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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 6, 2020 1 year ago

Law firm sets national precedent in $63M case

One key to the strategy at the Greenberg Traurig Tampa office? Over-preparation.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Tampa attorneys David Weinstein, Christopher Torres and Ryan Hopper were holed up in a conference room the Friday before a three-day weekend in 2018, chatting with jury consultants.

The lawyers were preparing for a civil trial. They were defending their client, phosphate and potash giant Mosaic, against a lawsuit from Tampa resident Rhonda Williams, whose home is 3 miles from a Mosaic fertilizer plant. Williams, through South Carolina personal injury attorney Billy Walker, alleged plant emissions caused her health problems — pulmonary hypertension, diabetes and more, plus side effects from treatment. Walker, according to court records, also contended Williams’ home had “no present value” due to the emissions. She sought $63 million, in the case originally brought in 2014.

'We like high stakes cases and precedent-setting cases. It keeps things interesting.’ David Weinstein, Greenberg Traurig

While poring over documents that Friday evening, Hopper, after getting a text, jumped out of his seat: “We won!” Hopper told his colleagues, all with Greenberg Traurig.

Hopper was referring to a pre-trial motion they filed in the case that went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Their argument: Although, yes, Williams had health issues, the expert her attorneys presented, a toxicologist, didn’t have any evidence the specific harm was caused by the specific emissions from the Mosaic plant. In other words, according to a Greenberg Traurig case summary, “experts cannot assume that exposures to chemicals in concentrations that exceed regulatory standards cause harm.” Or, as Weinstein analogized: “Just because you exceed the speed limit doesn’t mean there will be harm that will come from that.”

The appellate judges agreed, and in doing so, rendered Walker’s toxicologist’s testimony moot. That meant the end of the case — no trial and a big victory for Mosaic and the Greenberg Traurig team. After reading through the ruling, Weinstein, managing shareholder of the Tampa office, says, “10 minutes later we were up at the University Club,” celebrating with a drink. 

More than just a win for the attorneys and Mosaic, the Greenberg Traurig trio’s nuanced expert testimony argument has since become a precedent in other civil cases. The general argument — that case law in a civil lawsuit should be protective not predictive — has been cited at least six times in other federal court cases since the Williams case, Hopper says. “I think it’s going to be in a lot more in the near future,” he adds, because expert testimony is a such key part of any high-value legal dispute.

The judges acknowledge as much in the ruling, saying the court, with a “gatekeeper” responsibility, has to be certain the reliability of expert testimony is “meaningful” and comprehensive. Instead, the toxicologist in the Williams lawsuit, the judges wrote, “failed to demonstrate a scientific basis for concluding that those exposure levels would likely produce, contribute to, or exacerbate” the plaintiff’s conditions.

The ruling, Greenberg Traurig officials says in the case summary, “clarified an important point of law and shielded Mosaic from potential follow-on litigation from other residents of the plaintiff’s neighborhood who likely would have relied on the same flawed scientific evidence.”

The attorneys’ work in the case was validated again, earlier this year, when legal industry media firm The American Lawyer named Greenberg Traurig the Florida Litigation Department of the Year. The publication cited the Williams case, in addition to other work the firm’s 112-member Florida Litigation Practice has done statewide.

Weinstein, who in addition to overseeing the Greenberg Traurig Tampa office is chairman of its national Environmental & Toxic Torts Litigation Practice, says the firm’s success stems from its bedrock business principle: over-preparation. “We front load cases much more than most other firms will do,” Weinstein says, adding its work-product is a full-throttle investigation of a case prior to making recommendations to a client.

A top-heavy strategy like that, costly up front, works often for the firm, which has successfully defended Mosaic from more than $100 million in potential damages. “We do a lot of work on high-profile cases, and we do a lot of high-profile work for Mosaic,” Weinstein says. Mosaic, which moved its headquarters from Plymouth, Minn. to Tampa last year, did $8.9 billion in revenue in 2019.

Weinstein, Torres and Hopper are working on two other cases, involving utilities commissions, one in Orlando and one in Hillsborough County, they say could lead to more significant rulings. “We like high-stakes cases and precedent-setting cases,” Weinstein says. “It keeps things interesting.”

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