By Brian Feinblum, Chief Marketing Officer
In his new book And Give Up Showbiz? How Fred Levin Beat Big Tobacco, Avoided Two Murder Prosecutions, Became a Chief of Ghana, Earned Boxing Manager of the Year, and Transformed American Law, five-time New York Times bestselling author Josh Young provides a detailed and insightful portrait of one of the nation’s most successful and contentious civil trial lawyers, Fred Levin.
Young examines the unorthodox career path and life of a lawyer who was dogged by two murder investigations, three attempts to disbar him, a successful excursion into professional boxing management, a dysfunctional family life, and a legal career that included civil rights activism, huge lawsuit victories, and settlements that saved lives and reformed the tobacco, drug, and auto industries.
MEDIA CONNECT had the pleasure of speaking with Josh Young about the book and Levin:
MEDIA CONNECT: What’s Fred’s greatest or most prideful professional moment in a law career that spans more than a half-century?
Josh Young: Undoubtedly it was when Fred rewrote the Florida law that allowed the state to sue Big Tobacco on behalf of Medicaid patients, and got his buddy, who was the president of the Florida Senate, to ram it through unnoticed in the middle of the night. This allowed the state of Florida to sue Big Tobacco to recover Medicaid costs spent on behalf of smokers. Because the law that Levin wrote was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, Big Tobacco settled with Florida for $13 billion – and soon settled with every other state, paying out some $206 billion. Prior to that case, Big Tobacco had never paid a nickel to its victims. As a result of the settlement and the changes required in the marketing of cigarettes, more than 100,000 American lives are saved every year.
MC: Fred almost didn’t make it to law school. How did he overcome being such a poor student and a party kid?
JY: Fred was motivated to succeed in law school by his dean. On the first day, the dean told the group “Look to your left and look to your right. If your class is average, neither of those guys will be here when you graduate.” Fred felt sick to his stomach. Because the school wasn’t that large, Fred’s reputation had preceded him. Everyone in the room knew that he was a goofball, a party boy, a gambler, and a lousy student. But the real push came when the dean himself predicted Fred would never graduate.
After Fred was in law school for several weeks, he got a call that his younger brother Martin’s health was quickly deteriorating. Martin had been fighting leukemia for months, but he now appeared near the end. Fred told the dean that he needed to go home. The dean pulled out his undergraduate file and told Fred, very coldly, “You know, with your grades and everything, you might just as well stay home.” Fred didn’t make it home before his brother died, but he did return to school. Fred ended up graduating third in his class, beaten out only by two transfer students.
MC: Are you surprised at how the trial lawyer profession has evolved over the years? What has Fred’s role been in that regard?
JY: Over the past four decades, trial lawyers have increasingly become the main stalwarts causing safety changes that have benefited every single person in this country, yet they are often vilified for the large amounts of money they have made and their flamboyant lifestyle. Fred’s central role in changing the direction of the national personal injury field was when he won an $18 million verdict against L&N Railroad in 1980. It was the largest verdict of its kind in legal history, and made national news, landing Fred in the entertainment magazine US, which highlighted his $6 million fee. This got the attention of lawyers and corporations all over America.
MC: Why does Fred’s own son call him “a cockroach and a humanitarian?”
JY: A cockroach is something despised, but despite all efforts to eliminate they continue to thrive. Trial lawyers are disliked in large part as a result of the propaganda by the insurance industry, politicians and the business world. There have been endless efforts over the past several decades to destroy or eliminate the trial lawyer, but they continue to thrive and get stronger by adapting to the circumstances. The only difference between the trial lawyer and the cockroach is that the trial lawyer efforts often serve humanity very well.
MC: Why has the Florida Bar Association tried to disbar him three times?
JY: Largely because of his success and the way he flaunted it. Over his career, Fred won 30 jury verdicts in excess of $1 million, including one for $25 million and another for $50 million, and settled more than 75 other cases in excess of $1 million. Fred also has openly, and often, insulted the leaders of the bar by referring to them as elitist, white country club men. It’s doubtful that any of the three charges would have been brought with such vengeance against any other lawyer.
The first time he was brought up on charges was for gambling on football games, and then going on his cable access channel BLAB-TV and saying he saw nothing wrong with it – despite the fact that it was a misdemeanor. The result was a slap on the wrist. The second time was for violating the ethics rule on interjecting personal statements into a trial. That stemmed from him calling his opponent’s case “ridiculous” in two different trials. He was acquitted on that charge. And the third time was for him lambasting a judge’s ruling. Again, he escaped.
MC: What role did Fred’s faith, as well as his experiences with anti-Semitism, influence his career?
JY: Fred grew up and practiced in a part of the Southern Bible Belt at a time when Jews were outsiders. Fred encountered anti-Semitism at every turn in his life, from not being admitted to the cool college fraternity to not being allowed to join the country club to not being able to join the established law firms. This made him more sensitive to other minorities and actually led to him being an open advocate for African Americans and homosexuals. He has been honored by the United States Congressional Black Caucus, and made a chief of the country of Ghana, for his efforts. In recent years, he has become a prominent philanthropist for Jewish causes, most recently donating $1 million to the Lubavitch/Chabad Student & Community Center at the University of Florida.
MC: Fred’s firm is now involved in litigation against BP Oil for the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago. Is he driven by the money, the fame, or a sense of justice?
JY: It’s a difficult question to answer. Fred and his firm are dedicated to leveling the playing field in some small way so that the little guy can do battle with the big guy. The lawyers in his firm believe very strongly in what they do. Stepping back and looking at what has happened in this country, it has become clear that the federal government does less and less for the people.
The agencies designed to help people and to keep big business honest do not work properly. The FDA is not able to keep up with the drug companies and has practically become their functionary. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is overwhelmed. And all of those agencies tasked with protecting the financial system have an abysmal track record of late, which led to a catastrophic financial crisis in 2008. The central problem is that these agencies are all beholden to big business. So looking objectively at what has happened to individual rights in this country in the last 20 years, it is clear that people need a voice, and a powerful one at that. Fred’s firm tries to be that voice in cases where people need it, such as the BP Oil Spill. On the other hand, Fred loves the money and fame. He thrives on it, flaunts it, and promotes it.
MC: Did Fred reveal what his former partner, Johnnie Cochran, felt about O.J. Simpson’s innocence?
JY: Fred and Johnnie Cochran were close friends. Fred was with Johnnie at a boxing match in Miami when Johnnie saw O.J. for the first time since the conclusion of O.J.’s murder trial. It had been six years, and Johnnie told Fred that he had not spoken to O.J. since the trial. When Johnnie spotted O.J., he asked Fred and his friend Terdema Ussery (the president of the Dallas Mavericks) to shield him so O.J. wouldn’t see him. Fred’s take on the whole situation is “that Johnnie thought O.J. was guilty, and even though his successful defense was a cornerstone of his career, it was something that troubled him.”
Months later, Ussery was with Cochran when the subject of the events at the fight came up. Ussery recounted that Cochran told him to ask him anything he wanted about O.J. When Ussery demurred, Cochran then answered the question that Ussery wouldn’t directly ask; of whether or not he believed O.J. Simpson was guilty. Ussery recalled to me: “Johnnie said, ‘The answer to your question is his character is going to eventually answer the question for those who are curious as to whether or not he did it. So what I would say to you is watch him. Eventually – because character is something that you cannot suppress long term – your question is going to be answered if you just watch him.’” Of course, in 2008, three years after Johnnie Cochran died, O.J. Simpson was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas and sentenced to 33 years in prison.