The year is 1985. A young man goes to deposit money after hours in a trendy new Automated Teller Machine that is, for esthetics rather than safety, surrounded by dense, high hedges and streaked with deep shadows from dim mood lighting.
A surprise to no one reading this today: The man gets jumped by criminals hiding in the foliage and darkness, shot in the face and blinded in one eye.
A different time, indeed. The world had yet not felt the impact of Steve Yerrid.
The oversight of safety measures at an outdoor ATM seems absurd through today’s lens, when we’re all practiced in cupping our hands for cover as we punch in our pin numbers.
We sometimes forget. We forget that corporations too often look at safety protocols as expensive and low-priority – if they’re on the radar at all. We forget that governments are slow-moving and filled with politicians too often looking to advance their own careers rather than seeking to better society. We forget that lots of bad actors in both spheres will try to get away with whatever they can.
We forget why we need lawyers.
“You know that saying from Shakespeare that gets tossed around so much, ‘Kill all the lawyers’? Well, people forget the context of that quote,” says Yerrid, a legendary plaintiffs’ lawyer based in Tampa, Florida. “The full quote changes its meaning: ‘if you want tyrants to rule, first kill all the lawyers.’”
Yerrid exemplifies that better breed of lawyer, the one who genuinely wants to see the world get more fair, more reasonable – and works every day to effectuate that change.
Thanks to Yerrid, we can feel safer as we take money from ATMs. In what was reported to be the first seven-figure verdict holding a bank liable for outdoor ATM security, the banking industry immediately began to change its emphasis from esthetics to safety by implementing measures such as brightly light ATMs, the removal of surrounding high bushes and foliage and, in many instances, the installation of security cameras.
We can also cross bridges with peace of mind thanks to his work on the landmark Skyway Bridge case (recently made into a documentary, Skyway Bridge Disaster, and currently available for rent through Amazon Prime), which set a new standard for safety design, support pier protection, and better constructed bridges in this country, as well as around the world.
Through a game-changing medical malpractice case for Allan Navarro, who was sent home from the ER after his stroke was misdiagnosed as a nasal infection, Yerrid helped to improve the standard of care in emergency rooms. He secured a record-setting $217M jury verdict for his client, which is still the largest medical malpractice verdict in Florida’s history. As a result of that case and others like it, virtually all patients entering an ER are seen by an M.D. and not just a physician assistant before getting a discharging diagnosis. (The Navarro case was the cover story of Lawdragon Magazine in 2007.)
Perhaps his greatest impact is seen (and smelled) in the lack of the once-ubiquitous cigarette smoke vanishing in today’s world. Yerrid was part of the “Dream Team,” as it became known: Hand-picked by Florida’s Governor, the late Lawton Chiles, this elite group of eleven private trial lawyers brought Big Tobacco to its knees back in the ‘90s. The youngest member of the team, Yerrid was responsible for bringing the civil RICO claims against the cigarette companies. At the time, it was a novel use of a statute that was originally designed to combat the mafia. He literally “bet” everything he had to hold the all-powerful industry responsible for the colossal harm and millions of deaths they had caused generations of Americans.
And he was just getting started.
Yerrid is approaching a head-spinning 300 verdicts and settlements of a million dollars or more – including a recent jury verdict of $64M – and currently, is among the lawyers representing victims in the tragic Las Vegas shooting that resulted in an $800M settlement with MGM. But he doesn’t define success by sheer numbers (impressive as they may be). For Yerrid, the true mark of a successful lawyer is making every effort to cause positive change directed towards safeguarding people and further protecting our citizenry.
“When I have a client or a cause that may either prevent the same type of catastrophe or loss in the future, or has the potential to promote societal change in a beneficial way – for me, that’s what it’s all about. It is a goal I’ve always sought to achieve. Cases that not only have meaning to the clients, but also serve as catalysts for remediation and positive change to occur.”
Yerrid, a graduate of Georgetown Law, was recently inducted into the Lawdragon Hall of Fame. He is also a member the National Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame, and several others. He is one of the original founders of The American Museum of Torts located in Connecticut. He is a long-time member of the prestigious Inner Circle of Advocates, an invitation-only organization that has often been recognized as consisting of the top 100 plaintiffs’ lawyers in the country. Throughout his career, he has received numerous other recognitions and honors by a multitude of legal organizations regarding his accomplishments both in and out of the courtroom.
Lawdragon: How did you first know that you wanted to be a lawyer, Steve?
Steve Yerrid: My mother raised me as a single parent from age seven throughout the rest of my young childhood and teenage years. She was a wonderful lady, and to this day, my all-time hero in life. Living on her secretary’s salary, we did not have much money, but we were rich in many other ways. I learned firsthand what a beautiful single mother’s sacrifices for a son were, because my mother made those sacrifices for me. She gave me valuable treasures of life that I still hold precious. There was a seed planted in me when I was a very young person – that there’s a certain, I don’t want to say obligation, but it’s almost a calling, to help others. To help people who are less fortunate and more vulnerable to the hardships of life, is tremendously satisfying.
LD: What was your experience like going to Georgetown Law School, in the heart of D.C.?
SY: Fascinating. I was able to attend much of the Watergate hearings that resulted in President Nixon resigning from office. I used to spend as much time as I could between classes and working in the Senate to sit in on the oral arguments before the Supreme Court. I was always amazed I could actually watch the highest court in the land and see legal history being made. Carved in stone above its entrance are four words I’ll never forget: “Equal Justice Under Law.” Those four words apply not only to minority rights, different religions, different genders, the gay community, and others who too often face denial of equal protection; those four words should apply to every human being living in our great democracy. It rings true in terms of people addressing wrongdoing, it rings true in terms of minority rights, which we’ve seen horrifically violated just recently on a video that would make any normal person sick to watch. Regardless of political persuasion or color of skin, the idea of equality needs to come to the forefront. It is our commonality as human beings and our shared belief in a guiding principle that each and every person is entitled to fair and just treatment.
LD: You had a big win early on in your career with the Skyway Bridge case. When you look at the world today, it’s really difficult to imagine a time when the safety of our bridges was so much in question.
SY: No one thought I would win that case except maybe my mom, and I think even she had her doubts. I was a very young lawyer, and I decided to use an “Act of God” defense to the charges against Capt. John Lerro, meaning nothing humanly possible could have been done to change the course of events or the outcome that occurred. I did not have a whole lot of options. I mean, most people readily assume that bridges don’t jump in front of ships.
it was an extremely difficult case particularly because 35 innocent people had died, and virtually everyone was looking for a scapegoat. Despite the disaster and how easily this poorly constructed, unprotected bridge collapsed, the State of Florida wanted to rebuild the bridge as it was, as if nothing happened. It was cheaper, easier, and less time consuming to simply repair and rebuild the damaged bridge. But to do that was also very unsafe. We strongly opposed this approach and, thankfully, were joined by many others in insisting that out of that tragedy would be born real change. This was the early ‘80s, and unsafe, unprotected bridges were commonplace.
We urged that a new Skyway Bridge be built, designed with an emphasis on real protections for the bridge structure, not only for the welfare of mariners, but also for those in the vehicles that traveled across the span above the water’s surface. We wanted a new bridge that could withstand the worst of weather conditions and still allow safe travel. As a result, under the leadership of Governor Bob Graham, his successor, Governor Bob Martinez, and with the support of many concerned citizens, the old bridges were both replaced. Finally, in 1987, a spectacular and very safe $200M bridge that closely resembles a smaller version of the Golden Gate in San Francisco, was built. The template of the new Sunshine Skyway has since been used to build hundreds of safer and better protected bridges throughout the United States, and in other parts of the world, as well. It began a sea change, if you will, in the maritime construction of protected bridges that prioritize safety rather than cost.
LD: Did you have any sense of how broad an impact this case would have on bridge safety when you were trying it?
SY: I can’t say that I did. I was 30 years old when I tried that case. I was totally immersed in defending Capt. Lerro. Frankly, at the time, I don’t think I realized the case was being tried on a world stage. I had friends from law school calling me from around the world, because a lot of them were in the foreign service and stationed in distant embassies, saying, “Hey, I saw you on CNN. You had a two-and-a-half minute spot.” That spot was on like five rotating news cycles in one 24-hour period. That’s a lot of air-time and I did not fully appreciate its impact. However, I vividly recall that during the trial, I was receiving death threats, from people who thought I was on the wrong side of things and represented a “murderer,” at least according to some of the threats I received.
LD: Death threats will make you think twice…
SY: I did a lot more than think twice. But I kept remembering that old saying, a coward dies a thousand times, but a brave person dies just once. I wasn’t a brave person, but I’m not a coward, either. Still, I was plenty concerned ….
I just didn’t realize it was such a big case. If I had more fully appreciated its magnitude or the widespread publicity it was generating, perhaps I would have acted differently. But I put everything I had into that case, personally, emotionally, and otherwise. I really believed in the client and always felt we had a chance to win.
LD: Is that important to which cases you take on? Believing in the case, the client?
SY: Absolutely. I’ve always tried to use that criteria in accepting any case. I don’t think I can effectively represent a client until I walk in their shoes and believe in their cause. I need to connect with a client, feel their pain, feel their loss, and believe it is a cause that should prevail, because too often in our society, that just doesn’t happen.
A few years back, I wrote a book titled When Justice Prevails, about eight cases I had taken to trial. The publisher in New York had wanted me to title it, Justice Prevails, but I resisted. I recall saying to her, “You’ve got to put the word ‘When’ before the ‘Justice Prevails.’” This publisher was a wonderful lady, and she said, “What do you mean?” I explained that, too many times, the win goes to the powerful and the rich. Their money and station in life can make a difference in the outcome. Those most vulnerable – children, seniors, minorities – just don’t have the same ability to obtain “equal” justice. It is simply not a level playing field, and our system of justice doesn’t always work for those people who most deserve it. We have a long history of injustice in this country. Seeking justice doesn’t always mean getting it. There is a constant struggle to get the “rightful” outcome.
LD: You seem to be a person who takes on a battle that then turns out to be a war. I have a vague recollection of people smoking inside restaurants when I was young, but it’s really hard to wrap my head around how different the world looked before you and Florida’s Dream Team aimed your slingshot at Big Tobacco.
SY: That was a case that logic and reason would tell me I should never have become involved in.
LD: The odds were against you, to put it lightly.
SY: It was the mid-‘90s, and since the early 1950s, Big Tobacco had not lost a case. The cigarette cartel had never paid a dime for the horrific damage and deaths it caused over all those many years. We were taking on an unbeaten foe, with billions of dollars’ worth of power, and represented by the best law firms money could buy. The cigarette cartel also had an ability to put on massive advertising and public relations campaigns and wage war on their own favorable terms in the court of public opinion.
I vividly recall traveling to L.A. and taking the deposition of the top advertising executive for the cigarette industry. I learned Big Tobacco spent $2B a year just in advertising. Then through our litigation, we uncovered the “smoking gun” documents that revealed, in shocking detail, evidence of outright lies and how the industry had targeted our youth for decades. I understood the frightening effectiveness of that approach because children 12 and 13 simply do not know how to make adult decisions. Then, once such an immature decision to smoke is made, these young people become physically hooked on a very highly addictive substance like nicotine, and what happens? They lose their ability to choose as they grow, because addicts don’t have a choice.
In effect, Big Tobacco was creating a population of new consumers to replace the 400,000 people dying every year, by using a legal product, which, if taken as directed, causes sickness and death.
Both my mother and my father died prematurely of smoking-related illnesses. My dad got hooked during World War II. Lucky Strike cigarettes were actually included in his rations, when he was fighting for our country in the Pacific Theater.
So I had both a personal agenda as well as a societal one. But as a trial lawyer, it would have taken some borderline insanity to take that case on. Still, it took me all of five seconds to commit to being on the team, even knowing the odds were almost impossible. Of course, I needed the right mental approach. I recall a story told to me that exemplifies that type of attitude. Fate whispered to the warrior, “You cannot withstand the storm.” The warrior whispered back, “I am the storm.”
I was 45 years old, and I had been blessed with a remarkably successful career up to that point. Financially, I was very well off – better than I ever thought I would have been in my lifetime. But I virtually invested all of those things that I had obtained back into this case, and then some. By the time we were doing jury selection at the trial, I had no resources or assets left except the home I lived in.
LD: No pressure…
SY: It got worse. The bank had already loaned me several million dollars, but as we approached trial after several years of protracted litigation, I needed more money. I had already pledged all the firm’s assets, sold off my stock and whatever else I could liquidate, but I still needed to get another $600,000 to get me through the trial. But the bank wanted more collateral. I said, “I’ve given you all the collateral I have.” When it became clear the bank was not going to give me the loan, I pleaded with the loan officers, “I’m just talking about a transitional loan. Six to eight weeks. Just let me get through this trial.”
Their response? “We’ll think about it.” I said, “Think about this,” and put the deed to my house on the conference room table. I thought it was worth betting my own home on this case. I was desperately trying to keep the firm afloat, keep my personal life afloat, and stay in the war.
On Tuesday during the third week of jury selection, we were approached by the defense team and told Big Tobacco wanted to make an offer.
Being the low man of the three lawyers picking the jury, while we were in the courtroom I was assigned the task of dealing with settlement offers, something none of us were taking seriously. In any event, within a short time, the defense lawyer said “we will pay $4 million to settle the case” . . . at least that’s what I thought he said. I went off on him. “Are you crazy? That kind of offer after all we’ve done in all these years of litigation, and the millions of documents and the hundreds of depositions? You offer that kind of money? That’s an insult!”
The lawyer, who was actually a very good person, looked stunned. He seemed to struggle before replying, “Well, I really don’t know how you call 4 billion dollars an insult.”
Now I need to back up and tell you that I had represented Van Halen back in the ‘80s when they did a Florida tour. During a practice session, I stood too close to one of those giant speakers and blew out my right eardrum. My hearing has not been good since. I had heard “million” but that “m” was actually a “b.” He had said $4 billion.
Finally realizing what had been said, I tried my best to recover without appearing to be a total buffoon. “Well, I’m not saying four billion is chump change. All I’m saying is under the circumstances and at this late stage, it’s kind of insulting.”
LD: Oh my gosh!! I would not have been able to keep my cool.
SY: I wasn’t being cool, I was numb. I remember what I was thinking inside: “Sweet Jesus, the cigarette industry has never offered or paid a dime and they just offered us four billion dollars.” That evening we met for a dinner conference back at our hotel in Palm Beach. I said to Lawton Chiles, “Governor, they offered four billion dollars today.” He thought about it before replying. Attorney General Bob Butterworth was there. The Solicitor General was there. There were about four or five other team members there, sitting around a circular dinner table. Lawton asked, “What do you think?”
I will always believe he was looking my way when he asked the question, but sitting right next to me was Bob Montgomery, who was the trial team leader and our “first chair.” Before I could say a word, Bob answered loudly, “Turn it down Governor, we can get more.”
Bob was like my big brother and one of the best lawyers I have ever known. He was also one of my closest friends until the day he died. I truly admired and loved him. Still, I almost lost my dinner on the nice white tablecloth when those words came out. But what was I supposed to say? I was next. “What do you think, Steve?” I swallowed hard but what in the hell could I say? Finally, I got the words out. “Well. . . I agree with Bob.”
That night, I did not even come close to sleeping. Not a wink. I was so nervous my guts were churning and upside down. Everything I had was on the line. I kept thinking over and over, “After all the years and spent money we were almost down to eating our horses and we just turned down billions.”
The next morning I came in just before the trial resumed. The defense lawyer came up to me and quickly said, “Mr. Moss,” who was the lead attorney on the defense team, “wants to know what to tell our clients.” I said, “Tell him we turn it down.” He looked almost as stunned as I had the day before. “What’s the counter-offer?” was his reply. I said, “There is none.” My stomach was now in my throat.
We got back from lunch and sat at counsel table waiting for the judge to enter and the trial to resume. The same lawyer comes over to me and says, “5 billion.” In that instant, every muscle in my body relaxed. All that pressure evaporated because turning down $4 billion no longer mattered. Right then I knew things were going to go the right way. We turned that offer down as well.
The next day, it was 6 billion, then seven, then eight. Then, the end of the week came, and Joe Rice, the real negotiator on our team, worked his magic. By Sunday night, Joe had the offer close to $12 billion. We took it! Additionally, we ended up also getting Big Tobacco to pay our attorneys’ fees, which were in the billions as well.
LD: That’s incredible.
SY: More important than the money, of course, were all the changes that were put in place. Joe Camel was eliminated, the Marlboro men were retired, the Virginia Slim girls were gone. Billboards and vending machines were removed from around the country, sponsorship of sporting events was over, advertising to children was prohibited. Joe also got an MFN, or Most Favored Nation clause, in the final settlement agreement. That meant, whatever our deal was, if Big Tobacco subsequently settled with any other state, that state also got the benefit of all of our non-monetary concessions and unprecedented restrictions on cigarette advertising.
LD: Florida started the Truth Campaign through that settlement, correct?
SY: That’s right, under our settlement the cigarette cartel was required to pay for the Truth Campaign and establish a “model” youth tobacco prevention program that ultimately was put in place nationwide. It was, and still is, a massive effort designed to alert our young people to the dangers of a horrific addiction before they ever get hooked.
LD: This is the type of generational impact that, if you didn’t live in the world before this change occurred, it’s genuinely difficult to imagine it, because it seems so foreign. It seems like make-believe that people used to smoke on airplanes, for example.
SY: Airplanes, buses, trains, restaurants, bars, office buildings, public facilities. It was a different world. These days, even outside areas are getting cleaned up, with smoke-free zones in parks and recreational areas becoming the norm, at least in our country. Smoking rates have plunged and I’m extremely grateful to know that I had a small part in all of that.
LD: Worth betting the deed to your house on it, then?
SY: Without a doubt. It changed my life and the lives of many others. I believe a basic fundamental secret about success in representing any client, is to expend the time and effort that are required in each and every case. You have to give your all and your very best effort and then reach down even further and give more. Regardless of what type of case that is being tried, that’s a constant truth I’ve done my best to live by.
You don’t make a difference by taking bad cases to trial, or by taking bad clients that are undeserving to trial. You make a difference by taking on good causes that should be the law of the land, and representing good people who deserve justice. You take those people and those cases to trial, and most often, our system can deliver justice.
LD: You were also appointed Special Counsel to the Governor of Florida in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. Can you tell us a bit about that?
SY: I was really offended and angry by what happened. I love nature, particularly our oceans. I probably spend more time these days on the water than I spend on land. Every time I saw the video footage of that oil plume pouring into the pristine Gulf of Mexico, I became more and more angry. I wanted to do something about it and being appointed Special Counsel gave me that opportunity. I was honored to do the job for my fellow Floridians pro bono. I was fortunate to travel to Washington for the initial Senate Committee hearings on the horrific catastrophe and the questioning of the CEOs responsible for the environmental tragedy and work on the case for the rest of that long year.
It was not easy, but ultimately BP and Halliburton accepted responsibility and paid billions in reparations.
Subsequently, I was asked to represent the City of Tampa by its outstanding Mayor Bob Buckhorn. That was the only private case I took regarding the spill. I wanted to do that because I love my city, and I love the people in it. I was truly honored to help. Ultimately, we were paid $27M by BP, the largest settlement obtained by any city in the country.
LD: What were some of the challenges you faced there?
SY: Well, we didn’t have a drop of oil on any of Tampa Bay’s beaches for one. I had to overcome that undisputed fact before we could even get to first base. Fortunately, I was able to work with the University of South Florida and their talented scientists and experts. On the bottom of the Gulf, just off the Tampa Bay coast, we found “DNA” evidence of the exact contaminant that had been used by BP as a dispersant to sink the oil off of the water’s surface right after the spill. Kind of out of sight out of mind, BP wanted to sink that miles-wide slick of oil to the bottom of our Gulf of Mexico. Ultimately, BP was finally convinced that the better course of action would be to settle the case.
As a result, Mayor Buckhorn fulfilled his promise that any money recovered from BP would be used to directly help and better provide our communities with cultural and recreational resources. Money was put into public works, things that make a difference in the lives of many people. For children who can’t afford swimming pools, or playgrounds, the city started putting in more public pools, better parks, amusement facilities, things like that, especially in underserved areas.
LD: What an excellent use of that money.
SY: That was the mayor’s vision and true to his word, that is exactly how he used Tampa’s settlement. From those types of tragic cases, we should figure out that the next generation doesn’t deserve to pay the huge price for our mistakes. We’ve got to work and act not just for ourselves but for those who follow us. That includes global warming, pollution of our air, our seas and in general, the poisoning of our planet. To me, the oceans are the lifeblood of our world, and their waters have been exploited and violated beyond belief. I care deeply about these issues. I was able to kick into another gear because I believe so strongly in doing something about it.
LD: What cases are keeping you busy these days?
SY: We are just finishing a case involving the Las Vegas shooting. We represent a husband and wife, both L.A. Deputy Sheriffs, who were on vacation and attending the concert when the mass shooting started. Recognizing the noise as gunshots rather than fireworks, each helped get people to safety before she was severely wounded. Fortunately, both survived. All of these cases brought by the survivors, as well as the decedents’ representatives, recently settled for $800M. That settlement is being implemented as we speak.
A big focus of mine concerns the safety and welfare of student athletes. Three out of four of my last student-athlete cases were wrongful death actions. The one young man who survived, suffered some brain injury, but was fortunate enough to keep his life. The other three, all young African American men, paid the ultimate price. They died.
LD: From brain injuries?
SY: No. The high school student that lived, Sean McNamee, was the only one who had a brain injury. He suffered a very bad skull fracture at a football practice when he struck his head on a piece of mechanical equipment that had been wrongfully left on the field. Working with the local school board, we were able to establish and implement protocols for head injuries, concussions or suspected brain injuries, for student athletes. Fortunately, we got Hillsborough County to step up in that case. I believe it’s the only one of 67 counties in Florida to put in place a million dollars of coverage instead of taking refuge under the statutory sovereign immunity cap that limits any and all damages to $300,000. The school board also agreed to support the passage of a special “claims bill” into Florida law, and we ultimately recovered more than $2M for Sean. That was four years ago. In addition to the monetary settlement, extensive protocols patterned after NFL and college programs were implemented. Named after Sean, the “McNamee Protocols” have already demonstrated remarkable effectiveness and, as a result, we have not had any significant head injuries since.
Another football player, an outstanding college student athlete and academic student named Ted Agu, was not as fortunate. He died an unnecessary and tragic death when his sickle cell trait activated due to an excessively hard conditioning drill. I asked Brian Panish, a close friend and an outstanding trial lawyer who practices in L.A., to work the case with me. Together, we sued University of California at Berkeley. We settled that case, as well. A comprehensive protocol specifically designed to safeguard the welfare of sickle cell trait athletes was put into place at all 11 University of California campuses. It is known as the “Agu Protocol.” In addition, Cal paid his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Agu, $4.75M in damages. Fortunately, the University of California elected to do the right thing.
Our first student athlete case was a few years back. It involved the death of a 19-year-old student athlete named Ereck Plancher. He was an outstanding student and a wide receiver for University of Central Florida [UCF]. At an unreasonably harsh football “conditioning drill,” he suffered a long and painful death as his sickle cell trait [SCT] activated and his organs slowly shut down. The real tragic part of that case was that Ereck had the SCT and the coaches knew it but still afforded him no appropriate treatment during the entire session as he struggled for his life. After a 3-week trial in Orlando, we obtained a $10M jury verdict against the University of Central Florida Athletic Association [UCFAA]. After the trial was over, UCFAA hid behind the protection of sovereign immunity and asserted the $10M jury verdict was only worth $300,000 because that’s all the Florida law would allow us to collect against the sovereign. Frankly, the conduct of UCF – one of Florida’s public colleges and the second-largest university in the county – was disgraceful from start to finish. UCF argued that its private football entity was simply part of the sovereign’s “public college,” which I still to this day don’t agree with. But that’s what the Florida Supreme Court ultimately held. Their private corporate entity, UCFAA, that UCF formed so they could do things that the public entity could not, was still a part of it all and sovereign immunity was applied. As a result, the jury’s verdict was rendered almost meaningless. Ultimately, we settled the case just before Ereck’s father passed away from cancer.
Our most recent case earlier this year involved the death of Hezekiah Walters, a 14-year-old high school student. A young man with no previous football experience, Heze wanted to be a football player just like his dad. Heze was in his second conditioning practice and quite literally, was run to death.
With Hezekiah’s death, we didn’t have to struggle against sovereign immunity anymore, by virtue of the work we did in the McNamee case and the $1M liability coverage the Hillsborough County School Board had previously put into place because of Sean’s case several years before. Additionally, the “Hezekiah Walter’s Protocols” have been implemented, and now provide very extensive preventative procedures that cover both heat and cardiac scenarios.
Because of our work in this area, we were able to not only effectuate change, but within a relatively short period of time from the McNamee case, we were able to benefit from the changes made as a direct result of that prior case. Now, hopefully, because of Heze’s case, heat stroke and cardiac events will also become nonexistent or, at least, very few in number because of the protocols being utilized. In other words, we’re putting in proactive measures versus reactive measures and we are confident that approach will save lives.
LD: That’s what real change is made of. It’s incredible how large the impact of some of your cases has been. At this point in your career, with the track record you have, you must get approached an incredible amount. How do you decide which cases to take on? Do you go for the ones that will have the widest impact?
SY: I don’t just limit our firm’s cases to those that are impactful to broader societal issues. I’m still selective, but I am also moved by matters of the heart. Sometimes massive change can occur within the world of one individual family. If I see a family that’s wrongfully lost their patriarch, matriarch, or worst of all, parents who have lost a child, I may take that case on. Even though it may concern only that one family, it affects them in a life-changing way. To me, there’s no worse human emotion, nothing more unnatural, than parents burying their own child. It’s the most horrific experience I have ever seen in my career. Helping that family actually is societal change because it impacts this family’s role in society itself. Of course, it also changes me forever, each time I can get justice for a family that has experienced tragic loss as a result of wrongdoing.
Every member of our firm is dedicated to that approach, that same concept. We don’t have a large volume of cases. We purposely have a very limited number of clients because we want clients to know us and we want to really know each of them. When people call, we want to know their faces. We want to know their story. They’re not just a file number. They’re people we care about. That makes a huge difference, not only at our end, but at the other end as well because we make sure each client knows that they’re as important to us as anyone else we represent, whether it’s a CEO or a blue collar worker. We’ve represented some very high-profile people, and others who were at the other end of the spectrum. “Equal Justice Under Law” is something we not only honor, we live by it.
LD: Everyone at your firm has their heart in the work.
SY: They have their hearts, skills, and their best efforts invested in not only the clients, but in the cause as well. People know we don’t shy away from a gun fight. We don’t care who or how many are swinging guns on the other side.
LD: Is it a tight-knit group?
SY: Very much so. Our firm is best described as a professional family. That says it all. We try to treat our lawyers, our staff, our clerks, and our runners, virtually everyone, in the same exact fashion as we want to be treated by a family member: with compassion, with understanding, and with respect. If someone tells me they’ve got to have time off, I don’t have to worry about trusting whether their reason is justified. I know and I don’t have to ask. That level of trust is reciprocal. When I ask somebody to do something, there’s no question that it’s going to get done, and get done right.
That level of trust, that level of caring, not just for clients, but for each other, allows us to operate as a true boutique trial firm. When we take on a case, we may only have six trial lawyers in the firm, but every lawyer and staff member in our office is in support of that particular case no matter which lawyer is involved. We can take on the biggest corporations employing the largest of law firms and still not be at a disadvantage, at least in my mind, because we have some very skilled, well-trained, extremely motivated trial lawyers, paralegals, secretaries, and staff. All of them know what war is like in a courtroom because we have been to war a lot. Even the largest of firms have surprisingly few of those I would consider to be real courtroom lawyers.
LD: Has it been a difficult transition to work remotely during the pandemic?
SY: Yes, it has been both challenging and very different. But there really isn’t a choice. We were one of the first firms to go to virtual operations and put our people in safe places. Keeping everyone healthy is our top priority during this pandemic.
LD: Is retirement on your radar? Is it something you think about?
SY: Absolutely. I think about other people who have retired from this great life that I enjoy, and I feel sorry for them.
LD: Ah! So you’re not slowing down.
SY: I still feel I am in my prime. When, and only when, I believe clients are no longer getting my best — that is the only scenario under which I would consider retirement. Frankly, if I came back and got a second chance with another life, I’d want to come back as a trial lawyer. I have found it to be the most effective way to help others that I can imagine. To me, trial lawyers are a special breed. Jury trial lawyers are able to do things in our democracy that the government hasn’t been able to do, and politicians won’t do. Bad bridges were being built, cigarette cartels were running rampant. It is often the trial lawyers that make our world better and safer. Lawyers put air bags in vehicles, as well as seatbelts, and truthful warning labels on consumer products. Lawyers caught and stopped exploding gas tanks in cars, like the Ford Pinto. The list of the great things trial lawyers have done is endless.
Trial lawyers are my heroes. They were my heroes long before I ever became one.
LD: You talked about the influence your mom had on your chosen profession. Can we chat about your dad a bit? He had an interesting background, from what I understand.
SY: My dad had been an undefeated heavyweight boxer when he was stationed in the Pacific during World War II. He taught me to box at a very young age. Taught me how to fight for things in a lot of ways actually. He also taught me something else that was very important. When I was quite young, he said to me: “No matter the odds, no matter the outcome, you need to fight with all your might when you believe in something. When life knocks you down, always get up and keep fighting. Never stay down and never give up.” He ingrained that attitude deep into my being.
As a young man, I used that approach in the boxing ring and later transposed it into the practice of law, as well. Fight with everything you have in you for what’s right. If you do that, and you come up empty or short, it’s just an interim situation. Keep getting up, and ultimately one day you won’t get knocked down. Knocked down six times, get up seven. That’s what I was taught, and it has served me well.
I’ve been fortunate not to lose a lot of cases, but I certainly know the taste of defeat. I have found that I’ve actually learned more from the losses than the wins. I also learned that I really can’t accept loss. I just can’t. I don’t have that DNA. I want to win for my clients as much as I want my next breath, and I can tolerate the loss only if I can truthfully say that, “I gave it everything I had and I could not have tried harder.” True in the ring, the courtroom, and in life.
LD: Hang on, back up. You had a boxing career, too? Did that coincide with your legal career, or…
SY: No, no, no. That was all when I was young and I really enjoyed being an amateur boxer. I was 17-0, but the 17th fight was not pretty and I almost got destroyed. I won because of a lucky punch. I looked in the mirror after that fight and realized it was time to quit, and try to keep whatever looks I had. So at the ripe age of 18 years old, I retired.
LD: Do you miss the sport at all?
SY: I still work out some and do a little sparring, but now fight in a different way. In 2000, George Steinbrenner, a close friend and someone I greatly admired, allowed me to co-chair the Olympic boxing qualifiers in Tampa. Since then, I’ve been helping brain-damaged boxers. I also promoted a couple of world championship fights that were televised internationally on HBO, and gave my promoter’s fee to charity. Muhammad Ali’s doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, became a good personal friend, and so did Ali’s long-time trainer, Angelo Dundee. Because of the various ways I had been involved in the boxing world, they were kind enough to nominate me for induction into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame, and I was fortunate to be elected back in 2011.
LD: Very cool! Your dad would be so proud. And I know that Gable, the older of your two sons, has followed in your legal footsteps and is now working alongside you at the firm. Does your younger son have any aspirations towards the law?
SY: I really don’t know. That will be his decision. Right now, my son Mason is in high school and almost 17 years old. I am slightly biased but he is super smart and loves the world of modern technology. He has a true talent when it comes to computers and is a software and programming whiz. Mason is extremely proficient in that emerging new world and incredibly literate in it. Recently, he built his own computer and continues to amaze me with his skills.
SY: Yes, recently I asked him if he wanted to be a lawyer, and he said, “No, Dad, I love what I’m doing.” Maybe he’s already found his niche, because he’s got a unique skill set but who knows? I am confident he will find success and happiness in whatever path he chooses. Most important, he also has a great heart.
LD: How did Gable come to the law?
SY: He had a horrific car accident when he was 16. He learned a lot, and grew a lot from that tragic event. His life was spared; the other person wasn’t as fortunate. He’s seen death up close and personal and it had a profound effect on him. He learned the value of giving back, and it’s been a focus of his life ever since. I could not be more proud of him or love both my sons more.
LD: If you had to sum up your philosophy or approach to the work, or more broadly to life, what would that sound like?
SY: Are you asking me the secret to life? I’ll tell you what was once told to me.
LD: Tell me! I’m ready.
SY: The first secret was given to me by an old man on a plane many years ago.
At that time I was spiritually lost and looking for direction. I had just won another big case and had gone to New York and partied through a wild weekend. I was flying back home, not in the mood to talk to anybody. This old man sat down next to me. I thought he was about 60, maybe 70 years old.
He was determined to strike up a conversation. “What brought you to New York?” he asked. I really didn’t want to talk to him, but I had no choice. “Oh, I just won a big case and I was in the Big Apple letting off steam, and having a good time. What brought you to New York, sir?”
“You don’t need to call me sir. My name is Stephanos,” (which is Greek for Steven, which I thought was ironic). Then he said, “I was in New York to bury my last son.”
I stuttered, “What do you mean your last son? Was it some kind of accident? Health problem?” He replied, “No, he lived to a very good old age. He was 77.”
I said, “Excuse me?” He politely repeated, “He was 77.” I said, “May I ask how old you are?” He said, “I’ll be a hundred, next month.”
LD: Oh wow!
SY: It was hard to grasp. I said, “You’ve lived through the Wright Brothers, World War I, Babe Ruth, Lindbergh, World War II, Sputnik, a man in space and then on the moon. You’ve lived through an incredible span of life. If you had to impart one lesson, one only, to someone who was maybe lost and trying hard to find the way home, what would you tell them?”
The old man gave me what I’m going to give you. He didn’t hesitate. He said, “That’s easy, Steve. You look for the good in people, and the good in things. If you look hard enough, you’ll rarely be disappointed.” I have tried to live by that approach. It has been proven true time and time again.
The second lesson I’ve learned by simply living life is “Giving is better than getting.” That’s it. You could put that on my tombstone, “He tried as hard as he could, looked for the best in things and people. He learned that living life to the fullest was about giving rather than getting.” To me, that would summarize a life well-lived.
LD: I would argue that we might want to mention some of the ways you’ve made a profound difference in the lives of individuals and families, and saved countless lives by shoring up safety procedures across a variety of industries….
SY: All right, ok, you can add an asterisk: “Some people thought he made a difference.” But I want to make it clear: I have never really had success without the help of others.
In fact, I have rarely done much of anything good without the help of others. However, when I failed, I could look around and see that I was able to fail all by myself. I learned early on that to call upon others is not a weakness, it’s a strength. Fortunately, many of the people that came into my life from the beginning, up until today, have been those who are willing to help and inspire me to be a better person. I believe we must always seek to better ourselves as well as others. To make a difference in life in a positive way and be as impactful as possible. To me, that’s what it’s all about.