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Recession? What recession? With the economy sluggish, South Florida litigators are finding that people are more prone to sue. So while most other businesses have dipped, business for litigators is surging. They and their colleagues have proved their constant creativity in finding new deep pockets, ranging from home builders to vaccine manufacturers to the Roman Catholic Church. “Litigators are in great demand,” says Herb Hertner of Herb Hertner & Associates, a Miami-based legal headhunter. “Commercial litigation is doing great. It’s the strongest aspect of law right now.” Veteran litigators here say their caseloads are full, new litigation associates are having no trouble finding jobs and litigation boutiques are scrambling to hire more lawyers and find larger digs. “Our big decision right now is are we going to grow bigger or turn away business?” says Mike Eidson, a partner at Colson Hicks Eidson, a litigation boutique that is poised to expand beyond boutique status. Bob Hackleman, the head of litigation in Gunster Yoakley’s Fort Lauderdale office, says that in the boom days of the recent past, real estate developers who felt wronged would simply move on to the next lucrative deal. Now, they’ll litigate, reasoning, “Let’s try to get 30 cents on a dollar.” MUSHROOMING MOLD SUITS And plaintiff lawyers don’t seem to lack deep-pocket targets. In the 1990s, it was tobacco, asbestos and fen-phen manufacturers. Now, lawyers are taking aim at new corporate bull’s-eyes. Roy Oppenheim’s future is moldy. A partner at Oppenheim & Pilelsky in Weston, Fla., Oppenheim has jumped into mold-related litigation against home builders, one of the fastest-growing types of lawsuits in the country. So-called toxic mold can grow in homes, schools and even cars due to water leaks. According to some medical experts, it can cause rashes, bloody coughs, sinus infections, sore throats and even memory problems. No certain link has been established between health problems and mold, but that hasn’t stopped plaintiffs’ lawyers. An estimated 9,000 toxic mold lawsuits have been filed in the United States in the past few years against such home builders as GL Homes of Boca Raton, Fla., for negligence, and against home sellers for failing to disclose the problem. The field is still fairly new in Florida. But in Texas, a family won a $32 million verdict after their 22-room mansion was found to be infested with mold and the father’s mental capacity allegedly was reduced by his exposure. Madison McClellan, a partner at Gary Williams Parenti Finney Lewis McManus Watson & Sperando in Stuart, Fla., says he’s handled about 30 mold-related suits and has seven active cases. Oppenheim says his firm gets several calls a week on mold cases, but he is particular about the cases he takes. “We need to see medical records,” he says. “It has to have all the necessary ingredients, especially significant health problems.” MERCURY AND AUTISM Another hot new area is product liability litigation brought on behalf of autistic children who were injected with vaccines containing the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal. Some physicians have linked thimerosal, which until recently was used in pediatric vaccines, to autism. In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a notice to its members stating a preference for thimerosal-free vaccines. Again, no airtight link has been established between thimerosal and autism. Still, two groups of lawyers around the country have joined forces and are gearing up to file mass tort lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers who have made or distributed vaccines with thimerosal. As of May, only two lawsuits had been filed in South Florida — one in Miami-Dade Circuit Court and one in Broward Circuit Court. But many lawyers are devoting themselves full-time to studying the science associated with the issue, lining up experts and preparing complaints. Miami lawyer James Ferraro, who has handled 5,000 asbestos cases around the country, filed his first thimerosal lawsuit in March, and Louis Robles of the Robles Law Center in Miami says he’s spent the last two years preparing, assigning one associate at his firm to the area full time. “This is going to be very big,” says Ferraro, of Ferraro & Associates. CHURCH AND COURTS Some South Florida litigators are involved in the growing area of suing the clergy and churches for sexual battery, negligent hiring and retention, and breach of fiduciary duty in alleged sexual abuse cases. Russell Adler, a partner at Carmin Adler & Padowicz in Fort Lauderdale, has handled 12 suits against Roman Catholic priests and various archdioceses, including the Archdiocese of Miami. His first case, a stalking suit against a priest who was alleged to have sent lewd photos of himself to a parishioner, was three years ago. He now has teamed up with Reinhardt & Anderson of St. Paul, Minn. Priest abuse lawsuits now represent 20 percent of his total caseload. To keep up with all the new work, Adler’s firm just hired a new litigator, former Broward prosecutor Ken Padowicz. While litigation is on the rise, some attorneys say, cases are being settled, mediated or arbitrated far sooner than before, perhaps reflecting an inability of litigants to fund expensive litigation indefinitely. “People are litigating but not as long,” says Alice Hector, the head of litigation at Broad and Cassel in Miami. “They are settling faster. Mediation is very hot.” Colson Hicks attorneys are busy representing plaintiffs in a cemetery fraud case in West Palm Beach, in Ford/Firestone tire-related injury and wrongful-death cases (Mike Eidson is co-lead counsel for all personal injury and wrongful-death cases consolidated in federal court in Indianapolis) and in the claims arising from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and other commercial airline crashes. “Not everyone wants to do class action,” Eidson says. “It’s very expensive and very time-consuming.” Since buying a historic building in downtown Coral Gables and moving into showplace offices there two years ago, Colson Hicks has grown from seven to 18 lawyers and has absorbed two other law firms. Already, the firm is out of space. Eidson says he and his colleagues now regret that they leased out the top floor of offices to other businesses. But for now at least, literature is safe from being overrun by litigators. Books & Books, the famed bookstore located on the ground floor of an adjacent building owned by Colson Hicks, has a long-term lease.

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