On Saturday, Feb. 13, 2017, lead Litigation Attorney Mike Papantonio received the call that E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, commonly referred to as DuPont, and The Chemours Company reached a settlement of $670.7 million that will be paid out to approximately 3,500 clients.
For decades, DuPont was intentionally dumping C8, a cancer-causing chemical used in Teflon non-stick pans, into the Ohio River, which exposed entire communities to the toxic chemical, causing long-term health effects on residents. Over the past few years, attorneys have reached individual case verdicts, but this settlement will payout thousands of clients and ultimately bring the case to a close.
“The jury determined that, not only was DuPont at fault, but that they were guilty of actual malice in the way they covered up the evidence of their conduct,” said Papantonio.
For Papantonio, this news was the culmination of tens of thousands of hours of work researching, preparing and litigating this case. Papantonio led the team that originally exposed the dangers of the C8 chemical, exposed the internal secret documents DuPont was hiding and revealed the problem to the EPA. Since then, his team has forced DuPont to set up safety guidelines, including a medical monitoring program, to ultimately stop producing and using C8. In addition to the settlement, Papantonio and his team tried the only three C8 trials against DuPont and won multi-million dollar verdicts.
To say I was intimidated by meeting Mike Papantonio is an understatement. It was in Laguardia Airport and I was joining his firm for a gala they were a part of. His presence filled the room the minute he walked through the door and when he spoke, the crowd quickly fell silent. What followed surprised everyone.
“I’ve heard you’re good with a tambourine, Lanie!” he said. The crowd broke out in a chuckle and the ice was broken. Since then, Mike Papantonio has grown into the mentor I never dreamed I would be lucky enough to have.
After attending undergraduate school at the University of Florida and receiving his law degree from the Cumberland School of Law, Mike Papantonio, referred to by friends and colleagues as “Pap,” has gone on to create a name for himself as “America’s Lawyer.” In addition to his most recent victory, Papantonio has handled thousands of cases, including the Asbestos and the Florida Tobacco Litigation trials. He has received several multi-million dollar verdicts on behalf of his clients, the victims. Papantonio is a member of the National Trial Lawyers Association and was recently inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame.
If you search for “Mike Papantonio,” you get thousands of results. He is regarded as one of the most talented attorneys of his time and has the reputation to back it up. He is listed in the publications Best Lawyers in America and Leading American Attorney, hosts a biannual conference for trial lawyers and is currently on multiple best-seller lists for his latest book, Law and Disorder. He could – and did – write a book with all of his accomplishments, but the goal of this article is to give a glimpse of the man behind the suit.
In Gulf Breeze, a small town right outside of Pensacola, Florida, Mike Papantonio is a local celebrity. However, this recognition is not simply for his incredible skills and victories in the courthouse; it’s his contagious personality and unending generosity to the community that allow him to maintain this status. Michael Mann, a resident of Gulf Breeze and a family friend, vouched for this sentiment.
“Pap has donated to pretty much every cause this town takes on,” he said. “He also was the driving force behind me going to law school. Gulf Breeze is lucky to have his influence.” Mann went on to explain how even with his busy schedule, Papantonio is always available for a quick phone call to talk through career options or run through a practice trial for the Trial Team at the law school he is attending.
After graduating from the University of Florida, Papantonio planned on being a journalist or foreign correspondent. By chance, he interviewed one of the most well known trial lawyers in the country who convinced him to go to law school. After a few years as a prosecutor, Papantonio made the switch to trial law.
“I specifically chose trial law because I couldn’t stomach the idea of helping these corporations get away with the crimes they are committing,” said Papantonio. This mentality has driven his career since the beginning.
Connie Pearson, a lead paralegal at Levin Papantonio Law Firm has worked with Papantonio on several historic cases throughout his career and has only positive things to say about her experiences.
“Pap is one of the most hardworking people I know,” she said. “He never loses sight of the justice he is trying to achieve for our clients and makes it easy for me to come to work each day.”
This sentiment carries throughout the office. As an employee, I wholeheartedly agree that Papantonio makes it easy to enjoy your job. There is an obvious sentiment of teamwork that drives the tone of the office. Whether it was group lunches to celebrate an email found by the attorney leading the case or wrapping up the client calls necessary to head to court, the sense of family in the firm is undeniable.
“We stick together,” said Pearson. “We’re at constant war with teams of corporate lawyers, so we have to stand firm in what we believe in and not allow our clients to be bullied.”
When asked what he was most proud of, Papantonio didn’t rattle off a list of cases or show me a trophy he had received. Instead, he chose his only daughter, Sara. “I think one benefit to being a trial lawyer is that it always keeps things in perspective,” he said. “The people in my life are so much more important than anything this job has given me.” The two have a close relationship and talk often. Sara understands the impact of the work her dad has done and hopes to follow in his footsteps.
“My dad has instilled in me the importance of doing the right thing for the right reasons, instead of what will make the most money,” said his daughter. “He’s shown me that if you’re a good person, the rest will follow.”
This past summer, I lived with the Papantonio’s while working for his firm and got to experience firsthand what it’s like to be in his constant presence. Throughout the internship, I was not only an employee, but Mike and his wife, Terri, along with their daughter, Sara, took me in as another family member. I was included in dinner outings, day trips and information that would not hit the press for days.
“Different people fill different spaces in your life,” said Terri, “I’m glad that we can fill one for you”. This sentiment perfectly embodies what the family stands for.
I consider myself incredibly lucky to have studied under an attorney who practices at the caliber that Mike Papantonio does. After living under the same roof, I think I have begun to understand what makes him tick and why he has taken the road to get where he is today.
It seems as if Papantonio excels at every aspect of life. In addition to being an incredibly accomplished attorney, his home life is nothing short of amazing. Terri Papantonio often spoke to me about what it’s like to be the wife of such a high-powered attorney.
“He’s not ‘America’s Lawyer’ with me,” she said. “We decided at the very beginning of our marriage that he would leave that in the courtroom.”
Over the past 20 years, the couple has traveled to all seven continents, regularly taking outlandish adventures.
I think Mike Papantonio will remain “America’s Lawyer” as long as he can. He has no plans to retire and although he works from home far more now, he is quick to lend guidance to any team fighting against corporate criminals.
“Dad’s going to hold on until I can get through law school,” said Sara. “We both want to make sure that I am prepared to continue his legacy and maybe even try a case together before he officially retires.”
Edited by Avery Williams