In the mid-1990s, Steve Yerrid and the rest of Florida’s “Dream Team,” a group of 11 top trial lawyers handpicked by the late Governor Lawton Chiles, took on the previously unbeaten Big Tobacco—and won.
The odds weren’t in their favor. Through more than four decades of litigation and more than 800 cases, no one had been able to beat Big Tobacco. Despite the fact that he was the team’s youngest member, Yerrid was given the task of adding racketeering and conspiracy charges to Florida’s lawsuit, thereby tripling the potential damages that could be awarded.
In the third week of trial, while his fellow team members Bob Montgomery and Shelley Schlesinger were picking the jury, the defense approached Yerrid with a $3 billion settlement offer. He conveyed the offer that evening during a dinner meeting with several members of the trial team, Governor Chiles, and Attorney General Bob Butterworth. When the governor asked if the offer should be accepted, Bob Montgomery of Palm Beach, one of Yerrid’s closest friends and a great trial lawyer who acted as the leader of the Dream Team, answered immediately. “I will never forget his response, ‘Turn it down! We can get more.’” When he answered next, Yerrid had little choice but to quickly agree.
Still, he recalls that moment as one of the most nerve-wracking in his career: with his stomach in knots, he didn’t sleep at all that night. Fortunately, early the next afternoon, the offer was doubled. Each day for the next several days, the settlement offer grew larger. That weekend, the case was resolved for almost $13 billion. At the time, it was the largest settlement in the nation’s history. But even more important than the money, the terms of the settlement required Big Tobacco to permanently retire the Marlboro Man and the Joe Camel character, eliminate all cigarette vending machines, prohibit all television and billboard advertising, stop the sexist Virginia Slims campaign that targeted women, and immediately halt the industry’s pandering to children and teenagers. Additionally, Big Tobacco was forced to permanently fund the “Truth Campaign,” which exposed the dangers of nicotine addiction to America and its youth. These advertising concessions ultimately resulted in a $200 billion settlement with 46 other states and a drastic decline in cigarette use nationwide. The resultant societal sea-change in curbing nicotine and cigarette addiction has saved millions of lives.
However, it wasn’t all good news. “I was the only member of the team to leave Palm Beach for the weekend. I arrived back at the courthouse Monday morning to hear not only the announcement of the multibillion-dollar settlement, but also to hear Governor Chiles and Attorney General Butterworth boast that one of the best aspects of the settlement would be that Florida wouldn’t have to pay its attorneys a dime.”
This meant the Dream Team had one final battle to fight. “We had to sue our own client, the State of Florida, in an effort to get the well-deserved fee to which we were entitled under our contingent fee contract,” Yerrid said. While the case was pending before the Florida Supreme Court, the Dream Team and Big Tobacco agreed to go to arbitration. Fortunately, a very favorable multibillion-dollar arbitration award resulted. Ironically, only weeks later, the Florida Supreme Court declared Florida’s contingent fee contract with the Dream Team to be “null and void.”
But this legendary case is just one of his many legal accomplishments. By any measure of success, Steve Yerrid has established his place among the best to ever enter a courtroom, obtaining more than 275 verdicts and settlements of a million dollars or more, including three $100 million-plus verdicts, as well as more than a dozen eight-figure verdicts.
In 1980, Yerrid defended Captain John Lerro, the harbor pilot who, amid a horrific storm, crashed a 608-foot freighter into the mammoth Sunshine Skyway Bridge, resulting in its fatal collapse and the deaths of 35 people. Yerrid was 30 years old, and the tragedy received worldwide attention. “Virtually no one gave us a chance of winning, except maybe my mother, and I’m sure even she had her doubts,” he recalls. However, at trial, he obtained the complete exoneration of Lerro using an “Act of God” defense, meaning Yerrid had to prove that nothing humanly possible could have been done to change the outcome or alter the course of events.
In 2006, Yerrid obtained a $217 million jury verdict, still the largest medical malpractice award in Florida’s history. Last year, he obtained a $15 million wrongful death verdict and the year before that a $64 million verdict in a personal injury case. He continues to be very active and hugely successful with no intentions of slowing down. He is currently one of the lead trial lawyers working on the Nevada litigation arising from the tragic shooting rampage at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas.
Yerrid is a member of the invitation-only Inner Circle of Advocates, which is made up of the top 100 trial lawyers in the nation. He’s received the Perry Nichols Award, the Florida Justice Association’s highest honor, and has been recognized as one of the Top Ten Litigators in Florida by the National Law Journal. He has been continuously included in Best Lawyers® since the 1980s. He has been honored with the Plaintiffs’ “Lawyer of the Year” award on several occasions in the areas of personal injury, wrongful death, medical malpractice, and product liability and has received a multitude of professional recognitions and awards throughout his career. In 2016, he was inducted into the National Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame as its 47th inductee.
A graduate of Georgetown Law Center, he’s taught for a number of years as an adjunct professor at his alma mater and has also served as an adjunct professor at Stetson Law School. He is a frequent lecturer at continuing legal education seminars both in Florida and across the nation.
Yet with all these accomplishments under his belt, Yerrid is still modest about what he’s done. “I’ve never achieved any real success without the help of others,” he said. “I’ve truly been blessed by having great people in my life who have given me more opportunities and support than I could have ever envisioned. My life has been, and continues to be, a great journey and one in which I have already outlived my dreams.”
Yerrid is a recognized fighter outside the courtroom, as well. Based on his undefeated amateur boxing career (a 17-0 record), his leadership role in the 2000 Olympic Boxing Qualifiers, a promoter of two HBO televised world championship fights, and his longtime assistance to retired and impaired professional boxers, he was inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011.
Additionally, he’s also been able to accomplish a great deal as CEO of The Yerrid Foundation, a self-funded organization that has supported more than 500 different charitable causes. Many of those efforts are children-oriented, including the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, the Ronald McDonald House, Boys and Girls Clubs, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, 1Voice Foundation, and the Children’s Cancer Center, among others. He has been honored by a number of these charitable entities with the highest awards of recognition these organizations bestow.
Yerrid was appointed to serve as special counsel to the president of United Way of America at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., participating pro bono in a $3 billion worldwide fundraising effort, and the launch of several programs, many of which are still in use today. He was honored to be selected and serve as special counsel to the Office of the Chief Judge of the 13th Judicial Circuit and the Florida Conference of Circuit Judges. Representing Florida’s judiciary, he successfully argued before the Florida Supreme Court for the protection of confidential records and internal communications within the court system.
In 2010, confronted by the nation’s largest environmental catastrophe in its history, Governor Charlie Crist appointed Mr. Yerrid as special counsel to the governor regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster and its aftermath. He provided his service to the people of Florida pro bono and personally paid the entirety of the associated costs involved with the representation. Subsequently, he was asked to represent Tampa and successfully procured a $27 million settlement, the largest payout made to any city by BP.
The essence of his career and his life’s work can be traced to Yerrid’s fervent desire to help people less fortunate, as well as an unconditional commitment to making a positive difference in the lives of others.
“I think the law is truly wonderful,” he said. “In many instances, it’s the only force that brings order to our civilization and society. When the system of justice works properly, it addresses wrongdoing and protects our most vulnerable citizens by providing a level playing field. I believe true justice is the greatest equalizer our democracy offers and a forum in which a lone individual can take on the most powerful of corporations. The courtroom can cause much needed change and make a real difference in life when government and lawmakers do not. If I ever had the opportunity to live another lifetime, I would want to come back as a trial lawyer and enjoy this marvelous journey again.”