Mike Papantonio – A Master of the Courtroom Masters the Legal Thriller

Besides “show don’t tell,” the best advice given to authors is “write what you know.” Mike Papantonio certainly does that, one reason why his legal thrillers are so riveting. Unlike other bestselling writers in the genre (John Grisham and Lisa Scottoline, for example), Papantonio not only continues to practice law, but his cases are the ones making headlines – big headlines. His most recent book, Law and Addiction, mirrors the legal battles being waged against the pharmaceutical giants whose aggressive sales tactics and business practices are being blamed for an opioid epidemic that has decimated communities and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives nationwide. 

Papantonio, a senior partner with the Pensacola-based law firm Levin Papantonio, has been on the front lines. Representing many counties and cities that have been affected by the crisis, he filed the first legal action against the drug companies in Ohio. Law and Addiction could be used as a guide for how to successfully win a complicated torts case. While the thriller is filled with legal strategy and facts about opioids, Papantonio skillfully weaves all that information into a narrative where the action never lets up. “You can be entertained and also feel that you learned something,” says Papantonio. “It’s nice to be able to sit at a beach and read a thriller and then say, `gee, I didn’t know this about this corporate mentality,’ whatever it may be. It’s a double benefit. That why my books do fairly well.”

Nicholas “Deke” Deketomis made his first appearance in Papantonio’s Law and Disorder, followed by Law and Vengeance. While Papantonio says that Deke is a composite of attorneys he knows, similarities with the author are hard to ignore. Like Deke, Papantonio is always juggling multiple cases. Both speak in a “folksy, unhurried way.” And the attorneys – fictional and real life – are fighters when going up against corporate monoliths whose products are harming the environment or, in the case of tobacco or opioids, leading to addiction and oftentimes death.

“I’ve been handling mass tort cases for 37 years,” says Papantonio, including the tobacco litigation which originated in Florida. “A real, sustained, visceral response to what happened” is necessary for a lawsuit to have enough momentum to succeed, he explains. “There’s another pharmaceutical out there that is killing people, shutting down their livers and shutting down their kidneys and causing all sorts of other physical problems,” he says. “But because [that drug] doesn’t affect quite so many people, you can’t sustain the visceral anger at the way corporate America operates. But [the opioid situation] is certainly one that lends itself to that.”

Papantonio admits that the opioid epidemic “wasn’t on my radar” when he was approached by a very young lawyer in West Virginia, who became the Jake Rutledge character in Law and Addiction. “Through the process of representing cities and counties, we were able to do what had to be done first: get the documents, expose the conduct, and try to get a little bit of will on the part of corporate media and government to do something,” Papantonio says. “That’s where all this material is coming from.”

Papantonio has a long history with West Virginia. The first case he tried in the state was against a smelting company that had created a toxic mountain that continued to burn and smolder,  causing medical problems and a cancer cluster in the small town, aptly named Smelter. “I think I hit them for $309 million,” he says. “It was kind of big news and all the lawyers in that area for 200 miles were coming to watch the  trial. It was a fairly dramatic trial. It was kind of a bloodbath for the company. I think that’s why I ended up doing so much over there, and Ohio was right next to West Virginia, so I get hired along that way a lot.” 

Papantonio’s lawsuit against DuPont was recounted in the documentary The Devil We Know. The chemical giant operated a plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, to produce C8, the compound used to produce not only non-stick cookware, but also microwave popcorn bags and waterproof sportswear. (One startling fact in the film: because of the ubiquitous nature of C8, traces of the chemical can be found in virtually everyone’s blood worldwide.) While Parkersburg benefitted from the jobs produced by the DuPont plant, the workers and residents suffered from the health consequences – cancers as well as miscarriages and babies who were born with serious deformities. Talking about the case and the people he represents, Papantonio appears on screen throughout the documentary. “It’s not over,” he says. “They’ve tendered close to $1 billion, but it continues. The only thing they’ve been able to do is clean up the water, the drinking water. But it goes on.”

The first phase of legal action against the drug companies involved in opioids is being handled like past mass torts actions against tobacco and asbestos companies. Multi district litigation (MDL), where hundreds and perhaps thousands of plaintiffs are involved in dozens of different federal courts, consolidates discovery. “You have to have a center of gravity,” Papantonio explains. “You can’t do it simply by filing four cases in Georgia and 10 cases in Alabama. There’s no way to bring closure to something like that. We learned that all the way back in the asbestos case. You have to have a place where all of the discovery takes place – all of the legal fist-fights – and once that discovery takes place, all that material is then moved out to the various states and the trials take place with one central goal, and that’s to bring closure.”

Law and Addiction concludes with the judge’s decision that the lawsuit being brought by Deke and Jake qualifies for an MDL. In real life, Papantonio will be trying his first case, probably next year, in Nevada, where he represents many of the counties in the state. Any monies that come from judgments against the pharmaceutical companies, like potentially the $572 million that Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay in Oklahoma, would ostensibly be used to reimburse counties and cities for the financial burden caused by the opioid epidemic. 

When would families affected by the crisis receive compensation? Papantonio explains that would be phase two of the legal action, similar to what occurred with lawsuits against the tobacco companies. “We first fought it out with the bigger tobacco case and now we’re trying individual cases, primarily in Florida, because we have some very favorable kind of legislation and decisions that took place in the state from the Supreme Court,” he explains.

While legal strategies are detailed in Law and Addiction, Papantonio pulls no punches describing how opioids affect the user. With several characters in the book, he takes the reader inside an addict’s life, how one becomes dependent on a drug that was supposed to take away pain, but instead may pull a person into years of suffering. “Once someone becomes addicted, [because of] the dopamine imbalance, it takes three years to get it back to normal,” he says. “Traditional rehab doesn’t work. And that’s a big problem that people seem to be ignoring.” 

Papantonio’s next book, Law and Slavery, which will be published next fall, deals with another difficult topic – human trafficking. And, once again, the legal thriller will mirror Papantonio’s work product. His firm is representing many women all over the country who have been victims of human trafficking. “It’s just mind-boggling, the depth of people’s awfulness,” he says. The young women come to the U.S. from countries like Ukraine, Mexico, and the Sudan, under H-2B visas, typically used for temporary non-agricultural workers. They are promised jobs as models, au pairs, or as workers in the hotel industry. Instead they often find themselves forced into what amounts to slavery, often prostitution, with no way out. While Papantonio knows he may never be able to stop human trafficking, he will go after the organizations involved. “I’ll have some casinos paying huge money for what they’s done,” he says. “I’ll have some hotel chains paying directly to these people for what they’ve done.” He also intends to go after the truck stop industry, a major player, he says, in human trafficking. And, of course, his book will help to raise awareness of the problem. 

A journalism major at the University of Florida, Papantonio was accustomed to turning out a lot of words every day. But he admits being able to juggle a demanding legal career with one as an author takes focus. “Disciple is everything,” he says. He’s constantly taking notes on his phone, interesting quotes, for example, that might find their way into his next book. “If I go to court and I come home I can get down [what happened] immediately.” During a trial in West Virginia, he met an attorney who waved around his hands like a conductor while addressing the court. “Jazz hands” became a character in Law and Addiction, providing comic relief.

Despite the seriousness of his work and his books, Papantonio says he never gets discouraged. “You have to have a some level of cynicism,” he says. “At the end of the day, capitalism is probably the best system in the world. I really do believe that. But it only works if regulators make it work. There’s always going to be this imbalance. The only way to get discouraged is to say, `I think I can solve it all.’ I know I can’t solve it all.”

Law and Addiction
Mike Papantonio

About Charlene Giannetti (320 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "1Life After You," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in 2019. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.