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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 1 year ago

Formidable Foes

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A law firm that proudly wears its trial attorney label targets multimillion-dollar jury verdicts. It has had a lot of success.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Wil Florin and Tommy Roebig, trial lawyers who have sued — and beaten — dozens of big businesses and major corporations, never flinch when someone drops a lawyer joke on them.

For one, they've heard them all. Many times.

Also, the business partners, who run Palm Harbor-based Florin|Roebig, are unabashed litigators, unafraid to be pegged as trial attorneys during an era of tort reform, both in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

In doing so, they run their 22-lawyer firm, with additional offices in Jacksonville, Denver and Minneapolis, with a sizable chip on their shoulder. That chip comes in handy in representing clients in cases that range from construction negligence to medical malpractice to personal injury, among other areas. The firm has quietly, at least compared to competitors that spend significantly more on advertising and branding, amassed a go-to reputation in the region for taking on big targets in tough cases.

“As tort lawyers we get accused of being greedy,” says Florin, who co-founded the firm in 1985. “But we wouldn't be in this business if there weren't businesses out there that were greedy and cut corners.”

Nearly all of Florin|Roebig's cases are taken on a contingency basis. The firm covers all the costs up front for a lawsuit, and only gets paid if it wins the case, usually 33% of the total payout. For a firm that's won at least $700 million in verdicts in 30 years, that makes for some sizable payouts.

While Florin|Roebig does some advertising, it's considerably less than it has in the past, says Florin, at least in terms of billboards and TV commercials, chasing other personal injury firms. The firm, instead, gets a chunk of its clients through referrals from other lawyers, where Florin|Roebig will pay up to 25% of its share of a winning verdict to the attorney who referred the case. Attorneys who refer cases to Florin|Roebig, says Roebig, usually do it because they know the firm has the resources and experience to handle complicated matters against deep-pocketed clients.

Florin|Roebig spends anywhere from $20,000 to well over $100,000 on a case before it gets to a verdict. A few cases have gone as high as $400,000 in the research and discovery phase — and not every case is a winner in a court. Firm officials says they don't have specific data on how many cases have resulted in verdicts that were profitable based on expenses.

Roebig says the risk, on behalf of underdog-like clients in dire situations, is what drives him to succeed. “We have a lot of clients who live paycheck to paycheck,” Roebig says. “We represent the people who need a voice.”

Big cases

Two of Florin|Roebig more recent verdict victories garnered national industrywide attention.

One case, in 2016, was a $41.9 million jury verdict against restaurant chain Applebee's after a trial in Hernando County. Florin|Roebig sued the company on behalf of a client, Patrick Osmond, a passenger in a pick-up truck driven by his friend Joseph Raub. Both individuals and some friends, under the legal age to drink, were served a pitcher of beer at a Brooksville Applebee's in 2012, the lawsuit contended. Raub crashed the pick-up truck after they left Applebee's. The accident rendered Osmond quadriplegic.

The verdict was one of the largest jury awards in Florida in 2016, and the largest contested verdict in Hernando County history, the firm says. The decision ranked No. 42 on National Law Journal's 2016 top 100 list of the largest jury verdicts nationwide. “Being given the honor to be trusted by Patrick Osmond's family to fight for his future and justice for Patrick is simply the highest compliment we could receive,” says Roebig.

Florin|Roebig also made National Law Journal's top 100 largest jury verdicts list in 2014, with a $47.4 million verdict in a lawsuit against a massage business in Wesley Chapel, Pasco County. That verdict ranked No. 44 on the 2014 list.

In that case Florin|Roebig represented a client, identified as Jane Doe to protect her privacy, who alleged a massage company employee sexually assaulted her during treatment for a neck injury. The defendant, court records show, argued the employee was an independent contractor and the company itself wasn't liable.

But the jury sided with Florin|Roebig, and handed down one of the largest verdicts ever in Pasco County. The six-member jury's verdict included past and future medical expenses; past and future pain and suffering damages; and punitive damages. Florin and Roebig are the only two attorneys in the Florida who earned spots in the top 50 of the National Law Journal's list two times the past three years.

'Active stream'

Florin, after working a few cases in the Pinellas County Attorney's office, co-founded the firm in 1985 with Thomas Carey, who left the firm in 1996. A native of Austria, Florin moved to the U.S. with his family when he was a boy, and he grew up mostly in Indiana. He was the captain of the soccer team at Ball State University, and after college he moved to the Tampa area, to attend Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.

Florin's mom was a housecleaner and his dad was a toolmaker. “The people we represent are the people I grew up with,” Florin says.

It was at Stetson, a year after the firm was founded, where Florin and Roebig met at an alumni hiring event. Florin sought attorneys for the fledgling firm, and Roebig sought a job. “Tommy stood out,” recalls Florin. “He was the only one there who wasn't wearing a suit and didn't have a resume.”

Roebig, instead, had one sheet of paper with his grades on it. He walked around, handing the sheet from lawyer to lawyer, until someone interviewed him for a job. Florin and Roebig clicked instantly.

The firm's first niche was in personal injury cases. By the late 1980s, some attorneys at the firm had begun to work with chiropractors — not as trial lawyers, but as consultants. Lawyers at Florin|Roebig held seminars and training sessions to help chiropractors understand accident and insurance law, particularly no-fault insurance and how to be a better expert witness.

This was at a time, says Florin, when chiropractors “weren't a reputable part of the legal industry.”

But the work paid off, leading to an active stream of personal injury and other cases. “While so much of the legal community was shunning chiropractors,” says Florin, 62, “we embraced them and chiropractors flooded us with cases.”

Florin|Roebig began to expand into other areas in the 1990s, including employment discrimination, and, later, representing homeowners in negligent construction allegations. The firm's construction side now includes third-party insurance claims for damage to commercial buildings.

One constant theme has remained at the forefront of the firm for 30-plus years, say both partners: The firm is a workhorse, and never shies away from the courtroom.

“We've pretty much tried and won or lost just about every civil trial that exists,” says Roebig, 55. “This firm is in trial a lot.”

Solid facts

Outside the courtroom, Florin|Roebig's strategy to grow the practice differs from some competitors, beyond its marketing approach.

The firm, for example, recently hired an attorney to do nothing but social media. Catherine Sams, a 2015 Stetson Law graduate, joined the firm in September in the social media role, handling the firm's Twitter and Facebook accounts. Facebook in particular is where a large amount of potential clients first learn about the firm, says Florin. That's where Sams connects with the individual and directs them to a colleague who can further vet the case. “We want the person who does our social media to be a lawyer,” Florin says. “I don't think a lot of firms think to do that.”

Florin|Roebig, while it has a partnership track and some hierarchy, isn't built like some national law firms, with strictly defined roles, says Roebig. Trial prep and the work behind the scenes is a team approach, as is the actual trial. “The cases are (handled) by a team of people,” Roebig says. “Everyone has a role, and no role is small.”

One of the firm's biggest challenges, says Florin, is also outside the courtroom, in dealing with what he calls the “drumbeat” that all trial lawyers, especially personal injury attorneys, are greedy ambulance chasers. The firm's average medical malpractice suit, contends Florin, costs $100,000 to prepare. “There's no such thing as a frivolous medical malpractice lawsuit because it would just be stupid to risk that kind of money,” without having solid supporting facts, he says.

Yet the trial lawyer label is more a burden than a barrier, says Roebig, and he's confident the firm will continue its aggressive push for clients, and jury victories. “I don't like bullies, and I don't like it when people to try to bully other people,” Roebig says. “The most important case is the next case.”

Get in the ring

Palm Harbor personal injury and trial law firm Florin|Roebig has built a 30-year reputation suing on behalf of what it calls underdog clients.

But its current and past client roster also has some room for celebrities and well-known residents, both in Tampa and nationally. The list includes TV personalities, rock stars and professional athletes. Specific clients include:

• Wrestler Hulk Hogan in medical and legal malpractice cases;

• Former University of South Florida head football coach Jim Leavitt in a wrongful termination case; and

• Syndicated radio talk show host Todd Schnitt in a legal malpractice case.

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