THE GIANT KILLER
At age 60, Willie Gary still likes striking images. His private jet, Wings of Justice II, has gold-plated bathroom fixtures. His website tells you this. He’ll tell you personally he has garages filled with Rolls Royces and Bentleys and a 50-room waterfront mansion “with 14 bathrooms, three kitchens, a movie theater and an elevator.”
He sports a diamond-studded Rolex and matching ring, and if you ask, he’ll tell you he’s wearing a $10,000 Brioni suit. More traditional attorneys may view all this as a vulgar display of wealth, but when asked for an explanation, Willie Gary smiles and offers, uncharacteristically, one word: “Marketing.”
Operating out of Stuart, far from the legal capitals of America, Gary has learned how to stand out and attract clients — winning hundreds of millions for a beer distributor, a small funeral home, a sports complex, a poor family whose relatives were electrocuted.
A sign in his office dubs him The Giant Killer, and at five-foot-eight, even with all the wealth he has amassed, he still regularly tells juries that he’s David fighting Goliath. He’s won verdicts of $240 million from Disney, $139 million from Anheuser-Busch, $500 million from the Loewen funeral home chain.
In most cases, he works on contingency fees — he gets paid only if the client wins. But earlier this year, he won an extremely unusual decision in Broward County: His case against Motorola ended in a hung jury, but a judge still ordered Motorola to pay Gary and associates $20 million in fees. What particularly outraged Motorola’s lawyers was that, in one court document, Gary said his time was worth $11,000 an hour.
“Willie is a master for creating unique situations,” said Broward attorney Bruce Rogow, who worked with Gary on a case in which they won an $18 million judgment against a Pensacola newspaper. “I’ve practiced with the greatest lawyers in the country, and nobody is like Willie. He has a special instinct for a good case. He has a unique ability to put together a team of people who work tirelessly and loyally for him, and he knows how to talk to people.”
“A lot of people underestimate Willie,” said Bob Montgomery, a West Palm Beach attorney who himself has won hundreds of millions for clients. “They do not think he is smart . . . He will ambush you and he will whip your butt,” Montgomery said in a deposition.
The Miami Herald sought comments from a half-dozen attorneys who had opposed Gary in the courtroom. Some didn’t return phone calls. Others refused to speak or said little. One, Faith E. Gay, representing Motorola, said simply: “We obviously disagree with him strongly, but he’s a likable man.”
Spokesmen for the business community say the Goliath-sized awards Gary has obtained are an indication that something’s wrong with the system. An international tribunal called the $500 million Loewen verdict grossly excessive and a “miscarriage of justice.”
Barney Bishop, president of the trade group Associated Industries of Florida, says he has “tremendous respect” for Gary. “He’s a very accomplished lawyer.” But the huge sums he gets for his clients “are symptomatic of the problems of our legal system. It’s a lottery.”
On a recent summer morning, when a reporter visited Gary at his waterfront home, he was shown to the table in an eat-in kitchen as big as many one-bedroom apartments. Gary arrived just a tad late, wearing his Brioni suit, saying he had just finished two hours on the treadmill.
Though he turned 60 this month, he’s given no thought to retirement. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop, but I don’t have to carry the load anymore. We have 250 people working for us.”
One of 11 children, growing up in migrant worker communities, picking string beans, sweet corn and apples, he has often talked about the rigors of his childhood, and the reporter hoped to start by exploring new ground on his present cases. But a casual mention of football caused him to launch into a lengthy anecdote.
Having no money for college, he had hoped to get a football scholarship after graduating from high school in Indiantown. He went first to Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, but the coach told him he was too small at 197 pounds.
Escaping Cane Fields for College
“The last thing I wanted to do was to go back to the streets of Indiantown, back to the sugar cane fields.”
Instead, without a scholarship offer, he went to Shaw in Raleigh, N.C., a few days before the start of school. For a week, he swept the floors of the locker room until a player was injured and the coach let him play defense in a scrimmage.
“Seven or eight times, back to back, I got to the quarterback. I’m going through guys who weigh 280 pounds. This was my last shot! Nobody was going to stop me! I won a spot in life, because I didn’t quit.”
This too is an anecdote that Gary frequently tells journalists. And like all the others, it drives home the point that he always wants to make: He’s David who can beat Goliath. As the signs blare in his law office: Dream Big Dreams. Refuse to be Denied.
That’s a theme he uses in speaking to poor kids, because he also believes in giving back. His foundation has a national television campaign, “Education Is Power,” urging children “to stay in school and be the best they can be.” He’s donated $10 million to his alma mater, Shaw University in North Carolina, picking that number because a school official once gave him $10 he needed to submit with his application.
“Ten for 10,” explained Gary, always searching for the simple slogan to drive home his point.
‘You have to do what you have to do’
After getting a law degree at North Carolina Central, he moved to Stuart — 30 minutes away from his mother — and married Gloria, his childhood sweetheart.
Soon, he started his own law firm. “He didn’t have a choice,” said Gloria, who had come into the kitchen in her workout sweats and sat down beside him. “He tried to interview with a few lawyers around town, but he was the first black lawyer here, and they weren’t willing to give him a chance. It was a blessing in disguise. . . . He was afraid, but you have to do what you have to do.”
In his first big case, he represented the widow of a truck driver who died in an accident after his truck was hit by a car driven by a wealthy woman. “Even as a young lawyer, I had the presence of mind to go visit her [the widow] in North Carolina. She was an old lady. I needed to know her life story so I could tell the jury.
“I’ll never forget. She lived on a farm, on a hill. She fixed food for me. There were leaks in the roof, and she said, ‘If. . . ‘ “ He paused, searching.
“Charlie,” said Gloria.
“Charlie! ‘If Charlie were here, he’d fix that roof, and the grass had grown up out in back. And Charlie would mow the grass. . . . And late in the afternoon, I’ll never forget. The sun was going down, and she heard the sound of an airhorn, from a truck in the distance. Boom, boom boom. And she said to me — never before or since have I ever been faced with this — ‘Mr. Gary, is that my Charlie coming home?’ “
He is of course repeating his closing argument: “Members of the jury, what can I say? Because I knew Charlie was never ever coming home again. . . . How can you value her loss? You can’t bring him back. . . . I asked for $250,000. That was big money back then. And I got it — from an all-white jury in Putnam County.”
This trial took place in the mid-1970s, and he was suing “the matriarch of the city, the richest family in Putnam County, which was near Polk County, where the Klan was running rampant.”
So how did he do it? “I didn’t even know I was supposed to be afraid. I went in there like I was just a lawyer like anybody else.”
That truck driver trial — and many others to follow — has given Gary an image that he’s a folksy guy who knows how to say magical words that compel jurors to do what he wants. When a reporter repeated that idea to Gary, he winced. “It’s more than that. There’s a lot of work.” During a trial, he usually doesn’t get to bed until 5 a.m. “You have to have a work ethic that’s second to none.”
These days, Gary has a huge staff to help him. About 35 attorneys (including seven named partners) and a staff of 125 others (including investigators, accountants and nurses for researching malpractice cases) work out of a converted hotel in downtown Stuart. “I washed dishes here in 10th grade.” His key partners include Linnes Finney Jr., president of the National Bar Association, and Tricia (C.K.) Hoffler, a graduate of Smith College and Georgetown Law School, who left a successful law practice in Washington to move to Stuart. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hoffler said. “He’s a stickler for detail. His preparation is exceptional. And he has a way with people. He can talk to the queen of England and a homeless person.”
When he feels he needs to, he reaches outside the firm, as he did when he brought in Rogow, a Nova Southeastern University professor who’s an expert in media law, when he represented a road paver, Joe Anderson Jr., in a lawsuit against The Pensacola News-Journal in 2003.
They did not dispute the facts in the story: Anderson killed his wife with a shotgun; authorities ruled the killing accidental. But they argued the story twisted facts to portray Anderson in a “false light.”
Anderson had a huge construction business that grossed more than $100 million a year, but again this was a tale of David versus the giant Gannett newspaper chain. “The Gannett Co. has a lot of power,” Gary told the jury, according to the St. Petersburg Times. “And, buddy, when they set out to get you, they get you.” He asked the jurors to award Anderson “billions” in damages.
Rogow said he was fascinated with the ease in which Gary can ask for such sums. “There’s a shyness of many people in asking for substantial numbers, but it’s a product of his personality, of his confidence. He’s raised the bar for many people. He gets juries inured to big numbers. He’s really the billion-dollar man.”
The jury awarded his client $18 million — still a huge amount for a newspaper case. On appeal, many attorneys for newspapers argued the “false light” claim set a dangerous precedent. An appeals court threw out the verdict. Gary and Rogow have appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
On rare occasions, Gary clearly was not on the side of David, as when he represented Florida sugar companies being sued in three cases by cane cutters. “I thought long and hard before I took the case. . . . This was clearly a frivolous case.”
When he talked to cane cutters in the Caribbean, they told him the Florida companies had paid them well and according to their agreement. He said he won all three cases.
Still undecided is the Broward case, in which he represents SPS Technologies, a small, defunct Fort Lauderdale firm that accused Motorola of illegally appropriating SPS’ vehicle-tracking technology.
A team of about 20 lawyers and paralegals worked on the case with Gary. Last November, the case ended with a hung jury. Gary, always the fighter, argued that Motorola should pay his legal fees because its attorneys had broken the rules of the court by allowing its witnesses to read the testimony of other witnesses. “That way they could change and shape their testimony,” Gary told The Miami Herald. “This is not a small matter. The whole process is tainted.”
In one court filing, Gary said his time was worth $11,000 an hour. “Now, I don’t charge $11,000 an hour,” he said. But legal fee calculations allow for additional amounts in special situations. “If there was no cheating, you wouldn’t have $11,000 an hour from Willie Gary.”
Circuit Judge Leroy Moe agreed that Motorola attorneys ignored his instructions about its witnesses and ordered the big Chicago
firm to pay Gary and associates $22.9 million in fees and expenses. That was a huge sum, but only about a tenth of what Gary had requested. That matter is still winding its way through the courts and no retrial has been scheduled.
Outside the courtroom, business hasn’t always been as fruitful. A major business venture, the Black Family Channel, flopped. For years, he pushed it as a wholesome alternative — “no violence, no cursing, none of that stuff.”
But the channel attracted few viewers and Gary says many cable channels refused to carry it, saying they already had BET and that was enough. “You have all these sex channels, fishing channels, golf channels, and even Hispanic channels, but not African-American channels. That really hurt us.” Gary cut his losses, merging Black Family with the Gospel Music Channel.
THE PERSONAL LIFE
Willie Gary thrives outside the courtroom
At home, most of his nights are spent watching sports. “A lot of basketball,” said Gloria. “And we’re big boxing fans. We’ll watch old classic boxing matches.”
They met in the second grade. She, too, grew up poor. She was salutatorian of her high school and followed him to Shaw University. “I knew from the time he was in high school he was going places,” she said at the kitchen table after he had gone off to the office. “Law school was the first time he really committed himself. He found his niche.”
They were raised Baptist and they remain Baptist: No drinking, no smoking. They have four sons. Three still live in the Stuart area. One, Sekou, is an attorney in Miami Shores.
After almost 40 years of marriage, they play tennis together and work out on side-by-side treadmills. Sometimes they talk. Sometimes they listen to gospel music. She still cooks his meals.
She still keeps tabs on how the business is going — proofreading the law firm’s newsletter — but she doesn’t try to follow his lavish lifestyle.
“I drive a 1999 Lexus SUV every day. I’m a very simple girl. I have a Bentley. It sits in the garage and the battery goes down because I never drive it. I don’t like people looking at me.”
They take one vacation a year — leaving Stuart the day after Christmas, flying in Wings of Justice II to Steamboat Springs, Colo., for skiing, then a night or two in Las Vegas, followed by attending the national college football championship.
“That’s the only time he relaxes,” she said.