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Heavy-hitting Tampa trial lawyer Steve Yerrid building legal team to take on BP

TAMPA — As legal battles over the gulf oil spill flow into Florida courts, a high-profile Tampa lawyer is emerging as a key figure, thanks to his friendship with Gov. Charlie Crist.

Attorney Steve Yerrid is eager to bring the same confrontational legal approach to BP that he and others did to Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and other cigarette-makers on behalf of the state's landmark case against the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

Yerrid now has wide latitude from Crist to assemble a posse of high-powered trial lawyers, similar to the "dream team," hired by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, who secured an $11.4 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1997.

The lawyer, who made his mark suing companies for negligence, said he told Crist that suing BP should be the state's last resort.

"I think we get the wrongdoer to make reparations and restitution, but you don't economically wipe them out," Yerrid said.

He wants BP to compensate people and businesses outside the $20 billion escrow fund the oil giant has established to make payouts over five years.

Yerrid, 60, has nurtured a small but flourishing downtown Tampa practice since 1989, and has won more than 100 verdicts and settlements of $1 million or more.

A native of Charleston, W.Va., he moved to Tampa with his mother as a boy when his parents divorced. His mother was a secretary, and his father worked in the composing room of the Washington Post.

Yerrid attended Louisiana State University and received his law degree from Georgetown. He held jobs building a channel for oil supertankers in the Virgin Islands and operating an elevator in the U.S. Capitol, where he would rub elbows with the likes of Ted Kennedy and Barry Goldwater.

An avid fisherman, boater and tennis player, he has been married four times and written a book, When Justice Prevails, about a career that began at Holland & Knight three decades ago.

"He's a tiger," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and sought Yerrid's advice in preparing questions for the committee's first BP hearing.

Castor said Yerrid flew to Capitol Hill for the hearing and they discussed the potential damage to Florida's fishing industry, tourism economy and tax base as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Longtime friend and former colleague Bill McBride said Yerrid will bring an intensity to the work that makes him particularly effective.

"He's a passionate guy," said McBride, former managing partner of the Holland & Knight law firm and a Democratic candidate for governor in 2002. "He will identify with his causes and clients in front of judges and juries as well as any lawyer I've ever seen."

Over breakfast at one of his haunts, the Tahitian Inn & Cafe on South Dale Mabry in Tampa, Yerrid talks quickly and bluntly. Even over coffee, he sprinkles casual conversation with an occasional "Strike that."

Yerrid said he has admired Crist's willingness to listen to people, a trait he said he discovered in the mid 1990s when Crist was a state senator and Yerrid was helping the trial bar fight off proposed caps on damages in medical malpractice cases. He applauded Crist's decision to abandon the Republican Party.

"Access and credibility were two things I thought he had," Yerrid said. "I think he really is looking out for all Floridians."

Crist called Yerrid "a trusted adviser" in issuing an executive order June 9 appointing the lawyer to the unpaid position of special counsel.

"I wanted to make sure that we had at least the beginnings of a structure in place, and I would have the good counsel of somebody who knew about these issues going forward," Crist said.

Crist recalled Yerrid's successful representation of the harbor pilot in the Sunshine Skyway bridge disaster that killed 35 people in 1980. "His maritime admiralty law experience is pretty exceptional as it relates to Florida specifically."

Yerrid blames the legal profession itself for the tawdry image of money-grubbing ambulance chasers. The culprit, he said, is advertising by lawyers, and he called it repugnant that some lawyers solicit accident victims as clients.

Yerrid has savaged Attorney General Bill McCollum for his successful effort to cap at $50 million the fees that private lawyers can collect representing the state.

Instead of getting the best legal talent money can buy, Yerrid wrote in an Orlando Sentinel column, "political hacks will call upon their lawyer friends who like no-risk work with guaranteed state payouts."

But recently, the two men met to discuss the state's legal strategy in the spill.

"It was a good meeting," McCollum said. "He represents the governor's interests. He's been hired by the governor. We have a broader reach of interests, but we're coordinating."

Describing the meeting, Yerrid said of McCollum: "He was very cordial and very nice. But he's a very good politician, too. Why would he want to make me an enemy?"

Yerrid, a Democrat, is no political neophyte.

He has given the maximum $4,800 to Crist's campaign for the Senate. The money was given last year when Crist was still running as a Republican.

Since 1995, the lawyer has donated another $270,000, individually or through his law firm to political causes, more than half of which went to the Florida Democratic Party with the rest going to state candidates in both parties and nonpartisan judicial candidates. Yerrid donated $1,000 to Crist's campaign for governor in 2006.

Yerrid says the new "people's team" of "the best gunslingers I can get" may include members of the old tobacco suit dream team like Sheldon Schlesinger of Fort Lauderdale.

But he said he didn't know how he could persuade lawyers to agree to open-ended representation with no guarantee of fees.

"Too much of the time, people think if they're right, they're going to win," Yerrid said.

"Too much of the time, right doesn't have anything to do with it. It's who's the most powerful, who's got the best resources."

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Heavy-hitting Tampa trial lawyer Steve Yerrid building legal team to take on BP 07/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 3, 2010 10:09pm]
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