Smoked Out

Steve Yerrid helped hold Big Tobacco’s feet to the fire—to the tune of $13.6 billion

Published in 2007 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2007

Long before the multimillion-dollar courtroom victories, the private jet, the 65-foot fishing boat and other worldly rewards of an extraordinarily successful career as a trial lawyer, Steve Yerrid was helping those in need.

“When I was a young man, my father taught me the realities of the world and of how it takes more than just dreaming big to succeed. It takes guts,” says Yerrid, 57. The walls of the spacious downtown Tampa offices of Yerrid Law Firm are adorned with splashy newspaper stories about his cases, along with autographed photos and admiring letters from public officials, sports stars and grateful clients. “From my mother, I learned firsthand about unconditional love and the sacrifices a young, attractive single mother makes when raising a boy into a man.”

But it was in watching his mother and father die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses that he would find a focus for his personal and professional passions: the fight against tobacco companies, and against cancer—especially pediatric cancer.

And when Yerrid believes in a cause—as those who’ve worked with him will attest—his commitment is total.

“Here’s a guy who doesn’t simply make a donation and step aside. [Yerrid] gets involved with every aspect. It’s just amazing,” says Barbara Rebold, executive director of the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, a national organization based in Tampa.

George M. Steinbrenner III, longtime owner of the New York Yankees, met Yerrid in the early 1980s. He concurs. “[Yerrid] is particularly committed to children and all their needs. Whether it is medical, educational or legal, Steve Yerrid makes himself their champion,” Steinbrenner says of his friend.

Born in Charleston, W.Va., Yerrid’s parents divorced when he was 7. He moved with his mom, Faye, to Tampa when he was 13. Walking every school day to Wilson Junior High, he passed a retirement center. Old men and women sat outside in wheelchairs or shuffled slowly with the aid of walkers. Everyone seemed so lonely.

One afternoon, Yerrid asked if he could help make the residents feel better. Most days after that, he’d stop by to play hearts or just chat. If one sweet old lady ever knew he was throwing every game of tic-tac-toe, she never let on, Yerrid recalls with a laugh.

Even when he’d graduated from Georgetown University Law Center, a period in most young lawyers’ lives when time and money are in short supply, Yerrid made time for helping others.

When he wasn’t digging through law books or dashing off to the courthouse as a newbie recruit at Tampa’s Holland & Knight, he would most likely be found in a hospital with septuagenarian do-gooder Bootsie the Clown, reading to children.

Several years later, Yerrid quit going. But it wasn’t for lack of compassion. He couldn’t bear to see kids he’d grown so close to die. “I was just too young then to deal with that kind of loss, I guess,” Yerrid says. “I’d go to the hospital to see the kids, and I’d always think they were going to get better. And, of course, life isn’t like that. They didn’t always get better. And when they died, a little piece of me died too.”

Not long afterward, at a meeting of young local bar association members, debate turned to how the group would spend its remaining $3,500 of annual dues. A Christmas party got the most votes. But when it came time to figure out how to divvy up the money, Yerrid piped up. Why not get a $1,000 band and give the rest to charity? Some members griped, but Yerrid won out.

Within a week Yerrid found a charity—The Children’s Home, an organization in Tampa that shelters abused and neglected kids. Then he raided his Rolodex, already packed with professional athletes and prominent lawyers. His cousin, an assistant head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had introduced Yerrid to some pro athletes. And a former colleague at Holland & Knight—who happened to be actress Faye Dunaway’s brother—hooked Yerrid up with a number of celebs. Thus was born Steak and Sports Day, when stars and attorneys juggle grilling steaks with baseball and football clinics for 68 kids—just to give them a day away from their troubles.

“The only problem was, everyone was having so much fun that, even when it got dark, no one wanted to go home,” Yerrid says. Nearly three decades later, the annual Steak and Sports Day is an institution.
Yerrid’s philanthropy hasn’t flagged, even as his roster of blockbuster trial victories has grown. In the mid-’90s he was able to take benevolence to another level. Yerrid and a group of other leading Florida attorneys, dubbed the “Dream Team,” won a resounding victory against the nation’s most powerful tobacco companies—at the time, the largest civil settlement of its kind in U.S. history at $13.6 billion. And with a sizeable chunk of his personal earnings of $200 million, he launched The Yerrid Foundation.

Every year, the foundation makes contributions to local and national causes. Yerrid has partnered with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to select kids fighting fatal illnesses as batboys and batgirls at baseball games. He has sponsored fundraising events for dozens of organizations local and national, including Ronald McDonald House, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Pediatric Cancer Foundation and All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Besides directly funding efforts to find cures for pediatric cancer, the foundation works to raise awareness through an annual fishing tournament, in which celebrities from the worlds of sports and entertainment—including Hulk Hogan, Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, Boston Celtics legend John Havlicek, and Ed Marinaro from Hill Street Blues—fish with children who have cancer.

“When I’m fishing with those kids and see their eyes light up, there’s no greater enjoyment in my life,” Yerrid says. “I’ve written a lot of checks to charities; none of us can give any greater gift than of our time. Rich or poor, that’s the most valuable thing we can offer other people.”

Then there’s Tampa Bay Fights Cancer, an annual weeklong event with the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, which brings kids with cancer—and those who love and care for them—to the arena for a Lightning game. In six years, this event has brightened the lives of more than 20,000 patients, survivors, caregivers, families, doctors, nurses and volunteers. “The Lightning has never lost a game that night,” Yerrid says. “It’s as if they play inspired for the kids.”

This annual event also inspired Yerrid to write a book about the Lightning’s historic 2004 Stanley Cup victory. Proceeds from sales of the book, Tampa Bay Lightning: The Making of a Championship Heart, go to pediatric cancer research.

The Dream Team has disbanded, but Yerrid’s commitment to fighting the cigarette industry and its influence on kids continues.

On behalf of Florida’s youth and in support of Students Working Against Tobacco, an advocacy group funded by settlement dollars in the tobacco case, Yerrid filed suit in 2003 against Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature. The suit demanded that money intended for youth smoking-prevention programs be restored. Florida lawmakers have since passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that the programs will be funded.

He traveled to the U.S. Senate several years ago to testify in a hearing about the effects on kids of watching smoking in the movies. Yerrid began his testimony not with a recounting of the historic Florida settlement, nor of his experiences as a trial lawyer. He talked about his parents: how he and his mother danced together to the Perry Mason TV theme when he was a child; how cigarettes would cut short his parents’ lives.

Yerrid’s most recent landmark courtroom victory was a $217 million medical-malpractice verdict last fall—the largest ever in Florida and third-largest in United States history—for a man left brain-damaged after emergency room doctors misdiagnosed stroke symptoms. But ask Yerrid about it and chances are he’ll steer the conversation instead to his teenage son, Gable, whose first book is about to be published. Marley’s Treasure is a children’s book about a monkey who learns the true value of sharing with others. A portion of the proceeds from book sales will go to kids with cancer.

The generosity gene, it seems, lives on.

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