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S P E C I A L Tobacco Under Attack

Lawyers who helped Florida win tobacco suit ask: Where's the money?

Chiles with tobacco lawyers October 1, 1997
Web posted at: 4:08 p.m. EDT (2008 GMT)

From Correspondent Robert Vito

TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- Steve Yerrid likes the challenge of a tough fight. The Tampa lawyer has championed the cause of the underdog while making a lot of money -- so much that he was able to build his dream house on Tampa Bay.

"I sought justice and success followed, and with the success came the money," he said.

Yerrid was one of several lawyers who answered Florida's plea in 1995 for private lawyers to help them fight the tobacco industry in court. Florida aimed to recover Medicaid money the state had spent on smokers made sick by cigarettes. The attorneys were promised huge financial rewards if they won.

They did win. But today, Yerrid is fuming.

"I feel betrayed. I feel like I've been used," he said.

Both his parents died from illnesses related to smoking cigarettes, so he was thrilled when the state recruited him to join its legal team.

With other private attorneys, he signed a contract with the state that promised if they won, they would share 25 percent of the settlement for their nearly three years worth of work. If they lost, they would get nothing.

Steve Yerrid, Tampa lawyer

Yerrid and the other attorneys took the risk and won. It was the biggest fight of Yerrid's career. Now, he says, the state won't pay its $1.4 billion bill.

"We dug the ditch, and now they want me to take my pick and shovel and mosey home with my pockets empty," Yerrid said.

Yerrid says the legal fees the state owes him amount to $8 million now, and $62 million over the next 25 years. Although it sounds like a lot of money, Yerrid says he gave up around $85 million in business to take the case.

Making matters worse, he said, the state told the private attorneys to fight it out with the tobacco industry for payment.

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles says the private legal team agreed to new fee terms, and voided the original contract. But Yerrid and several other team members insist they knew nothing about the new terms, and certainly never agreed to any.

So these days, Yerrid is preparing for another fight: a possible lawsuit against the state of Florida. If you can't trust your own government, he asks, who can you trust?

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