It's not surprising that Tampa-based attorney Steve Yerrid has found himself in the middle of the legal response to the Gulf Coast oil spill. Yerrid has won record-setting verdicts, accumulated a countless number of million-dollar verdicts and settlements and was a vital member of the "Dream Team" that guided the state of Florida to its $11-billion settlement with the Tobacco industry.
For these reasons, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist selected Yerrid as his special counsel to advise the state on all efforts "to secure justice for the people of Florida in relation to the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill." (You can read Crist's letter to Yerrid here. You can also read our 2007 feature story on Yerrid's record $217-million medical malpractice verdict.)
The oil spill is a personal matter for Yerrid, an avid fisherman who spends as much of his free time as possible on the water. He also suffered a personal loss shortly before talking to Lawdragon with the passing of his friend, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Lawdragon: First off, how did you get involved in the oil spill issues for Florida, and what is your role as special counsel?
Steve Yerrid: I think when the governor reaches out to the private sector, it's recognizing that private trial lawyers bring another component not necessarily possessed by the government. We're kind of a different breed of cat. Gov. Crist knows that BP will have the best legal talent money can buy, so what we bring is parity. He asked me if I wanted to help, and of course I said I would help the state of Florida in any way possible.
Since the spill we've been in constant communications and are looking at all of our options. The priority of course is stopping the spill, mitigating the effects and making sure the state of Florida has a voice in any steps taken to make sure this doesn't happen again. This is a generational crisis with catastrophic consequences. We are providing advice on federal, state and environmental levels "on all developments as they occur " coordinating with various officials in the state of Florida. This is truly a team effort.
LD: Where does litigation fit into all of this?
SY: Any good trial lawyer knows that, while litigation is often the only means of resolving something, it is the last resort. Look at the Exxon Valdez case with 20-years-plus of litigation; that probably doesn't serve anyone's best interest. BP has at least demonstrated a desire to take some steps toward resolution. The posting of the $20-billion claims fund was the first positive thing they did since the wrongdoing occurred.
LD: How do you begin to think about a dollar amount for liability?
SY: It's clearly going to be an enormous sum, given that the damage is enormous. Obviously we do not want to bankrupt or threaten the existence of BP; we want them to make reparations, and of course they are not the only parties we are looking at. The dust hasn't even settled yet. But the important thing is that the $20-billion fund put up by BP is not capped - that's just a number to demonstrate good faith. This is a multi-billion dollar scenario and a long-term problem that will go into the next governor's term. We are keeping all options open and reserving causes of action.
LD: Did you know Gov. Crist before this?
SY: I've know him for years and respect him, and I've always had good relations with him. I've always felt he was more of a populist governor. Gov. Crist is the type of person who will listen to a maintenance man and a CEO and give both of them the same amount of time and consideration. He's a thoughtful and caring person, and I'm honored to work with him on this.
And I'm hoping at some point that maybe governors from the other states will put together trial lawyers from the private sector, and we can also work with them. At this point, we're the only state. We were on the frontier for the tobacco litigation so it doesn't surprise me we're on the frontier again.
LD: Why did you agree to do this pro bono?
SY: I have spent a huge amount of time since the spill on this, a large personal investment in addition to the professional time. It's something that had to be done. There was no hesitation. If I didn't believe that this governor was genuinely interested in protecting all of the people of Florida and willing to take a stand, it may have been more difficult to step forward. But there was no hesitation. I've been very fortunate in my career. It's not just me, I've been assembling the best trial lawyers and maritime lawyers in Florida, which in my opinion means the best in the United States, because I feel we have the best of the best here.
The call of service is something you can either answer or not answer. Much of the time - and there is not always a lot of awareness about this - but much of the time trial lawyers do answer that call and do a lot of good things. When it's something you love - and I love the law and helping Florida - then it's not really work. I have always said that if I came back in another life, I'd want to be a trial lawyer and to live by the sea. If we do good on this, then our good will have an impact for a long time. We don't have an option. There is no excuse for failure. We have to help Florida and prevent this from happening again.
LD: Your passion for the water must play into this.
SY: If there's a good thing to this it's that we're now looking at the whole off-shore deep-water drilling process and the horrible consequences it can have. As a trial lawyer I always say it's a damn shame that people have to get killed at an intersection before we realize that a stop-light should be there. This is a huge human tragedy, with loss of 11 men, the damage to the wildlife, the sea life, the ecological destruction and frankly the anxiety of it all.
Honest to God this has been horrible for people here. People are frightened for the environment, for the economy, for their way of life. People are married to the sea; it's not just a job. You know my background, as someone who lives on the water it's personally very troubling. It is producing a lot of anxiety, a lot of anger, and a lot of pressure - we have got to make it right, and we can't rely on BP.
LD: To switch gears, I know that George Steinbrenner was a big Tampa guy. What was your reaction to his passing?
SY: He was a close personal friend of mine. He had a nickname for me: hotshot. He never failed to call me that, no matter where we were, whether I was his guest at Yankee Stadium or he was a guest at my home. He was just a great, charitable and kind-hearted person and a driven leader who demanded excellence and even perfection. I never saw someone so determined to win. But he gave back, did a lot of good works. I've seen him do some incredibly kind things. For all those people who didn't know him, they sure missed out. For those who did, they really benefited. He had a championship heart.