No-name lawyers make history
After six years of legal combat, after all the criticism and skepticism, Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt -- two no-name lawyers from Miami Beach -- dangled on the brink of history, fidgeted at the threshold of the once-invincible Empire of Tobacco.
Now, juror Leighton Finegan handed the verdict form to court clerk Olga Delachieza. She carried it three steps to Circuit Judge Robert Kaye, who studied it impassively. He took a deep breath. He looked up.
``I will publish the verdict,'' he said. And the Rosenblatts lowered their heads. Six years of work. Six years.
Stan Rosenblatt sharpened his guerrilla instincts on Flamingo Park's basketball courts in South Beach, exploited the chutzpah that often comes naturally to the child of immigrants. Susan Rosenblatt is the daughter of a Brooklyn grocer, transplanted to South Florida many years ago.
He once was a student actor, a profoundly religious man known for his stage portrayal of the devil.
She was a child prodigy, a student at the University of Miami by the age of 13, a college graduate at 17. They met on a blind date in 1978.
They ended up with nine children, millions of dollars in legal fees, the Miami Beach mansion once owned by Anita Bryant -- and now this moment of high legal drama.
Judge Kaye cleared his throat. He began speaking.
`A LOT OF ZEROS'
Philip Morris: $73.9 billion. R.J. Reynolds: $36.2 billion. Brown & Williamson: $17.5 billion. And so on.
``A lot of zeros,'' the judge said.
And that was that, a $145 billion judgment Friday against the tobacco industry, a verdict that shattered the national record and all previous standards.
``Right and justice triumphed,'' Stan Rosenblatt said.
``This is truly . . .,'' And now he paused to gather himself. ``For all of our faults, we are the only country in the world where two people like Susan and I could have come this far.''
Their celebration dinner Friday night? Pretty much the usual Sabbath fare: baked chicken, potato kugel and sweet potato pie made by their oldest daughter Miriam.
The Rosenblatts filed the lawsuit six years ago, two virtually unknown attorneys in South Florida, kicking the shins of the tobacco monolith.
They called themselves the Ma and Pa Kettles of the legal world.
What Stan Rosenblatt said back then sounded like nothing more than lawyer talk: ``You can't claim victory until you destroy them.''
Now, if the mammoth verdict stands up, the Rosenblatts can claim victory.
`GOOD AGAINST EVIL'
According to its own leaders, the tobacco industry as we know it could be extinguished -- its top-dollar lawyers crushed, its polished executives humiliated by a balding 64-year-old, his 49-year-old wife and a few lawyers and assistants working in a warren of offices on Flagler Street.
And it's about time too, according to Rosenblatt.
``It was elemental,'' he said. ``It was good against evil. This is an industry that has played everybody for a sucker. It was so arrogant.
``It was my kind of target. I look at life like a black and white proposition. I'm not a gray kind of person.''
It's true. Few who know them would describe Stan or Susan Rosenblatt as gray.
He plays to the jury -- whispering, bellowing, exploiting the accent he acquired as a kid in Brooklyn and pre-hip South Beach -- his accessible vocabulary and street smarts forging an alliance with jurors.
She handles the nitty-gritty research and courtroom preparation. A resourceful legal strategist, she writes briefs, draws charts and argues points of law with opposing attorneys or the judge.
How did they get so far when so many other lawyers with so many other tobacco cases failed?
Legal analysts said it was a combination of crafty legal work, dogged persistence, a bit of good luck and Florida's relatively liberal court system.
The Rosenblatts drew a judge who did not seem hostile to the case or to concepts like a statewide class of plaintiffs, but they also fought aggressively to protect their case in appeals courts, which also ruled consistently in their favor.
``They had incredible tenacity and they are terrific lawyers,'' said Edward Sweda, a senior attorney with the Tobacco Products Liability Project at the Northeastern School of Law, an anti-tobacco group.
``They showed the full context, not just the case of an individual smoker. They put the focus on the misconduct of the industry and showed how they engaged in fraud without any conscience at all.''
Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern and chairman of the group, praised Florida's courts.
``They were in luck that they had a court system in Florida that was concerned with giving people a day in court and providing justice rather than protecting its dockets and the industry,'' he said. ``This is a court system that actually cares about justice.''
Together, the Rosenblatts defeated the tobacco industry once before.
In 1997, Big Tobacco settled the pair's secondhand smoking case, filed on behalf of flight attendants. The cost: $300 million for a medical research foundation and $49 million in fees and expenses for the Rosenblatts.
Along the way, they deposed top tobacco industry executives and forced them to testify in open court. No one had ever corraled them before. Stan Rosenblatt stood toe to toe with them, reducing at least one to tears during a deposition.
``As I was growing up, I was never intimidated by big shots,'' Rosenblatt said. ``I met a lot of big shots and my general reaction was, `Big deal.' ''
Together, Stan and Susan Rosenblatt make a formidable and colorful team.
Devoutly religious, they will not drive or work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Instead, when in the midst of legal war, they work Sundays -- and have for the last two years straight.
``That's the way it is,'' Stan Rosenblatt said. ``When we're committed to something, we have to see it through.''
Surrounded by children and barely contained chaos, they live in the waterfront Miami Beach mansion once owned by Bryant, the Christian fundamentalist, anti-gay activist singer.
``We have a big home, but it's a mess,'' Rosenblatt said. ``We haven't been fair to our kids for the last couple of years and hopefully they understand and they won't hold it against us. And they're good kids, so I don't think they will.''
They pick their clients carefully -- mostly because they invest years of effort in their cases, and also their passion.
``You almost don't want to say it because it sounds phony,'' Rosenblatt said. ``But it's always been our approach to take cases we care about and then see what happens.''
Oh, sure. A lawyer who doesn't think first about fees. Some chance.
Friends and relatives say it's true.
``They believe in their causes,'' said Stu Blumberg, who grew up with Stan Rosenblatt in Miami Beach. ``I firmly believe that is what drives him and drives her. Whether it's billions of dollars or 95 cents, I believe Stanley and Susan would be just as passionate.''
Now president of the Greater Miami and The Beaches Hotel Association, Blumberg went to school with Rosenblatt at Miami Beach Senior High School and the University of Florida.
Blumberg remembers a driven, competitive, argumentative -- but also supremely self-reliant -- young man driven to succeed. Rosenblatt was raised in the poorer section of Miami Beach. He had something to prove.
``You could see it in his eyes,'' Blumberg said. ``He was focused. He just had that will to win. Stanley was a competitor not only on the athletic field but in class, too. That combination of drive and the smarts to pull it off really was unique.''
After moving the family from Brooklyn to Miami Beach in 1946, Rosenblatt's father sold secondhand restaurant equipment. Stan was the youngest of four children.
He earned his law degree at the University of Miami, where he decompressed by appearing in plays staged at the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. His favorite role: Mephistopheles, the devil in Goethe's Dr. Faustus.
Susan Rosenblatt's father also moved the family from Brooklyn. He invested in real estate. She also earned her law degree from UM.
After finding each other, they took medical malpractice and personal injury cases, winning some major settlements and jury verdicts.
Eventually, the tobacco cases walked through the door, along with years of grinding work, all of which is paying off now, big time.
Rosenblatt said he has no idea how much they stand to make from this case. They are not working for a specified fee. If the award survives, Judge Kaye eventually will decide how much the Rosenblatts deserve.
Makes no difference, Rosenblatt said. They aren't in it for the money. If others don't believe that, so be it, he said.
If others express surprise that Ma and Pa Kettle came this far, let them, he said.
Stan Rosenblatt: ``Why not us? We work hard. We studied. We're good people, I think. So why not us?''