In this episode…
Our guest, Laura DiBella, is an expert witness with a background in ports, maritime supply chain, and economic development. Her experience as an expert witness is founded in a range of industry experience that includes Nassau County Executive Director of the Economic Development Board, Executive Director of Florida Harbor Pilots Association, and beyond.
Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Michelle Loux, Assistant Project Manager, Round Table Group
Guest: Laura DiBella, Deputy Secretary of Commerce at Enterprise Florida
Michelle Loux: Thank you and welcome to Discussions at the Round Table. I am your host Michelle Loux, and my guest today is Laura DiBella. She is the Deputy Secretary of Commerce at Enterprise Florida, whose focus is on public and private partnerships in Florida ports, economic development, and international trade. Laura, thank you for joining our show. Let’s start with your background on ports, maritime supply chain, economic development, and how that led you to become an expert witness.
Laura DiBella: It is great to be here. I appreciate the opportunity to be on the expert witness list. It started in commercial real estate where I was a real estate broker. I worked on behalf of a significant healthcare operator in the world. HCA or Hospital Corporation of America brokered real estate on their behalf. They had me looking for land all over the state for hospitals, free-standing emergency rooms, and all sorts of things. I was introduced to Nassau County, the most northeastern county in the state on the Atlantic seaboard. They were looking for an Executive Director for their Economic Development Board and they recruited me for that position. At first, I questioned their decision because this was not what I did. They insisted that it was a good fit for me, and they were right. I took the position and that was the beginning of an interesting journey. For two and half years into the five years that I was with Nassau County, I was a volunteer and became Port Director because the Port of Fernandina needed help. The Port of Fernandina is in Nassau County but is a separate entity. It is an independent special district of the state. I got to learn a different type of state governance outside of the county. For two and half years I wore two hats. It was supposed to be a temporary thing that turned into two and a half years I was doing two jobs and loved it.
In November 2019, I was recruited to the Florida Harbor Pilots Association. They were looking for an Executive Director. They did not have one. This person was going to be in Tallahassee and represent them, not as a lobbyist, but being their eyes and ears on the ground, and one that was going to push policy and make sure their name is always out there. It was different than how a lobby functions, but it was similar. The Executive Director would manage everything they needed. They asked me to do it again. It was something outside of my comfort zone, but it was an amazing and incredible opportunity, especially being the first Executive Director for an organization that was over 150 years old, at the time. I took the job and three months later the pandemic hit. The world as we knew it on the shipping side and everywhere else collapsed. It was a trying time for them and many others. Especially with just the unknowns that were surrounding the Coronavirus, and the infection rate. They needed to do their jobs. They did not have the ability, privilege, or opportunity to stay home. They had to continue to move those ships. We had to stay on top of things. They needed to continue to move ships with half of their revenue source. More than half and sometimes almost 99 percent of their revenue source depended on the pilot station. We had 11 of them in the State of Florida where their revenue was completely cut off because of the cruise business that was suspended for a long time.
I became the economic developer for the Harbor pilots and that was what was keeping the state operating. If I had to tell you that disaster loans were keeping things humming along, I wouldn’t be lying. That was the absolute truth. It was an interesting time, but thankfully, the background, economic development, understanding of business resources, and emergency disaster loans. I have been through a few hurricanes in my life and that helped. Taking it all together, that is where the expert witness opportunities started to come to me. I guess there are not many people that have all these experiences under their belt. Maritime is a niche field. It is a big world, but a small world at the same time. I will never call myself an expert, but people seem to think I know what I am talking about, so I am happy to help. That is how I ended up here with the group before I was appointed secretary. I need to make clear that I cannot do expert witness work in my position now, but I had the ability to do it before taking this position.
Michelle Loux: Sure, that does make sense. Is it something where you would be an in-house expert for any litigation that was sent your way?
Laura DiBella: Oh sure. I do not want to say never. I guess there is not a delicate balance as far as what I can handle now. I currently am not active in any case now, but that is not to say that I would not take on any that would not have any conflicts with any of my businesses.
Michelle Loux: When you were practicing as an expert witness, did you find that you had to balance your time and how did you organize yourself for those cases? What were some tips and tricks that you put forth to be at the top of your game as an expert witness?
Laura DiBella: I am a voracious reader and the more I got into the maritime and shipping worlds, and all the challenges around them, I was well versed in learning all aspects of the supply chain. Trying to stay ahead of what was next. We were waiting for the other shoe to drop. It seems for nearly three years, and to this day, there are so many fits, starts, and rapid shocks in different directions. Looking for lead indicators from across the pond. What is happening in China, with rail strikes around the world, and being on top of the international news was helpful. It is something I still do, and it not only helps me in my current role but allowed me to supply some perspective to the team. The legal team was looking for guidance and was looking for the why. You can tell them this is the way it is for an expert witness. I think it helps when you add context as to why this is the reasoning. I think that is the thing with the expert witness; we are educators. We are consultants. We are there to explain a world that is completely foreign to somebody else. Maritime is foreign to many people, so simplifying it into words that they understand was my job when I was working for the Harbor Pilots. Nobody knew what a harbor pilot was, so I had to be the first to tell them that they were not that great and explain what they do as far as putting it all together. Sometimes it is picking things apart and conveying them in a. way that people will understand.
Michelle Loux: Have you worked on international cases? Have you ever been an expert on an international matter?
Laura DiBella: Yes. Most of what I was working on would be considered international.
Michelle Loux: Did you find those different parameters were those you would find in United States courts instead? Anything can arise as far as not knowing what you were walking into and having to be educated in it.
Laura DiBella: No, not necessarily, because when you are dealing with maritime you are dealing with international law. That is the space that you run in. It is the weird complexity of maritime, which is why your pool of experts gets very narrow. Nationally, it is layered, nuanced, and old. It has not changed in hundreds of years. There are many complexities around international maritime law. By no means do you know everything, but enough to be dangerous to say, “This should be a state matter not a national matter,” so because of where certain things take place.
Michelle Loux: Interesting. Can you share a story of one of the cases you were on as an expert witness? That was the most interesting or learning moment for you.
Laura DiBella: I am on one case, which is on pause right now as they are working through some things. It had to do with the Caribbean nation and some port activity. In that nation, I cannot say too much about it, but it forced me to become a rapid expert in all Caribbean Island nations and the trans-shipment activity surrounding those nations. What appeared to be on the surface an isolated research type of application turned into a big discussion because there was no way to explain the potential of what is happening in one area without pointing to what was going on somewhere else. This is what you can expect here if XY&Z happens by giving comparisons because the argument was over the potential of what was going on there. It was not the realization of what was already there, but what could be there. That was where the education had to come in saying ports are not just looked at as property that is next to the water ports can be pretty much anywhere, there are inland ports and port functions that generate revenue that is not necessarily on the waterfront, so it was an overly complex case.
Michelle Loux: How about any last thoughts on being an expert witness that you can share with our listeners? How to be successful or what you learned along the way?
Laura DiBella: If anybody gets the opportunity to be an expert witness, I will hope that they take it because number one, it is fun. I loved doing it. I worked on the weekend. How do I balance my time? I did it whenever I could. It broadens your horizons and expands your knowledge. You do not realize how much until you educate someone else on that topic. It opened a whole new world for me as far as what I could offer. Taking my current role into account, I feel like I am the expert witness now in state government. I have taken the confidence that I gained by working on these incredible cases, which I feel lucky to take part in. Parlaying that knowledge to some key people is a wonderful experience, and it comes back to you in many ways as you continue your career journey, doing what you do outside of the expert witness experience, like great relationships with the legal teams. I think it opens many opportunities and doors.
Michelle Loux: Absolutely. Thank you, Laura, for your time. I appreciate you coming on the show.
Laura DiBella: Thank you very much.
After a quarter century helping litigators find the right expert witnesses, Round Table Group’s network contains some of the world’s greatest experts. On the Discussions at the Round Table podcast, we talk to some of them about what’s new in their field of study and their experience as expert witnesses.
Laura DiBella is the Deputy Secretary of Commerce at Enterprise Florida, whose focus is on public and private partnerships in Florida ports, economic development, and international trade. Laura was Florida's first female Secretary of State, and is a proud Floridian championing economic development in the state.
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