by Ron Harris
Special to NNPA from The Atlanta Voice
ATLANTA — He has been called many names: The Giant Killer. Super Lawyer. Celebrity Attorney.
These days, they are calling him the $24 Billion Man. His name is Willie Gary, and his recent verdict against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., in the wrongful death of an addicted smoker has garnered the nation’s attention.
For an attorney worth an estimated $100 million, one who has won over 150 multi-million dollar cases and oversees a practice of 35 lawyers and 125 staff, Stuart, Fla., attorney Gary has long been in the national and legal spotlight with stories about him in People magazine, the Today Show, 60 Minutes, Ebony, Forbes, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The New York Times, Black Enterprise, CBS and ABC News.
But after a Florida juror handed his client $16 million in compensatory damages and also fined R. J. Reynolds $23.6 billion in punitive damages in the death of the husband of his client, Cynthia Robinson, his reputation has gotten just that much bigger.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” Gary joked softly while reclining on a sofa in his 39th floor suite in a downtown Atlanta hotel. Gary was in Atlanta for the National Bar Association convention.
Gary and his team, which included attorney Chris Chestnut of the Chestnut Firm in Atlanta, proved that R.J. Reynolds was negligent in informing consumers of the dangers of tobacco. Consequently, the jury ruled it caused the unnecessary and untimely death of Michael Johnson, Sr., who died from lung cancer after he became addicted to cigarettes and was unable to quit smoking, even though he apparently tried numerous times.
Gary said the extremely large punitive award grew out of R.J. Reynolds’ arrogance.
“I had suggested $100 million,” he said. “But R.J. Reynolds told the jury, ‘Do you think $100 million is going to make us stop our ways of doing what we do?’, and I think that got the jurors upset.’”
Fellow attorney Chestnut had his own thoughts on the verdict.
“The environment today is completely different than it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Robinson’s husband was alive,” Chestnut told USA Today. “Reynolds knew its product was addictive, but . . . the company lied and marketed cigarettes as safe.”
Legal experts say the huge punitive verdict will probably be reduced upon appeal, and Gary said he is sure that R.J. Reynolds will appeal.
“They appeal even when they win,” he joked. “But we are going to fight for our verdict.”
The process could take another two years, unless R.J. Reynolds agrees to a settlement, “which is a good possibility,” he said.
Gary certainly is no stranger to large verdicts. In 1995, a jury awarded his legal team $500 million against one of the world’s largest funeral chains. He won a $240 million jury verdict against the Walt Disney Corporation for his clients, who alleged that Disney stole their idea for a sports theme park. In 2001, a jury awarded Gary a $139.6 million verdict against Anheuser Busch.
That doesn’t include multi-million dollar verdicts against Motorola, Microsoft and Dell.