October 20, 2014

Will The Tobacco Suit Replay?

Pat Dunnigan | 11/1/1997
Never the best of friends, trial lawyers and business lobbyists haven't become any closer since the $11 billion tobacco settlement. As he pushes to repeal the law that gave the state its advantage in the tobacco case [FT, Oct. 1997], Associated Industries of Florida President and CEO Jon Shebel has been dropping hints that trial lawyers are targeting a new industry to sue using the same law.

"This was never intended by the trial lawyers to be a tobacco bill," Shebel asserts. The law stripped the tobacco industry of its key defense by not allowing tobacco lawyers to argue that smokers bear some responsibility for their own illnesses.

Shebel won't say what he knows, but claims to have information suggesting that the plaintiffs bar is plotting how to use the law against another industry target that he says will make the tobacco suit look like small potatoes. Liquor? Handguns? "They've tasted their blood on tobacco," says Shebel.

Ridiculous, says Pensacola trial lawyer Fred Levin, who masterminded the bill's passage in 1994. Associated Industries, Levin says, is orchestrating a campaign to scare industry leaders into their checkbooks. "This is nothing but a fund-raising promotion," says Levin. "It's a scare tactic."

Levin claims it would be "almost insanity" to contemplate a repeat of the tobacco suit against any other industry. Too expensive and too risky, says Levin, who adds that even in the tobacco suit, most of the lawyers he tried to recruit into the case turned him down.

The ink was barely dry on the tobacco settlement when some members of the state's legal team began grousing about their share of the pay-out.

After the state proposed a panel to set fees, the unhappy lawyers, Robert Montgomery Jr. of West Palm Beach, Sheldon Schlesinger of Fort Lauderdale, Robert Kerrigan of Pensacola, Jim Nance of Melbourne and C. Steven Yerrid of Tampa, filed liens complaining that Florida was reneging on its commitment to pay them 25% of the settlement. Schlesinger even launched a PR campaign, including a videotape and transcripts of Gov. Chiles testifying to the contingency fee.

Meanwhile, other members of the state's legal team voiced concern at public reaction to fellow plaintiffs lawyers bickering over a fee that will earn them millions either way.

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AMERICAN BAR

Presidential Bid

Tallahassee lawyer Martha Barnett is seeking to join the ranks of four other Florida lawyers who have served as president of the prestigious American Bar Association.

Barnett, 50, who heads the public law department at Holland & Knight in Tallahassee, has announced her candidacy for the term that begins in August 2000. From 1994 to 1996, she served as chair of the ABA's 528-member House of Delegates, a position that has historically paved an unopposed path to the presidency. Barnett, who would be the organization's second woman president, was honored by the ABA recently for her work on the 1994 claims bill that led to reparations for victims and survivors of the 1923 Rosewood massacre.

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RACE

Black Laywers and The Florida Bar

After nearly 17 years of occupying a non-voting seat on the Florida Bar's board of governors, the state's largest organization of black lawyers has had enough. "As long as we are second-class citizens, we don't want to sit at the table," says West Palm Beach lawyer Lynn Whitfield, immediate past president of the National Bar Association's Florida chapter.

The organization's president has served as a non-voting liaison to the board since 1980. The resignation leaves the Bar's 51-member governing board with only a single black lawyer, Cynthia Everett of Miami. (There are two non-lawyers on the board, one of whom is black.) This has produced a growing rift among members, some of whom believe the board missed an important opportunity this summer when it rejected a proposal to designate on the board a black-lawyer seat with full voting powers.

That was the last straw for the NBA's Florida chapter, says current President Allison K. Bethel, a Fort Lauderdale government lawyer. "It's really a shame. The Bar has continually said they recognize the fact that the black lawyers feel disenfranchised and asked ?what can we do?' Yet when an opportunity comes to do something, they don't."

Further alienating many black lawyers was the Bar's decision to add a fourth seat on the board for out-of-state members, while rejecting a black-lawyer seat as an unnecessary and an undemocratic "set-aside." The board also rejected proposals to add designated seats for the state's organizations of women and Hispanic lawyers.

Though the decision on out-of-state lawyers provoked much debate and some legal maneuvering, the numbers support it. There are more than 10,000 out-of-state lawyers licensed in Florida and therefore subject to Florida Bar regulations. It's estimated that only about 1,200 of the state's 55,000 practicing lawyers are black.

Bar President Ed Blumberg has asked the National Bar chapter to reconsider its decision, but he says it is unlikely the board will revisit the idea of a designated seat. Blumberg shares the view of many board members who believe that diversity should come through the election process. He's appointed a five-member task force to recruit and encourage black and other minority lawyers to run for the board and show them how to get involved with local Bar politics.

Bethel and other black lawyers say one look around the table is evidence that the election process is not enough. Blumberg, who served four terms on the board before becoming president this year, says the same arguments used to be made on behalf of women lawyers, who now occupy 10 of the board's 51 seats. "It's an evolving thing," he says.

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

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