Like a lot of Cubans your family first landed in Miami. 

We wound up at Krome Detention Center and were claimed by my uncle. Then we ended up in Marshfield, Massachusetts. We got coats from the Catholic Charities but after coming from Cuba, we could not get warm enough that first winter. Eventually, we got used to it and we later moved to New Jersey, and I ended up going full Jersey and attending Rutgers. 

Actually, sounds like there is more to the full Jersey than just attending Rutgers. 

Growing up, I used to see Bruce Springsteen play in small town bars, and I am still going to Springsteen shows, including the recent one in – you guessed it – New Jersey. 

How did you get tickets? 

As far as that goes, Springsteen is doing something right. He vets you and you have to apply to prove you are not a ticket broker. Then you get a number to call to buy the tickets, which are about $150 to $200. 

What is your favorite Springsteen song? 

Thunder Road.  

What did you want to be when you were growing up? 

A fighter pilot. It was a very unladylike thing to do but the real thing that stopped me was I have had glasses pretty much since I came out of womb so that disqualified me. 

You have a BS in biochemistry/zoology and a law degree. Your current job seems to be the perfect blend of the two. Was that by design?  

It was not a grand scheme. I’ve worked in a variety of legal jobs but have always come back to the insurance side. My current one is just a result of wandering aimlessly and being in the right place at the right time. 

At one point you were environmental counsel. What is that? 

That involved work on environmental pollution and contamination, and mass torts associated with that. You always have battles between Fortune 500 companies and insurance agencies.  

I worked representing insurance companies; I am not licensed in all 50 states but would consult.  

Were you involved in high profile cases? 

Lots of them. One was a place in southwest Montana that was contaminated from strip mining: You try to float a boat on a containment pond there and it dissolves. 8 AM would look like midnight due to air pollution.   

How did you get involved with Magna? 

They invited me to a seminar and the rest is history. 

What sorts of projects do you do with Magna? 

You’d be crazy to do a big trial and not do a mock trial beforehand with Magna. We’ve also worked closely with them in trial. 

For example, we had an alleged traumatic brain injury (TBI) case in Greenbelt, Maryland and we didn’t have a favorable judge.  

I asked Dr. Rachel York Colangelo at Magna to pick the jury; I didn’t even want our own attorneys to do it.

So, a potential juror shows up wearing a Mickey Mouse backpack and I’m thinking, he’s not going to be friendly to the defense. I told Dr. Rachel, if this guy is on the jury, you’re fired. She put him on the jury. She also put on a guy with a family member who had TBI. Now I’m really freaking out. 

Then, there was a Latina woman – like me. But I am thinking, Latina women tend to be liberal. I didn’t think it was a good idea to put her on the jury. But Dr. Rachel pointed out the woman was wearing $1,000 Jimmy Choo shoes. “Do you think she wants to rock the world order?” Dr. Rachel asked. Then she put her on the jury. 

Well, the verdict came out perfect for us. The plaintiff was looking for $10M and the jury gave her $400,000. All due to Dr. Rachel. 

What are some of the challenges to the life sciences industry? 

Anything that is put in your body that is not there in the first place is going to have an effect on your body.  

But the idea in the public’s mind is that everything has to be engineered risk proof. And that’s not the world we live in. So, it’s a horrible time to be a manufacturer of drugs and devices because everything has to be utterly safe. And that’s not what happens.  

Look at how much longer we are living, compared to our grandparents. I actually am not a mouthpiece for the drug and device industry, but they do a lot of good.  

Most of the research is now on lifestyle drugs: not for diseases but weight loss, keeping hair, and male performance. (Well, there is research on dementia because there is a market for it.) 

I have to wait three months before I can get an appointment to see my dermatologist. But if want Botox, I can get an appointment in one day. 

But you have to be careful. They’re using Botox these days for everything from migraines to urinary incontinence. One of the worst cases I had actually involved a disbarred chiropractor from Florida who bought lab research strength Botox. He did not know how to dilute it and opened a clinic to inject people in the face. The result was three people whose organs shut down because Botox shuts down your nerves. 

The lesson there is to go to a medical doctor for Botox.  

How are the challenges to the life science industry playing out on a legal level? 

There is the public nuisance theory, which used to be used for property issues. For example, you couldn’t build a house of ill repute; you couldn’t discharge chemicals.  

Now that action is being used on behalf of individuals who are not suffering property damage but damages by the sale of opioids or vaping pens. It’s a novel legal theory but they are having success with it.   

How do you fight that? 

You have the argument that you have the legal sale of a product and in case of opioids, a person turns into an addict. What control do we have over that? Someone is taking something that was prescribed to them. It is not the drug company issue but a failure to regulate.  

The politicization of things such as regulation and emissions standards doesn’t help given that every time you have a new presidential administration, the standards change.  

Our interview got delayed a couple of days because you had an emergency root canal. Does Medmarc actually represent the pain drug you were prescribed? 

I was given Oxycodone. We don’t insure them – Medmarc doesn’t represent any manufacturers, but we do represent two distributors and I am in charge of our opioid litigation. 

What is your next goal in life? 

To be a scratch golfer.  

And to try more cases for my company and get good results and put drug and medical devices in a better light.