Miami Beach

They took on the tobacco industry — and won

From left, Miami Beach lawyers Robert Grover, Marvin Weinstein, Norman Ciment and Sherwin Stauber recently celebrated 53 years of accomplishments.
From left, Miami Beach lawyers Robert Grover, Marvin Weinstein, Norman Ciment and Sherwin Stauber recently celebrated 53 years of accomplishments. jscheckner@miamiherald.com

Miami Beach lawyers Robert Grover, Norman Ciment, Marvin Weinstein and Sherwin Stauber have accomplished much in their 53 years on both sides of the bench.

As the four founding members of Grover, Ciment, Weinstein & Stauber, (now Grover & Weinstein, P.A.), they tried several groundbreaking multimillion-dollar personal injury cases. And as judges and mayors in Miami Beach and Surfside, they made an impact on their communities.

But it was their landmark courtroom victories against Big Tobacco, from which they secured more than $55 million in five separate cases (with more in the process), that cemented their place in history. In particular, one case was the first — and only — time that a jury awarded damages against a tobacco company for ailments stemming from secondhand smoke.

In my more than 50 years of practice, including the four years I served on the bench, I have never seen such egregious defendants [as Big Tobacco].

Miami Beach attorney Robert Grover, whose firm won the only secondhand smoke case against the tobacco industry

“In my more than 50 years of practice, including the four years I served on the bench, I have never seen such egregious defendants [as Big Tobacco],” said Grover, who with his three partners was honored recently by hundreds who gathered to commemorate the firm. “Back in 1959, they said, ‘Our deep research finds no connection between smoking and cancer, respiratory disease or anything else.’ They knew even back then, and they lied for half a century. [Weinstein] and I said, ‘These are bad people. Let’s go get them.’”

The firm’s first strike against the tobacco industry came in January 2002, when Marvin Weinstein and former firm partner Adam Trop co-counseled French v. Philip Morris. The case stemmed from a 1991 class-action lawsuit, Broin v. Philip Morris, in which Miami husband-and-wife lawyer team Stanley and Susan Rosenblatt initially represented seven nonsmoking flight attendants who developed lung cancer and other illnesses after inhaling tobacco smoke while working on airplanes.

Though the cigarette makers agreed to provide $349 million to set up a research foundation on behalf of the plaintiffs and pay the Rosenblatts $49 million, the flight attendants received no damages. They were, however, granted the right to sue individually.

Lynn French, who developed chronic sinusitis while working for Trans World Airlines for 14 years, was the first of several individual flight attendants to sue Big Tobacco. The firm represented her. A six-person Miami jury awarded her $5.5 million in compensatory damages — five times the amount asked.

Three months later, 11th Circuit Court Judge Fredricka G. Smith cut the amount to $500,000 — a 91 percent reduction.

“It was the largest reduction remitted in the state’s history,” Grover said. “[Judge Smith’s] conscience, I think, was shocked by the size of that verdict and said, ‘Take it or we’re granting a new trial.’ [French] didn’t want to go through another trial, so she took the $500,000.”

Another groundbreaking case heard in Miami was Engle v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the first smokers’ class action suit to come to trial in a U.S. courtroom, filed by the Rosenblatts in 1994. Dr. Howard Engle was a longtime Miami Beach pediatrician who had treated the children of both the Rosenblatts and the Grovers. Engle, who had been addicted to smoking since college, when tobacco companies doled out free cigarettes to students, lent his name to the suit, filed on behalf of about 700,000 smokers nationwide.

A Miami-Dade jury, after hearing 157 witnesses in two years, decided the tobacco companies intentionally misled smokers about the dangers of cigarettes. The jury awarded $145 billion in damages, the largest punitive damages award in U.S. history.

The tobacco companies immediately appealed the decision, which Florida’s 3rd District Court of Appeal set aside in 2003. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision to reverse punitive damages, but allowed for 8,000 individual plaintiffs to pursue damages separately—4,000 at the state level and 4,000 at the federal level. The federal cases accepted a settlement en masse. The state-level cases, however, have only recently begun to reach the verdict stage.

“All the trial lawyers in Florida owe a debt of gratitude to the Rosenblatts,” said Trop, the co-counsel on the TWA case. “They really took down a giant and made it much easier for us to represent the little guy, these victims of tobacco. They may not have slain the dragon, but they certainly knocked it to its knees.”

In 2009, Grover & Weinstein was co-counsel in the first of the 4,000 cases at the state level to successfully recover damages, Hess v. Philip Morris. Since the verdict, the firm has recovered damages for four more state-level cases, more than $55 million in total.

Going after the big guys is what the four lawyers at Grover & Weinstein pride themselves on.

“What makes their story remarkable is the people they are,” said Jeannie Fernandez, the firm’s controller. “If they see a little guy come in and he has a problem, they’ll work days, weeks and months to help him. Even if they’re technically not going to get any money — even if they have to waive their fees — they didn’t deny anyone.’’

The firm opened for business in 1963 as Grover & Ciment, P.A. out of a small house purchased in Miami Beach by the two college roommates who had reunited after Ciment returned from a European backpacking trip. Two years later, Weinstein, their former University of Miami School of Law classmate, joined the practice.

As their caseloads increased, the partners agreed they needed to bring on an additional member and in 1967 they invited Stauber, another classmate who had become a rabbi shortly after graduation, to join the firm.

“In law school, we were all wet behind the ears and Stauber would give us the background on complicated tort and contract law,” Grover said. “Why was it so easy for him? Because he knew the origins of the law, which was in the ancient Jewish law more than 3,000 years ago. That’s why we asked him to join our firm; we remembered how smart he was.”

Over the following half-century, the four founding members of the firm, all now over 80, indelibly impacted South Florida:

▪ After being appointed to a judgeship in 1969, Grover, a former Air Force serviceman, helped decriminalize alcoholism and assisted Florida in designing a plan to provide treatment to those suffering from alcohol addiction. As president of the Miami Beach chapter of B’nai B’rith, he founded a Big Brother program, in which he participated, and created a program that facilitated visits to the mentally and physically ill at Veteran’s Hospital.

▪ Weinstein, a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard who attained the rank of lieutenant commander during the Korean War, served as a judge in Surfside in 1969 and completed one term as mayor between 1970 and 1972.

▪ In 1967, Ciment became the youngest Miami Beach commissioner at age 31. He was elected Miami Beach mayor in 1981 and served a single term. During that brief period, he was instrumental in the creation of Miami Beach’s Art Deco District, the Miami Beach Boardwalk and the Miami Beach Eruv Council. In 2010, he and his wife founded the Norman and Joan Ciment Charitable Foundation, a program that sends refrigerators and ovens to poor Israeli families.

▪ Stauber, who served as a municipal judge in Surfside in 1971, was the first rabbi at Young Israel of North Miami Beach. He continues to work at Grover & Weinstein as a consultant.

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