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As a young man growing up near Ocala, Fla., Thom Rumberger milked venom from rattlesnakes and wrestled alligators to put himself through college. Not bad training for a career in the rough-and-tumble world of law and politics. But Rumberger says it was the speaking ability he acquired while taking thousands of tourists through the Ross Allen Reptile Institute in Silver Springs, Fla., in the 1950s that helped him more than his animal-handling skills. He’s applying that schmoozing talent these days on behalf of his client Teresa Earnhardt, the widow of famed stock-car racer Dale Earnhardt, in her high-profile battle to protect the privacy of her late husband’s autopsy photos. Rumberger’s lobbying contributed to the passage this spring of state legislation prohibiting public access to autopsy photos without a court order. News organizations strongly opposed the legislation. He’s now fighting to defend the new law against legal challenges by news organizations. Four days after Earnhardt was killed in a Feb. 18 crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500, his widow filed suit in Volusia Circuit Court to stop the county medical examiner from releasing the autopsy photos to the Orlando Sentinel. Judge Joseph Will temporarily enjoined the release. On Monday and Tuesday, the judge will conduct a full hearing on the issue in his Daytona Beach courtroom. The Orlando Sentinel, which sought the photos to determine whether a head restraint might have saved Earnhardt’s life, dropped out of the case after reaching a settlement with Teresa Earnhardt that allowed an independent expert to examine the photos. The Sentinel said it never intended to print the photos. After studying the photos, the Sentinel‘s independent expert concluded that death resulted from a skull fracture related to a violent head snap. NASCAR, which sanctions the stock car circuit, is still investigating. While the Sentinel is out of the case, other news organizations have taken up the fight. The Independent Florida Alligator, the University of Florida’s student newspaper, and the First Amendment Foundation have challenged the retroactive law prohibiting the release by filing intervenor briefs in Earnhardt’s original suit against the medical examiner. Gov. Jeb Bush and Attorney General Bob Butterworth have jumped in as intervenors on Earnhardt’s side to support the new law. The 69-year-old Rumberger has adopted Teresa Earnhardt’s cause with zeal. Her big fear, he says, is that photos of her husband’s battered corpse would be leaked out and displayed on the Internet. “I became a real believer in this privacy business,” he says. But Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, says the law violates the state constitution because it interferes with public access to government records and contains no standards to guide judges in granting exceptions to the ban. She frets that the law could allow medical examiners and others to cover up mistakes in autopsy findings. She also notes that the Sentinel‘s examination of the photos proved valuable because it refuted initial reports that Earnhardt’s death resulted from a faulty seat belt. The case represents a change of pace for Rumberger, senior partner at the 56-attorney, Orlando, Fla.-based Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell. He made his considerable reputation as a defense attorney in product liability cases, often working on behalf of General Motors Corp. GOVERNOR’S PROT�G� The California-born Rumberger grew up in Ocala. After going off to war in Korea, where he served as a Marine tank commander, Rumberger enrolled at the University of Florida. On the way to earning a bachelor’s degree in 1959 and a law degree in 1961, he dabbled in campus politics. The Gainesville, Fla., campus at the time was a hotbed of future political leaders. Buddy MacKay, a future Democratic congressman and lieutenant governor, was a close friend of his during law school. “I used to share his notes,” Rumberger recalls. “It always angered him that I got just as good grades as he did, based on his notes.” MacKay remembers Rumberger as a quick study of his notes. “He could read ‘em faster than I could,” MacKay concedes. After law school, Rumberger became a prot�g� of Claude Kirk, the flamboyant governor from 1967 to 1971. Tom Slade, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, says Rumberger’s personality was as outsized as his 6-foot 5-inch, 240-pound physical stature. “Kirk was such a powerful personality that he blew down most people,” says Slade. “Rumberger was one of the few that could bring Kirk under control.” Rumberger credits Kirk with a strong assist to his career and still talks regularly with the former governor. “He did a lot for me,” Rumberger says. “I was just a punky little jerk. All of a sudden I was a prosecutor, and then he made me a circuit judge.” Then, in 1970, Kirk asked his prot�g� to run for attorney general. Rumberger lost to Democrat Bob Shevin, receiving just 38 percent of the vote. It convinced him that his political future lay in backing other Republican candidates. REVIVING THE DEFENSE BAR After his election loss, Rumberger went to work for Maguire Voorhis and Wells in Orlando. Rumberger saw the relatively new field of product liability law as wide open and intellectually stimulating. He eventually joined Pitts Eubanks Ross & Rumberger in Orlando as a partner, where he focused on product liability for five years, before founding Rumberger Kirk in 1978. In the 1960s, Florida defense lawyers were much better financed than plaintiffs’ lawyers and generally outclassed their ragtag foes. But in the late ’60s and early ’70s, plaintiffs’ attorneys like Miami ace Perry Nichols refined the art of trying tort cases. Their sophisticated tactics soon tipped the balance in favor of the plaintiffs. Before long, defense lawyers, who had long enjoyed a big advantage in resources, found themselves scrambling. “It was now the defense bar that was looking ragtag,” recalls Alan Sundberg, a former Florida Supreme Court chief justice who now practices law in Tallahassee. Sundberg says, “They were wearing the seersucker suits, while the plaintiff lawyers were wearing the Italian-cut suits.” Sundberg credits Rumberger with redressing the imbalance. Rumberger created a product liability defense boutique that could more than match the plaintiffs’ bar. He tried cases from the Virgin Islands to Maine, bringing in a support staff of 25 to 30 people, ranging from drivers and computer operators to lawyers and paralegals. Rumberger’s team would arrive in the town where the trial was taking place and promptly set up a war room with an arsenal of fax machines, copiers and other equipment for a trial. He brought in flocks of expert witnesses and created elaborate exhibits to wow jurors. “We put on one hell of a show,” he says. His first step at each trial was to measure the courthouse elevators. That was essential in auto product liability cases for determining how his team would cut up the car and bring the pieces into the courtroom. He once had an entire car hoisted through the fourth-floor window of a courthouse in Tampa. The judge, he recalls, made him agree to be personally responsible for any damage to the historic courthouse. Peter Antonacci, who used to practice in Rumberger’s firm, says Rumberger is a master at talking to juries. “He’s one of the old-time trial lawyers who says, ‘I’m going to charm a jury,’ ” Antonacci says. “ He does it very well.” Rumberger acknowledges that he particularly enjoys working juries. “I leave the [technical aspects] to the smart guys,” he says. SHOT AT HEAVEN Antonacci left Rumberger’s firm last year, along with the other half-dozen lawyers in the Tallahassee office, in a dispute involving the firm’s direction. There were concerns that the firm was not growing and that Rumberger was reducing his role. Rumberger attributes the lawyers’ departure to a misunderstanding over his intentions. “There was some momentary confusion,” he says. “It was a nonevent.” He says that while he’s trying to cut back on the number of cases he personally handles, he intends to remain active in the firm. But he recently moved from Orlando, where his firm is based, to Tallahassee, because three of his six children live there. And he concedes that he no longer relishes the lengthy trials in which he used to revel. “I just don’t want to live in a hotel for a year and a half,” he says. He now devotes about 20 hours a week to his passion, protecting the Everglades. He serves as chairman and general counsel of the Everglades Trust, a board member of the Everglades Foundation, and vice chairman of the Teddy Roosevelt Society, which seeks to reconcile differences between developers and environmentalists. He also does legal work for labor unions, an interest he acquired because his father was a railroad conductor and union member. He says his environmental advocacy and his union work are unsettling to his Republican friends, though he remains a staunch member of the GOP and an active party fund-raiser. In characteristic fashion, Rumberger downplays the altruism of his environmental and labor union work. “Some think I’m trying to make up for all the widows I’ve dispossessed and looking for a little straighter shot to heaven,” he quips. Randolph Pendleton is a free-lance writer based in Tallahassee.

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