Theodore J. Leopold has heard every plaintiff's lawyer joke in the book, but they don't faze him.
Nobody likes the plaintiff's lawyer until they need a plaintiff's lawyer," Leopold said. "When it comes to important cases, socially just cases, I think people realize the importance of what we do."
After five years of litigation over the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Leopold co-led a legal team that in November 2021 obtained a $626.25 million settlement for residents and businesses. Most of that settlement is earmarked for residents who were children while the city's water was tainted with lead in quantities that were 880 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's legal limit.
This work helped name him to Law360's 2022 Titans of the Plaintiffs Bar.
The legal hurdles in the case were many for the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida-based attorney, including appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, overcoming qualified immunity and negotiating a multi-tier settlement with multiple defendants.
But what sticks with Leopold is the institutional racism laid bare by the case.
"I think the biggest takeaway from the story is that, but for Flint being a high minority poverty-stricken area, this never would have happened," Leopold said. "It was clear that there was a conscious indifference to the people. In an effort to save money, they put the people at risk. And they did it consciously and knowingly that this was a bad situation. But it was Flint, so let's do it."
Leopold is currently the interim co-lead class counsel in another major ongoing toxic tort class action, in which E.I. DuPont de Nemours Co. and The Chemours Co. have been accused of dumping GenX chemicals and more than 250 other per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, into the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.
"There's plenty of historical documents at DuPont knowing that PFAS chemicals were extremely dangerous, but they use them anyway. There's a whole long tortured history of DuPont's use of these chemicals," Leopold said.
The case shines a light on the larger issue of PFAS, which build up in the body and biodegrade extremely slowly, Leopold said. High levels of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive side effects, weakened immune systems and delayed development in children, according to the EPA.
"PFAS are being consumed by the public, every day, by every citizen in any part of the world, because of the contamination due to chemical companies using these toxins," Leopold said. "They're being dumped in waterways around the world, in the air, groundwater, so we all are accumulating it. It is out now just coming to light just how dangerous it is."
In the courtroom, Leopold is even-tempered, with a calm demeanor that helps juries trust his argument, recalled Anthony Romanucci, who was co-counsel with Leopold on a 2014 wrongful death case against a Marion County, Florida sheriff's deputy, Salvato v. Miley.
"In his courtroom demeanor, he's the same in his personal life: There's nothing pretentious about him," Romanucci told Law360. "He's not a showman, he's not a showboat, Ted Leopold is who he is."
"I'd go to battle with him as a trial co-counsel anytime," Romanucci added.
A graduate of the University of Miami and Samford University's Cumberland School of Law, Leopold always wanted to be a litigator and caught the consumer advocacy bug early.
"I knew I wanted to get into litigation," Leopold said. "I was very fortunate at the very early start of my career to do public justice type of litigation, and that's the type of litigation I always wanted to do thereafter."
Leopold started out in automobile safety litigation early in his career. In 1996, he tried one of the first-ever cases over managed care in Chipps v. Humana, getting a jury to award $80 million in punitive damages over the insurer's denial of medical care to a child with cerebral palsy. The company later settled the case for $2.2 million after a Florida appeals court tossed the verdict.
"That verdict was really one of the first managed care litigations ever tried — to help awake the insurance industry that they can't just make decisions with impunity," Leopold said.
Suing corporate giants or any highly resourced defendant is an uphill battle, and there aren't many lawyers who specialize in these kinds of cases, Leopold said.
"These are very hotly contested and litigated fraud cases. Very, very, very expensive to litigate. So you don't have a lot of firms in the country doing this work," Leopold said.
But Leopold said he's driven by the opportunity to seek redress and make social change.
"We can make a huge difference in the lives of people and communities that have suffered through no wrongful lapse of themselves and have been experiencing this harm that has occurred to their communities."
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