Fred Levin gets his Way as downtown Pensacola shuts down

Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May said that legendary Pensacola trial lawyer and longtime friend Fred Levin would often talk about plans for his funeral. He envisioned it being at the arena, with schools letting out, government offices shutting down for the week.

Instead, he died of Covid on Jan. 12, 2021, when even small gatherings were problematic.

But on April 24, May told the crowd assembled on Palafox Street to “look what is happening today. Roads are closed, churches are shut down and people are here.”

The heart of Pensacola was blocked off for the Fred Levin Way Fest, a Celebration of Giving. The day kicked off with a ceremony dedicating Fred Levin Way on a block of what had been Zaragoza Street, right in front of the law firm where he worked for decades and built a controversial legacy.

“In his wildest dreams, he never could have imagined there would be a street named after him in Pensacola,” said Martin Levin, his son. “He’d joke he couldn’t get elected dog catcher.”

The dedication kicked off an event where about 40 non-profits had booths around Plaza Ferdinand VII, showcasing what they do for the community. There was an exotic car show, children’s activities, food trucks and free admission to museums.

A booth near the entrance handed out copies of Levin’s biography, “And Give Up Showbiz?: How Fred Levin Beat Big Tobacco, Avoided Two Murder Prosecutions, Became a Chief of Ghana, Earned Boxing Manager of the Year, and Transformed American Law.”

In 1980, he made headlines nationally for the then-highest jury verdict in a personal injury compensatory suit. But he was just getting started.

His crown jewel was getting the Florida legislature to rewrite the Medicaid Third-Party Recovery Act in a stealth move at the end of a session, so the state could sue Big Tobacco for funds expended in treating patients with smoking-related diseases. This was a new move, as previously individual smokers would sue one tobacco company and have to prove that company’s products harmed them; this approach took patients in the aggregate, proportionally against the market share of each tobacco company.

When the new law was upheld, tobacco companies settled with Florida for $13 billion.

He had over 30 verdicts in excess of $1 million, and a lengthy charitable legacy, including a naming gift to the University of Florida School of Law, with part of the motivation being revenge against the state Bar Association, which had tried to dis-bar him three times.

“Fred’s legacy is so large, it is so hard to imagine his not being here,” May said. “He is present in each of us because he made each of us feel so important.”

May said Levin “would be dancing down the street if he were here today,” and Martin Levin said “this truly would be one of the happiest moments of my dad’s life.”

He envisioned his father looking down and having a Crown Royal “and telling everyone it is all because he is the greatest trial lawyer who has ever lived.”

Levin wouldn’t take any flak from those who had an issue with his being Jewish, but May said that “from the rabbi to the Muslims to the Baptists to the Seventh Day Adventists, Fred covered his bases.”

His dedication to the city was also highlighted. Mayor Grover Robinson said “he could have gone anywhere but he set his roots here in Pensacola, and was here in this community, making it better all the time.”

Martin Levin said that no matter where his father was on the world stage, he would make sure to talk about Pensacola. “Even in Israel, the only thing he would say the whole trip is that Pensacola is better.”

Professional boxer Roy Jones Jr., a Pensacola native and Olympic boxing silver medalist, said when they made Levin, “they threw the mold completely away.” Levin was Jones’ manager for 14 years. As Levin was a constant promoter, Jones said he had to make sure never to get between Levin and a camera.

But with that, “I had a lawyer who thought I could beat the world” and “an angel who can support you all the way to the top.”

He also managed Ike Quartey of Ghana, leading the African nation to award him the title of High Chief in a United Nations ceremony.

Martin Levin paid tribute to the next generation at Levin Papantonio Rafferty. “This law firm is what made him. He believed it was making a difference in the world, and it did.”

Martin Levin acknowledged that his sisters, Marci Goodman, Debra Dreyer and Kimberly Brielmayer, came up with the idea for the festival and “none of this would be possible without them,” but “like dad, I’ll take all the glory, and do nothing, and I’m damn good at it.”

When it came time for the sign unveiling for Fred Levin Way, the box of balloons surrounding the sign got stuck, and eventually had to be pulled down instead of flying off. “Good, the environmental lawyers won’t sue us,” May quipped.

After the event, Councilperson Ann Hill said that the event was no longer the “first-ever” but the “first annual” because of the successful turnout. She said it was “a true gift to the people of Pensacola, a place the festival’s namesake loved like no other.”

Levin Papantonio Rafferty posted that they have “big plans for next year’s festival, so stay tuned.”

Hill said roughly 4,000 attended the event, including many families, and 1,200 free meals were served. Over 1,000 prizes were given out, “including toys for all ages, fitness equipment, electronics, art and science supplies.”

In addition, 1,000 tickets for the Escambia County Area Transit, 500 free admissions to the Pensacola Children’s Museum and 100 free admissions to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos were given away.