Things like this happen all the time to Tampa lawyer Jim Wilkes. After last year’s tsunami, Wilkes was in Thailand viewing damaged areas and helping as best he could with relief efforts. One morning, as he stood in the lobby of a Bangkok Hotel while meeting with local officials about making a personal donation of $100,000, he ran smack-dab into Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who’d just arrived on his own mission of aid.
Bush did a double-take: “Jim Wilkes? Are you everywhere?”
Anyone who knows Wilkes knows that he is constantly on the move. And while he may not literally be everywhere, he seems to have an uncanny knack for putting himself in the right place at the right time.
It’s this timing and tenacity that have made his firm, Wilkes & McHugh, the preeminent plaintiffs firm for nursing home litigation in the nation.
It all started with a single case in the mid-1980s that almost didn’t happen. An elderly woman walked into Wilkes’ just-launched law firm with a handful of gruesome photographs that a funeral director had taken of her sister’s corpse. The photos showed a malnourished body riddled with bed sores.
Wilkes and his partner, Tim McHugh, declined the case, apologetically telling the woman that they had no expertise in the area. But when no other lawyers would take it, they reconsidered, digging through law books until they unearthed a little-known residents’ rights law that they used to win the woman and her family a confidential settlement.
Some 2,000 cases and 20 years later, Wilkes & McHugh is a well-known firm, with more than 60 attorneys in offices in seven states. The National Law Journal has ranked Wilkes among the top 20 plaintiff’s attorneys in the nation. He succeeded in forcing a change in Florida’s law to increase nursing home staff by nearly 50 percent.
Wilkes is often credited (or blamed) with turning nursing home abuse lawsuits into a cottage industry, with attorneys around the country following his lead. Yet with many imitators, few have achieved his performance of record-setting verdicts in multiple states.
Those who know Wilkes describe him as a kind of modern-day Renaissance man. It is true that his curious mix of relentless passion and super-charged intellect has led him to succeed in unusual — and unusually varied — pursuits. He represents (without charge) two champion boxers — Jeff Lacy and Winky Wright. He oversees a vast cattle ranch and tree farm. He has even managed to try his hand at guitar playing, turning out several acclaimed countrymusic albums.
You could say Wilkes has been too successful in one way. As a result of his lawsuits demanding that nursing homes clean up their act, the industry has hired an army of lobbyists in a growing number of states to push for damage caps while homes are forcing residents to sign contracts limiting their ability to hire a lawyer. Worse, many nursing home corporations are simply restructuring their corporations to avoid legal responsibility.
Yet Wilkes remains as passionate and dedicated to the fight as ever. “The nursing home industry keeps changing the rules and doing everything they can to avoid paying for the harm they cause — everything, that is, except improve care,” he says. “They change and so will we, and where they turn we will be there to greet them.”
And so it remains, Wilkes seemingly everywhere at once.