Most Pensacolians know Mike Papantonio as a senior partner at Levin Papantonio, one of the nation’s largest plaintiff law firms. Elected in 2012 as president of the National Trial Lawyers Association, Papantonio has received numerous awards for his legal work and was one of the youngest attorneys inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame. Papantonio is the host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Ring of Fire" with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Sam Seder. He also hosts "America’s Lawyer" on the RT America network and has appeared as a political commentator on MSNBC, Free Speech TV, RT America Network and Fox News. He is the author of numerous books, including the legal thriller Law and Disorder, and a co-author of the New York Times political bestseller Air America: The Playbook. In his latest novel, Law and Addiction, Papantonio takes on the pharmaceutical industry and the nationwide opioid epidemic.
Your professional career is well documented. What can you tell me about your upbringing?
Well, I was raised by a lot of different families, so it’s an interesting thing. I was raised primarily in Florida. I was born in New York, and I think I came to Florida when I was six weeks old or something crazy like that and I’ve been in Florida all my life. I was raised around Arcadia, Bradenton, Sarasota, Ft. Myers, Tampa, and St. Petersburg by different families and it was a great way to be raised because you learn so much. From every family you take something different. One family, somebody in the family was an artist and they taught me how to oil paint. In another family, music was very important and they helped me become a musician. Another family got me interested in writing. With another family, I lived with a WWII flight instructor and he taught me how to fly at a very early age.
I understand you were a journalism major as an undergraduate?
Yes, I was a news editing major at University of Florida and I intended to work in the area of journalism. My goal was to be a foreign correspondent and I was setting up for that, actually. I guess the last thing I had to get was command of a language. Back then everything was happening in South America. You had issues with conflict in about five areas in South America so foreign correspondents were going there. I figured that’s where I’d end up, but it didn’t work out. I ended up going another route.
Why did you choose to go to law school?
I had some friends in Arcadia that said, ‘Maybe you ought to think about law,’ so they introduced me to a man named Perry Nichols who is known as the “father of torts.” He was a very significant trial lawyer. They have awards in his name, as a matter of fact, in Florida and other places throughout the country. He kind of engineered the whole notion of demonstrative evidence—how to try a case, here are the parts, here’s how these parts come together. He really made huge leaps when it comes to lawyers trying to better represent their clients. "I went and I met him and it had a huge influence on me. I said, ‘Well, I guess if I want to write, I can have a law degree and write as well.’
What brought you to Pensacola and to the Levin Law firm?
Well, this is a great area for windsurfing. I liked windsurfing down here and I was actually a little tired of school, to tell you the truth. I've been one of those people that worked and went to school as an undergraduate and then worked and went to law school. I was just exhausted, and I thought I'd come down here, maybe tend bar a little bit and windsurf. I figured I needed to have money to live, so I went to work with the state attorney's office. Ron Johnson actually hired me, and I worked with them for about a year. I found myself going to trial against Leo Thomas a good bit and he is just an extraordinary criminal lawyer. All my cases seem to end up there--with me versus Leo. So, I got a few good breaks and he said, 'Well, why don't you come on over and get a job?' Back then, it was called Levin Warfield, I think. So I said, 'Sure.' I've been here for 37 years or something like that.
It's definitely an iconic firm, not only in Pensacola, but around the world.
It is amazing. You know, I'm always impressed with the incredible athletes, journalists, scientists--every discipline--that come out of Pensacola. I could go on forever. I think that's one thing that really fascinates this documentary crew that's here right now. Because most of these major projects--opioids and human trafficking are launched from this law firm. Thirty-eight of the most significant pharmaceutical cases tried in America are launched from this law firm. Twelve of the biggest environmental cases launched from right here in Pensacola.
You’re married and you have a daughter. Tell me about your family.
My daughter went to law school at Stetson down in central Florida in St. Petersburg, which has become the premier trial school. My wife and I have been married going on 30 years. She was an air traffic controller and I was a pilot and we met that way. I was taking off from the airport and she was in the tower calling traffic and I said; ‘Well I don’t see the traffic’ and she called the traffic three times. One o’clock, half-mile and it said no traffic and she gave me a vector back to the airport and as she did the other plane came screaming across my wing. She got me out of there just in time; I’ll put it like that. Not long after we were both at a bar and I was telling the story and she came up and asked me if I was the idiot who ran into the airplane. Both of us concluded that we were supposed to be married.
I understand you have been the subject of a couple of recent documentaries.
I'm in the middle of doing a documentary. They picked out five lawyers throughout the country, and they just wanted to follow our careers and tell our story. They’ve been following me around every minute. Last week, I was part of another documentary about the opioid crisis. I'm going to be trying the first opioid case out in Nevada.
Where will those be shown when they're ready?
At least one of them will be at Sundance and then the other one will be at Toronto and Tribeca. They'll start hitting the public screen next year. It's interesting; I don't know if you ever saw The Devil We Know, but that was a documentary they did on me a couple of years ago. It was interesting because it was an issue that nobody knew about. Nobody understood that the chemical C8 is in everybody's blood and in everybody's drinking water. It was put there by DuPont and 3M. It will cause cancer. What’s happened is conventional media--corporate media--has become so dysfunctional that a lot of these stories would never be told but for documentary makers. I'm just grateful they're out there. We had a public viewing of The Devil We Know, and it was the first time the community had ever heard that they have C8 in their drinking water. That's bad. It's interesting when with media has gotten to the point where they don't deliver the important messages anymore.
I want to talk to you a little bit about your latest book, Law and Addiction. I know it centers on the opioid epidemic. Can you give me a brief synopsis of the plot?
It's actually just like Law and Vengeance and Law and Disorder. It's based on real cases and how it really happened. So, there was a young lawyer from West Virginia who approached me and said, 'Look, I have this case. It's against the opioid manufacturers and the opioid distributors because here in my city, we have 400 people, and these companies pumped these six million pills into my city. Now, the addiction level is off the charts. The city is basically closed down with bars on the windows. People left town, and it looks like a tumbleweed town. I want to bring a case against the manufacturers and distributors for the losses that happened. The city spent multi-millions of dollars just increasing the police force. They spent tens of millions of dollars in hospitalization and rehab. I want to get that money back for the city. I want to rebuild the city.'
When he first came to me, I wasn't that wild about the idea. I thought it needed to be a bigger approach. There was no benefit in just trying the one case in West Virginia because it was such a national problem. One hundred and fifty people die every day because of opioid addiction. So I said, 'Let me see if we can come up with a plan.' We file a case up in Ohio. We centralized all of the cases in America in the federal court up in Ohio.
That's the real story, and that's what this book is about. There are things that happen in the book that are obviously fiction because it's a thriller. It's much like the other books where I take cases that we handle and then put it to life in a fictional book.
Although there are a lot of fictional elements, the general structure of how these things work and what the pharmaceutical companies and distributors did, that framework is basically true. How much of an education can the average reader gain from this book?
I was at a book signing here in town and the most frequent comment that I got was, 'It was a good thriller and at the same time, I learned how this happened to America.' They learned that part of the responsibility goes to the corporate media that wouldn't talk about the story because the advertisers were paying so much money on their network. Or the Attorneys General all over the country that had us believe that they had solved the problem by settling with these folks 10 years ago for peanuts. And then they declared that there was a huge victory--that they had cured the opioid crisis, which was a lie. And then they learned that the manufacturers and distributors phonied up information for doctors, telling them that this is a safe product--you don't have to worry about addiction.
I handled the documents. I took the depositions. So, I know that these lies that were pervading the whole industry had America charmed into believing that this is a special narcotic--I can take as many as I want, and I'm not going to get addicted. Well, it was a lie created by the industry. They went to some of the most important universities and hospitals around the country, and they hired what we call biostitutes. Those are people who will say and do anything for the right amount of money. So, the industry would write this literature and then this biostitute doctor or professor would sign off on the literature for half a million dollars. They didn't write it. They didn't know anything about it. So doctors were sucked into all of that. There are so many moving parts that this book covers that people don't know.
You mentioned the media. Tell me a little bit about what you see happening in the media landscape in America right now.
Well, I think it's a train wreck to tell you the truth. In 1980, there were somewhere between 50 and 60 independent outlets that controlled the narratives in magazines, television, radio and books. There was a great diversity. Now that diversity is reduced to three major corporations. They decide what the narrative is. They deliver the narrative according to what their needs are. It's basically not even news anymore. It's infotainment. It's a platform to sell goods. They get you there by saying, 'Hey, you want to know what Kim Kardashian wore to the music ceremony last night? We'll cover the story here.' It's not even news. So news is dead. The news process of America is dysfunctional and what is replacing it is the documentary business and a few outlets. As odd as it may seem, for four years I've had a national program on Russian TV called "America's Lawyer." It allows me to tell stories that corporate media would never allow me to tell. It would be impossible for me to go on and talk about Bayer because all you have to do is turn on the television and every eight minutes, there's a commercial for Bayer or Merck or Pfizer. So we believe that we have a robust media because we see these talking heads on TV, and we think that's really news. It's not. It's just a vehicle to sell more products. That's why you have more cable cutting going on in the country right now than ever. They're moving into social media--you have a whole generation that's made corporate media irrelevant.
Tell me about your writing process.
The characters are so important. There are two things that I think really are important, especially about a legal thriller. One is the concept of show me, don’t tell me. In order to get there you’ve got to create the character because how does the character show you anything unless you know who the character is? It’s even hard to visualize a dialog and so I think the time spent on the character is important. I have a big advantage because I have so many unusual characters around me day to day, so I just borrow a little bit here and a little bit there. Add it all up and I come up with a character that I like. I’m always looking for back stories. And sometimes it’s just a nuance. Maybe something that everybody thinks is an affectation, but actually it’s a fairly well-engrained characteristic of the character. And so I’m always looking for that. I keep notes on my telephone and so the notes section on my iPhone is always jammed up with little thoughts.
Who are your favorite writers?
Steinbeck. Unquestionably, it’s Steinbeck. You know, I mean they’re odd writers. Kafka, you know The Trial. Who’s read Kafka? It’s those types of books that at a very early age taught me a sense of social responsibility. I was entertained. Tortilla Flats, you know, you read that and you love Doc. You love the characters surrounding Doc. They’re all miserable failures by American standards, but you take a look at them and they all offer these interesting things and you think, ‘Wow I would just love to spend an afternoon with that person.’ How would you not want to say, ‘Doc, let’s sit here and talk a while?’ So those are the kinds of writers generally that move me. I read peculiar things growing up. I genuinely liked the classics. Even today, I’ll pick one off the shelf and reread it and I’ll say, “Wow that was great.”
Sometimes I’ll interview a young lawyer and I’ll say, “What do you like to read?” and I’m lucky if I get a “John Grisham.” And I’ll say, “Well did you ever read any Hemingway?” Not to say that I’m a great Hemingway fan, but what is it that you grew up with? F. Scott Fitzgerald? Did you read any of that? There’s a lot of important stuff there. One way that you become a great lawyer is to read and borrow from different cultures and different ideas. Borrow from concepts that might be totally foreign for you. And then you’re able to take all that material and you can write a great closing statement, and you can do a great cross examination. Because the jury wants more depth. The jury is there sometimes for two months. They like depth. They don’t want to see a shallow show. They want to see meaningful cross examination where they can say, “Oh, I see where he is going with this cultural idea.” It’s not just about the case for them sometimes. So, in order to do that, you have to arm yourself with great literature.
I want to talk to you a little bit about the People's Law School that your firm did here recently.
I started People's Law School about 25 years ago, and it went dormant for a while. I started it because it was during a time when there was so much anti-lawyering going on. I was kind of sick of it. So I started this thing called People's Law School here in Pensacola. Right out of the gate it was a huge success. People wanted to know the basics. How do I do a will? How does real estate work? What happens when somebody's injured in an auto accident? What happens when medical malpractice takes place? They want know that. People have a real voyeur interest when it comes to the practice of law just like they do with medicine. That's why most laws shows on television do pretty well. As a matter of fact, with these books that I write, right now there are screenwriters working to see if they would work for a TV series. People are interested in knowing how their lives are affected by the law. We'll be doing a couple per year. Kim Adams, who is with our law firm, picked it up and she's built it into a really robust program.
You've been described as a member of the Christian left, and I know that you are Christian and your views tend to lean to the left. So do you agree with that description?
Well, I agree with the Christian part. I would add to that in journalism, all I've really ever done was progressive politics. But it's kind of come full circle. I've really come to the conclusion, after doing this for so many years, that there's really no difference between what you would call a Wall Street Democrat and a Republican. I mean, it's the same entity. The only difference, I find, is that maybe the Democrats are better on social issues. They're better on women's issues, on gender issues and on environmental issues. But when it comes to issues that really affect people's pocketbook, they're terrible. I mean, they're always going to line up for corporations against consumers. They're always going to line up for government against consumers. You always go through an evolution in your politics. For example, I'm still a Bernie Sanders guy, but look at what they did to Bernie in the last election. They made him irrelevant. Hillary's band of flying monkeys set out to destroy his presidency and truthfully, he would have beat Trump. I'm totally convinced he would have beat Trump. So, the Christian part is very strong and I'm proud of that. But the politics--I'm progressive, but I don't even recognize what you call progressive nowadays. It's just a muddle.
Who do you think will come out on top for the Democrats and how do you think that's going to play out?
You know the Democratic field is such a mess. Honestly, Biden is going to be there because the DNC has decided that he's going to be there the same way they decided Hillary was going to be there. It's this process that is political nepotism. Bill was president and Hillary has been hanging around for 40 years, so let's make her president, too. People don't think like that. Democrats do. That was the weirdness about Trump. Who in the hell was Trump? I mean, this guy comes out of nowhere--'I want to be president'-- and everybody laughs at him. Well, to the American public, they're thinking, 'Wow, that was refreshing. He doesn't sound like Washington. He doesn't talk in politically correct terms. I don't even understand what he says half the time, but I like him.' So, unfortunately, they're going to push Biden through, and Biden's going to be the bumbling dope that he is, and he's going to lose.
So how do you choose your cases? I'm sure there's a million worthy cases that come across your desk.
That's the most painful thing because you know that you can't do them all. They are just too big to get your arms around. So you have to pass on cases that you don't want to pass on and you know that a typical lawyer who just has a regular office practice will not be able to handle. So you walk away from that case knowing that there's never going to be justice. That's a really disturbing thing. But, you have to pick your fights knowing there's never a Disney ending. I mean, I might go to trial, and I might hit them for a billion dollars because they're such disgusting corporate thugs, but tomorrow there's going to be another company somewhere else in America or Europe that makes the same kind of decision and hurts people the same way. There's no finality to anything that I do. There's no silver bullet. It doesn't end like a “Hallmark” show. All you can say is, 'Okay, while I'm on this planet doing this, I can do my part.’ Sometimes everything converges and change takes place, but it's rare. But that doesn't mean you don't do it. It doesn't mean you don't take on these cases with the knowledge that somebody out there is going to do something just as awful next year. There's no finality.
What else are you working on?
Well, I think the biggest thing happening right now beyond opioids is the human trafficking case that I've filed. Sex trafficking heavily impacts this area because we're on I-10, right? I-10 connects the two coasts. Between here and Atlanta, the sex trafficking is massive. The book I'm working on right now is tentatively called Law and Bondage and it'll be finished in April. As the book is being written, I am actually handling the case. The case has many parts. When I say case, it's really a project. You file your lawsuit in a centralized federal court, which in this situation is Ohio. Then all the cases that involve similar issues are filed there in Ohio. So in this case, I don't know whether you were around when the Ukrainian girls were brought in from the Ukraine to work in Destin. They were brought in under H-2B guest statute to work. So they brought them in for the service industry. They were going to be waitresses and greeters--that's what these girls thought. It wasn't just girls, it was guys, too. But that's what these young people thought--that they were going to be able to someday work for the Ritz-Carlton or the Hilton or something like that. But they were brought over and they were abused to the fact that they became slaves. It starts off that they're working as a server or bartender in a restaurant and next thing you know it's, 'Hey, how would you like to dance at the strip bar? You can make more money.' And then after that it's, 'Hey, how would you like to work as an escort?' As they are doing that, they're not getting the money. The people that are handling them are getting the money and they're simply trying to hold on for their lives. They understand that under the H-2B, they could be sent back to the Ukraine at the drop of a hat by the person who brought him here. Maybe that person holds your passport, that person holds their sense of freedom. That's what the book is about and that's what the case is about that I've filed up in Ohio.
Along the I-10 corridor, what are you seeing in terms of ages in human trafficking? Is it teenagers?
Yes. It's a lot of runaways. The biggest thing in this area is called the Romeo routine. This is when a runaway is at a mall and the traffickers get some good-looking kid, who is the Romeo, to go say, 'Oh, did you run away? Let me be your boyfriend. You can live with me. I'll help take care of you.' The next thing you know, they've moved into prostitution or drugs. Many people don't realize that the life span of the trafficked child is seven years. The way they look at it is that this is not like drugs. This is a commodity that you can use again and again. With cocaine, you sell it one time and that's it. If you've got a trafficked fifteen-year-old, then you sell that person again and again and again. It goes on for five years until they die of a drug overdose or suicide or some type of horrible sex related disease or murder. So this is a real case. It's hard for people to look at it and realize it is taking place right in their backyard.
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