In 2011, the Florida Bar gave Robert Kerrigan the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, the state's highest pro bono honor. Kerrigan, who founded Kerrigan, Estess, Rankin, McLeod & Thompson in 1975 after a few years in criminal defense work, is well known for a career of multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements on behalf of injured plaintiffs. He was part of the "dream team" of attorneys that earned a $13 billion settlement with the Tobacco industry for the state of Florida.
Among his public interest efforts, Kerrigan and his firm established the Helping Hands Legal Aid Center to provide legal services to Pensacola's disadvantaged population, and he also endowed the Center for Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University.
Lawdragon: How valuable was your time in the public defender's office at the start of your legal career?
Robert Kerrigan: Working in the public defender's office taught me to cross-examine. You have to try cases to learn that skill. Another interesting thing I learned was that even people who wear uniforms lie.
LD: After being in private practice for a few years, why did you make the switch from criminal defense to plaintiffs' work?
RK: I found that asking for money was a lot less stressful than asking for mercy (and a lot more successful).
LD: Was there a case early in your career that you feel helped establish you and the firm in the personal injury litigation field?
RK: My law partner George Estess and I tried a case in Panama City, Florida, in the early 1980s just after Florida adopted comparative fault. It was a very difficult liability case with big damages. When I saw one of the defense lawyers almost faint when the verdict was read, I knew we could do it. Normally that was the reaction of my criminal clients when a verdict was read.
LD: Before the settlement was reached, how difficult was the tobacco litigation for your firm given the resources of your opponent?
RK: We were given no chance when it started. Many of the best lawyers in Florida turned down the tobacco litigation before I was asked to be involved. I was so excited to be on the Dream Team; I never saw the nightmare ahead. Tobacco had some of the best lawyers in the country, but we had some of the best in Florida and that proved to make a fair fight.
LD: What led you to want to create the Helping Hands Legal Aid Center?
RK: How can any lawyer with the power to change things for the better for those who are helpless to do so not be motivated to lend a hand? It's the high calling of our profession. My partners helped foot the bill but I received all the credit, which was very nice for me.
LD: In addition to your public interest work in the community, how did you also come to take an interest in international human rights issues?
RK: I owe that exposure to Mike Posner of the then Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and Sandy D'Alemberte, former ABA President, who introduced me to the power of the Alien Tort Statute and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to bring very bad people to U.S. civil justice. It's not the money for the families of these victims inflicted by horrors in other countries, but the cross-examination of generals and big shots, who were theretofore above questioning, humbled by relentless probing questioning that thrills the surviving families beyond description.
LD: Can you explain what went into your decision to provide the funding for the human rights center at Florida State University?
RK: If we can make Human Rights education a broad-based multidisciplinary study, the students will be more effective in addressing human rights violations, whether here or somewhere else. I visited some human rights centers that were trapped into obscurity in other universities because they were within the law schools. The FSU center is an independent center that works with the law school, not within the law school. The endowment agreement requires it to remain independent and it has achieved great success because of that multidisciplinary structure. Human Rights is a far broader concept than international and domestic law.
LD: Can you describe for our readers a few of the civil cases you've litigated in the international human rights arena? Are any of these cases now pending?
RK: I am involved in others that are ongoing, but there are two of note that are now completed - the Churchwomen's case arising from the murder of Maryknoll nuns in El Salvador in 1981 and the Cabello case arising from the deaths of young intellectuals following the death (likely murder) of president Salvador Allende in Chile. These were later to be known as the Caravan of Death murders ordered by Pinochet. These two cases highlighted the difficulty of proving command responsibility and vicarious liability for human rights violations. I tried the Churchwomen's case with the late Bob Montgomery of Palm Beach, Florida, with the help of the Center for Justice and Accountability in California. The Cabello case was tried in Miami with Leo Cunningham from Wilson Sonsini in Palo Alto, California. Both are reported from the Eleventh Circuit.
LD: What was your reaction when you learned you would be the recipient of the state's highest pro bono award?
RK: I was stunned. Many lawyers I didn't know joined with a few I knew to do one of the nicest things lawyers can do for another lawyer. So many lawyers in Florida and in this country do good things for others every day. I think the reason we have all the lawyer jokes is it helps the tellers with their guilt for doing less than we all can do to help our fellow man. When I received the letter from Chief Justice Charles Canady notifying me of the award, I was moved to commit to attempt to live up to the honor. In the court that day I felt the awe inspiring power of the rule of law differently than I had in the past. It was an affirmation of our flag pledge that our bar and the courts assure the commitment of liberty and justice for all.
Lawyers are necessary to curb the excesses of our common human nature. The rule of law is only as good as the advocates that demand it. Some people who want for themselves regardless of the negative impact on others don't like lawyers to get in their way. But, we are sworn to get in their way to protect those who do not have the power to do it on their own.