No More Underestimation Wilner No Longer Unknown as He Takes on R.J. Reynolds

By Bell, June D. | The Florida Times Union, April 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

No More Underestimation Wilner No Longer Unknown as He Takes on R.J. Reynolds


Bell, June D., The Florida Times Union


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

best-known lawyer.

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

big basket.

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

winning."

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.

UNDERESTIMATION

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

first.

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

wings.

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. …

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