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'Because of Steve'

In life and law, Steve Pajcic has always set his sights on empowering others 

Published in 2021 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

Steve Pajcic calls himself “just a hometown boy.”

The former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate’s blue-collar upbringing keeps him grounded, and his love for his hometown keeps him in Jacksonville. Once a week for five decades (until interrupted by COVID-19) he has headed not to the golf course but to a neighborhood game of doubles pingpong. It’s a competitive version, mind you. Wrists have been broken. 

“I’m a sixth-generation Floridian on my mother’s side,” says Pajcic, who is also proud of his Croatian roots. “From my father, I learned if you are going to do something, do it right. From my mother, I learned to make sure you do the right thing. And from my brother, I learned the third rule of my life: Make it fun.”

His devotion to his hometown is evident. There was the $100,000 donation last November to the Clara White Mission, which helps homeless veterans find housing; the $150,000 toward rebuilding homes in poor neighborhoods after Hurricane Irma. Then there’s the $200,000 committed by Pajcic and his son, Michael, for bike and walking trails. And in 1992, Pajcic and brother Gary created a $1 million endowment at the University of North Florida to pay tuition for any graduate of alma mater Paxon High School. Nearly 100 students have been helped.

Graduating near the top of his classes at Princeton and Harvard Law didn’t seem to change him. Neither did having his thesis on a corporate income tax for Florida—which won a prize at Princeton—used by Gov. Reubin Askew as the main plank in his 1970 campaign. Neither, for that matter, did hosting President Barack Obama as a groomsman at daughter Helen’s 2017 wedding to former Obama aide Marvin Nicholson. (Pajcic was an early supporter of candidate Obama.) The ceremony was conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry. 

Known simply as Coach to many who grew up playing on basketball teams he organized in parks and high school gyms, Pajcic, 74, practices plaintiff’s personal injury law at the firm he founded in 1974 with brother Gary, who passed away in 2006 of acute meningoencephalitis. Three of Gary’s sons and Pajcic’s son have joined the legal team. 

Over the years, Pajcic has made many headlines.

The St. Petersburg Times nominated him for most valuable member of the state House for eight of the 11 years he served (1974-’85). He was the primary mover behind increasing the homestead exemption from $5,000 to $25,000 and creating the Save Our Rivers land acquisition program. In 1986, Pajcic received the Democratic nomination for governor, losing in a close race to Republican Bob Martinez.

Returning to personal injury law was a good fit, says Pajcic, because it’s about helping people. The firm may be best known for suits filed after two Jacksonville deaths from crashes in which Firestone tires detreaded—the tread separated from the rest of the tire—on Ford Explorers, which rolled over and had their roofs crushed. Pajcic filed suit against Firestone and Ford in July 2000 on behalf of victims and their families. Two weeks later, Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires nationwide. Firms nationwide filed cases as more than 200 deaths were blamed on the rollover crashes, according to newspapers. 

Pajcic’s firm settled 30 cases. “But far more importantly,” he says, “I believe we saved countless lives.”

A few years later, Pajcic’s firm handled another Ford Explorer case, involving a crushed-roof fatality unrelated to tires. “We spent more than half a million dollars on crash tests, experts, and utilized a full-scale model of the Explorer driver compartment during a highly contested four-week trial,” he says. “The jury gave us every dollar we asked for.” The judge affirmed the jury’s verdict of more than $10 million. “Today, Ford’s new roof is as safe as the new Firestone tires,” Pajcic adds.

But the Pajcics always went beyond helping their own clients. In the past three decades, Pajcic has donated more than $10 million toward charitable causes concentrating on educating and mentoring children. 

Pajcic, the third of six children, knows what it’s like for families to struggle. His dad was a carpenter with a fourth-grade education; his mom trained as a teacher, but stayed home to raise the kids. “We never thought of ourselves as poor,” he says, “[but] my jeans were bought too big for me so that my brother could wear them. Our mother ironed on patches over the holes. For us, Jacksonville existed between the school, church and park. I had paper routes for five years, and scholarships and loans to college and law school.”

In 2014, Pajcic and his wife of 52 years, Anne, donated $2 million to Edward Waters College, enabling college president Nat Glover to transform his historically Black alma mater through significant infrastructure improvements. Glover served previously as Jacksonville’s sheriff—becoming the first Black sheriff elected in Florida since Reconstruction. Pajcic and his brother ran Glover’s campaign.

“Because of the Pajcic credibility, I had three opponents and won by a landslide in the first primary,” Glover says. “We were then, and are now, just like brothers.”

One of the young people Pajcic sent to college was Don Jackson, now 39, who says he could have otherwise ended up in prison along with friends who turned to drugs for lack of opportunity. Jackson and a group of friends were about 10 years old when they met Pajcic at a park where he was coaching a basketball team. Pajcic asked if they would like to join.

“He took my phone number and called a week later,” recalls Jackson. “[We] ended up with about 100 kids.”

After high school, Jackson took Pajcic up on his offer to pay for college.

“Nobody I knew went to college,” says Jackson. “Because of Steve, I drove myself to Shaw University and majored in criminal justice. It was so hard, but I kept telling myself that I can’t let Steve down.”

Jackson now owns an outpatient mental health agency. Inspired by Pajcic, he and a friend from basketball also started Riverside Turning Point for inner-city youth.

“Steve funds it,” says Jackson. “Young people from 12 to 21 years of age get to earn $200 a month if they achieve the tasks they agree on. About 75% of them have already been in the criminal justice system. Since we started in 2018, I’ve mentored 32 kids. Some use the money to help their families pay bills.”

The name of the organization has special meaning for Jackson: “I met Steve Pajcic when I was living in the Riverside neighborhood, and meeting him was the turning point of my life.”

Pajcic says, “When you grow up happy, without much, it’s easier to give more. Giving makes me feel better about myself and gives me motivation for working. I like the idea that we’re all in this together.”

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