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Politics

Jeff Kottkamp's professional conversion

He went from defending companies to suing them. But was it really a change of heart?

By JONI JAMES
Published November 2, 2006


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FORT MYERS - Lieutenant governor candidate Jeff Kottkamp's so-called conversion is there in the Lee County courthouse files in black and white, dated August 2005.

Before that date, Kottkamp, known in the Florida Legislature for business-friendly tort reform, was a defense attorney for Publix, Travelers insurance and other corporations.

But after more than a decade of such work, the Cape Coral Republican filed notice that he would switch sides and represent people who sue such companies. One of his first cases was representing a man suing Albertsons for negligence.

Overnight, Kottkamp became a plaintiff's trial lawyer, joining a group the Republican Party has painted as the anathema of civil justice.

In March, Kottkamp was the only Republican state House member to vote against one of the most sweeping, probusiness changes ever to Florida civil litigation law, the abolishment of joint-and-several liability.

Acquaintances speculated that Kottkamp's brush with death had changed him. After all, he was a new plaintiff in an October 2005 lawsuit alleging that improper maintenance of the hospital's roof allowed mold to infiltrate the room where he had surgery.

To some Republicans, the conversion was reason enough that gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist shouldn't pick Kottkamp as his running mate.

But those closest to Kottkamp, Republican and Democrat, say there never was a conversion. Anyone who thought he had changed just didn't know him to start with.

Power of prayer

It was July 2004 at their regular lunch spot, a Sonny's BBQ near Interstate 75 in Fort Myers, that Larry Ringers learned that his best friend and colleague needed open-heart surgery.

"We didn't think it would be that big a deal," Ringers said. "He was in tremendous physical condition."

They had worked together at the same law firm for more than a decade. Ringers was best man at Kottkamp's 1995 wedding to Cyndie. He'd celebrated with them when Cyndie became pregnant after years of trying. She was due in two months.

Kottkamp spent those months in hospitals, in an induced coma, so he could undergo daily surgeries to scrape mold from his chest cavity - mold believed to have been picked up during his heart surgery.

As he laid in a hospital in Lee County, Hurricane Charley came and went, and Cyndie Kottkamp was diagnosed with preeclampsia.

Doctors counseled Cyndie that her husband's odds were slim. Did she want to bring him out of the coma to tell him the news?

Instead, she called a prayer vigil. More than 70 friends and fellow church members jammed into Kottkamp's room and spilled into the hall. The first round of tests taken after the vigil showed for the first time that his body was winning the battle against the infection.

"What that did, if it changed me at all, it really deepened my faith and made me appreciate more my family and friends," Kottkamp said.

He was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for a series of reconstructive surgeries to restore his chest cavity and replace his deteriorated sternum with a bundle of muscles.

"The goal all along was to get him home to see Jackson born," said Ringers. "He did, in a wheelchair in the delivery room."

Jeffrey Jackson Kottkamp - named after his father and Andrew Jackson, Florida's first territorial governor - was born Sept. 23, 2004, the result of a second round of in vitro fertilization. His embryo had been frozen for a year. The couple also share two yellow Labradors named in honor of the Bush brothers: Jeb and George.

In March 2005, as Republican lawmakers pushed to intervene on behalf of Terri Schiavo's parents to keep her husband from removing her feeding tube, Kottkamp rose from the House floor and, evoking his experience, supported state intervention.

"Many people in this state in this time of high emotion just listen to their doctors and are convinced to give up," Kottkamp said on the House floor.

"This is simply a policy statement about what kind of state we're going to be. ... All things being equal, we're going to defend life."

'Both sides of the coin'

Kottkamp stewed as he sat through a debate in the House Justice Committee in January over a bill to overhaul Florida's civil justice system.

The proposal called for the elimination of joint-and-several liability, a centuries-old legal doctrine that often forced deep-pocket defendants to pay the lion's share of damages, regardless of their share of the culpability.

As both sides of the debate fired up videocameras to tape the proceeding, Kottkamp grew testy. "Yesterday we were told that there were going to be cameras here today, sound bites taken today and used against at least one of the members of the committee in an election cycle," he said. "Frankly, if you are so afraid of the exchange of ideas in the process that you have to intimidate members, your ideas must not be very good."

When the bill reached the floor, Kottkamp was the only House Republican opposed.

Critics suggested Kottkamp was looking out for his self-interest as a new member of one of the state's most aggressive trial lawyer firms, Morgan & Morgan.

But Kottkamp says he would have voted for the bill had it included a way for victims who win to return to court if the defendant most at fault couldn't pay the damages. It was the same kind of caveat he pushed in 2003 when he was still a defense lawyer and played a role in rewriting the state's medical malpractice law.

"He's always believed that victims out there, that they don't need to be victimized twice by the system," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, who twice served as vice chairman of committees led by Kottkamp.

Lee County court files also show Kottkamp has a personal record of taking on big companies, including once threatening to muddy a company's name in a legislative hearing if they didn't address his problem.

When he was the plaintiff in a suit over disputed billings with Havertys furniture, he wrote a presuit letter warning the company he was a lawyer and could embarrass them publicly: "I am a member of the Florida House of Representatives. ... I will be sure to point out your company's actions during our upcoming hearings on consumer protection legislation."

"Jeff was always able to see both sides of the coin," said attorney Scott Weinstein, who has worked with and against Kottkamp in the courtroom. He represented Kottkamp in the Havertys suit, which was settled out of court. "He's always been very balanced in his approach to personal injury litigation."

Kottkamp said his so-called trial lawyer conversion was largely a matter of financial reality. Defense attorneys earn money based on billable hours, which can be hard to come by for a lawmaker often traveling to Tallahassee.

"I was a partner at the oldest, biggest, most prestigious firm in Southwest Florida. ... I thought I'd probably spend my whole career there," Kottkamp said. "But as with most legislator lawyers, it became very difficult to meet expectations."

Joni James can be reached at jjames@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified November 2, 2006, 04:51:26]


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