Legendary Pensacola attorney Fred Levin is remembered for his humor, his flamboyant style, his philanthropy and for the thousands of lives he changed through his legal work that reshaped the American legal system.
Born and raised in Pensacola, Levin became one of the nation’s best-known trial attorneys and forever changed the practice of personal injury law, most famously in a $13 billion settlement against the tobacco industry in Florida.
His success led to philanthropy work, giving away more than $35 million to universities, nonprofit organizations and hospitals.
The Pensacola community was shocked to learn that Levin had died from COVID-19 at the age of 83 Tuesday afternoon.
Mark Proctor, president and shareholder at the Levin Papantonio Rafferty law firm, knew Levin for more than 40 years.
“Fred was one of the preeminent trial lawyers in the United States,” Proctor said. “Very, renowned, very good, and he took his time to mentor people like me.”
Levin grew up as a Jewish kid in the South, which Proctor said led to him always having a heart for the little guy and representing people who otherwise would not have a voice.
“That was always Fred’s heart, and that’s how he put that heart into use,” Proctor said. “And he was good. Nobody out-prepared him, nobody out-worked him. He believed in his clients, and he had remarkable results.”
Levin was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016 that had metastasized and spread, but after treatments and a surgery to remove a tumor from his brain, the cancer was in remission.
He was diagnosed with COVID-19 five days before he died and was asymptomatic when he initially tested positive, according to Levin Papantonio Rafferty spokeswoman Mollye Barrows.
Proctor said the deep irony of Levin’s death is that he was scheduled to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on the day he ended up dying from the virus.
“It’s just tragic that COVID got him,” Proctor said. “I know his family wants everybody to remember him by saying, ‘Go wear a mask.’ Here is this giant of a man that COVID killed.”
In 2014, an authorized biography of Levin written by Josh Young was published titled, “And Give Up Showbiz?: How Fred Levin Beat Big Tobacco, Avoided Two Murder Prosecutions, Became a Chief of Ghana, Earned Boxing Manager of the Year & Transformed American Law.” In the book, Levin held nothing back from Young, and Levin helped promote the book when it was published.
Proctor said Levin loved publicity, good or bad.
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“He had an extraordinarily interesting life,” Proctor said. “It’s all true, but, of course, what I love about him is his heart has always been there, and he’s always done what’s right.”
Levin, born in 1937, grew up in a Jewish family in Pensacola and growing up always felt like an outsider in many ways. Proctor said that experience led Levin to representing clients who found themselves facing powerful companies that wouldn’t be held accountable without intervention by the courts.
“Growing up Jewish in the South, his heart was always with the little guy,” Proctor said.
Levin joined the Levin and Askew law firm founded by his brother David Levin and Reubin Askew, who later became a beloved governor of Florida.
Levin was a pioneer in the legal world of personal injury law, Proctor said, beginning in the 1960s with a case against a drug manufacturer of the antibiotic Chloromycetin that had a side effect of leading to blood disorders. Levin’s brother, Martin, had taken the drug and died of leukemia.
Levin won the case and took the unprecedented step of seeking punitive damages, and although the damages weren’t granted, in response to the threat of damages, the manufacturer pulled the drug from the retail market to be used only in closely monitored hospital settings.
Levin won punitive damages in another case against the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company in 1980 after a train derailment in Escambia County led to an ammonia leak from one of the railcars that killed a husband and wife who left behind two children.
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Levin represented the children and proved the railroad company’s negligence in the accident. The case led to one of the first structured settlements in a personal injury case that turned an $18 million jury verdict into a $52 million payout for his clients over the course of 30 years.
The railroad case put Levin in the national spotlight, leading to magazine profiles and more cases.
Levin was criticized by other attorneys for using advertisements and appearances in the media, but he knew the attention helped his law practice.
“When I started out here in town, a lawyer named Shakey Latham told me ‘Just make sure they spell your name right,'” Levin is quoted in a 1999 article in the News Journal as saying. “And he was right … I never met a headline I didn’t like.”
Levin initially decided to go to law school because he enjoyed partying so much at the University of Florida, he thought it would be an opportunity to continue the parties another three years, according to Young’s biography. He had to take extra classes his last year of undergraduate school to raise his grade-point average to the requisite 2.0 needed to attend law school.
Levin was treated harshly his first semester by his fellow law students and the dean of the law school told him he would probably fail out. But Levin thrived in law school and after the first year was the top of his class.
Levin’s law school class also included the University of Florida’s first Black student George Starke, who, like Levin, was not accepted by other law students. Levin said he initially wanted to reach out to Starke but didn’t have the confidence to until after he had become top of the class. Levin became Starke’s study partner and most other students followed Levin’s lead.
“Pretty soon, the majority of law students were with us, leaving a handful of racists by themselves,” Levin told his biographer.
Starke didn’t graduate, however, missing the start of an exam by just 10 minutes after studying all night with Levin, which forced him to withdraw from the school. Starke was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Florida in 2019.
Levin also succeeded in other business pursuits, notably becoming boxing manager to Pensacola boxing legend Roy Jones Jr.
Levin began managing Jones after the 1988 Olympics and negotiated fights that saw Jones climb the boxing ranks. Jones became the only middleweight champion to also win the heavyweight championship while Levin was at his side.
Levin managed other boxers as well, including Ghana native Ike Quartey, who became welterweight champion. Because of his work with Quartey, the Republic of Ghana awarded Levin the honorary title of high chief at a ceremony at the United Nations in 1999.
Levin’s biggest case was a settlement reached with the tobacco industry in 1997 in Florida for $13 billion. The groundwork of the case wasn’t laid in the courtroom but in the political arena.
During the 1980s, Levin became close to Florida Senate President W.D. Childers after representing Childers in 1980 and getting him exonerated from a state grand jury over land purchases. Levin convinced Childers to rewrite Florida’s Medicaid liability law to allow the state to recover damages for Medicaid costs from tobacco companies.
The change won the backing of Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who knew the tobacco companies had the clout to kill the law change if they learned about it. So Childers introduced the four-page bill on the last day of the 1994 legislative session and it passed.
Levin himself described the law change as “surreptitious” and the tobacco industry tried and failed to have the law overturned. Other states followed suit and Levin found himself agreeing to a $13 billion settlement with the tobacco companies in 1997.
Levin’s firm received a $275 million fee in the case. The next year, Levin appeared on ABC’s “20/20” to talk about the case and during the interview, he lit up a cigarette.
“It’s a matter of knowing the right trigger to get the press,” Levin was quoted from the interview in a 1999 News Journal article. “Had he not studied law, ‘my second choice would have been marketing.'”
Proctor said because of Levin’s efforts, tobacco industries ending up paying billions, which were used to promote quitting smoking and lead to a marked decrease in the number of teenagers who smoke and saved countless lives of people who will never start smoking.
“They credit that piece of legislation with saving tons of American lives every year,” Proctor said. “And I think Fred would consider that to be the pinnacle of his legal career.”
Levin used $10 million of his fee in the tobacco case to donate to the University of Florida law school, which agreed to name the school after him.
The donation caused an uproar in legal circles as attorneys across the state threatened to withhold donations to the school because of the decision.
Levin had clashed several times with the Florida Bar Association, usually over things he said in the media. One investigation in 1990 led to a public reprimand from the Bar over his criticism of law enforcement prosecuting gambling crimes.
Levin relished the controversy over the donation, which he said was in part in retribution for the Florida Bar’s investigations of him.
“The fuddy-duddies at the Bar had perpetually irritated me with their pettiness. Big Tobacco provided the money. I was glad to give it to a school that had played such a big part in shaping my life.”
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Levin was no stranger to controversy during his career, often embracing it and sometimes not.
Levin ran into trouble over his friendship and legal representation of Childers, who after his Senate career became an Escambia County commissioner. Four of the five Escambia County commissioners were removed from office in 2001 over bribery allegations.
Levin defended Childers in court and was not successful, but he also got in trouble with the Florida Bar when he publicly called former Commissioner Willie Junior a “rat-fink” for testifying against Childers.
A year later, Junior was found dead under his front porch and his death was ruled a suicide.
In an earlier episode, Levin represented The Southern Company, Gulf Power’s parent company in the late 1980s as it was dealing with a tax investigation. Levin was the last person to talk to Gulf Power executive Jake Horton before Horton’s plane crashed after taking off in Pensacola.
As the case progressed, Levin said he found dead canaries in his yard, which he took as a message “not to sing” to investigators. Levin believed Horton was made a scapegoat in the Gulf Power scandal and he eventually testified to that before a grand jury that was investigating the plane crash.
Legacy and giving
Levin used his legal success to give back to the Pensacola community. He ultimately donated more than $35 million.
University, nonprofits and hospitals were the main beneficiaries of Levin’s giving.
In a 2019 interview with the News Journal, Levin said some of his donations were motivated to make his wife of 51 years happy. Levin said he regretted working so much and feeling like he neglected his home life while his wife raised their four children.
His wife Marilyn died in 2011.
In the 2019 interview, Levin recounted meeting his wife when they were students at the University of Florida.
Noting at the time he wasn’t the “coolest guy in the world,” he said, “I’m not sure I swept her off her feet. She actually swept me off my feet.”
Levin donated more than $700,000 to the Gulf Coast Kid’s House which has the Marilyn Kapner Levin Center for Child Advocacy and Child Abuse Prevention named after Levin’s wife.
He donated property and money to the University of West Florida, which created a professorship and the Reubin Askew Institute for Multidisciplinary Studies, named after his mentor and former law partner.
He also donated his $8 million home called the Tanglewood estate on Bayou Texar, which reflected Levin’s eccentric style for which he was known.
“Fred was a legend, a lion and larger than life, and I can’t imagine a world without Fred Levin,” UWF President Martha Saunders told the News Journal.
Pensacola philanthropist Quint Studer was a friend of Levin and spoke to him on Tuesday before Levin died.
Studer said the two would often discuss their philanthropic efforts.
“Fred and I would talk frequently about, let’s donate the money now while we’re alive,” Studer said. “So we can see the impact it can have.”
Levin donated $2 million to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to establish the Fredric G. Levin Endowment in Translational Cancer Research in 2019 and $2 million to the Brigham & Women’s Hospital to establish the Fredric G. Levin Distinguished Chair in Thoracic Surgery and Lung Cancer Research.
Studer noted those donations included funds for top doctors to come to Pensacola to provide seminars to local doctors here.
“Even when you give money to somebody out of town, you’re still putting a connection in there,” Studer said. “So it helps the people in Pensacola.”
Levin, in his 2019 interview, summed up his philosophy on giving.
“I’ve always felt that if you’ve been fortunate enough to take care of your family, and you’ve got money over and above that, then give it now, while you’re living,” Levin said.
Jim Little can be reached at [email protected] and 850-208-9827.