Enough with the pink bicycle already.
It was supposed to be a joke. But the bike became the defining
emblem for Norwood S. "Woody" Wilner, arguably Jacksonville's
Wilner was just another attorney until Aug. 9, when a
Jacksonville jury found Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. liable
for a former smoker's lung cancer. The panel ordered the
cigarette maker to pay $750,000 to Wilner's client, Grady
Carter. Tobacco stocks promptly took a $12 billion nosedive.
The media swarmed, wanting details about the brilliant guy with
the Wal-Mart ties who persuaded a jury to make the largest award
to date against a cigarette company.
Reporters latched on to the bicycle the 48-year-old Wilner said
he often pedaled from his East Duval Street office to the
courthouse. It was perfect: Homespun lawyer rides pink bike with
Wilner tolerated it for a while.
"The focus here is not on the bicycle," he said in a recent
interview, pretending to lose his temper. "You're losing focus.
No more bicycles!"
The focus is tobacco companies. Specifically, Wilner said,
their deceit. Despite what he said is abundant evidence to the
contrary, they deny they've deceived the public about the health
risks of smoking and the seductive addiction of nicotine. Those
arguments were at the heart of his success in last year's case.
Asked what will be different tomorrow when he faces R.J.
Reynolds Tobacco Co. in court, Wilner considered the question,
then laughed. "If we have our druthers, nothing!"
The secret to last year's victory was simple, he said: "We knew
the facts, and we told them, and that resulted in our side
Wilner embraces the verdict as proof that truth prevails, even
when it's spoken by an underfinanced underdog.
"Maybe the system works, and you can't buy a victory with
resources," he said.
Gary Black, a tobacco industry analyst for Bernstein Research in
New York, said experts expected little from Wilner, who spent 18
years defending asbestos companies in product liability cases.
Black and others assured clients Wilner couldn't win.
"The one thing we all did, including myself, was underestimate
Wilner," Black said. "We assumed he was doing it [going to
trial] for experience. He walked away with a landmark verdict."
Black thinks Wilner played up the small-town angle and
delighted in proving the big-city pundits wrong.
"That's his shtick. Woody is a smart man, he understands
people, and he has great documents," Black said. "He did
something no one else has done: He got a verdict against the
industry that's going to stand up [on appeal]."
The appeal is a key issue. Brown & Williamson doesn't have to
pay until it loses all appeals. No tobacco company has ever paid
damages, and Brown & Williamson doesn't appear eager to be the
Wilner credits his partners at Spohrer, Wilner, Maxwell,
Maciejewski & Stanford with keeping the practice successful and
solvent while he devotes his attention to the
less-than-lucrative field of tobacco litigation. His paralegal,
Ginny Steiger, said the firm has filed about 350 cases against
tobacco companies, and Wilner has 2,000 others waiting in the
He holds down costs by operating frugally, conserving paper by
printing documents in small type and taking depositions by
phone. An experienced pilot -- and the son of a barnstorming,
stunt-flying mom -- he flies his own Piper Twin Comanche to
distant hearings. …