Mike Martin is a lawyer who keeps his boots handy. As a specialist in agricultural law, he spends a fair amount of time tramping through fields, eyeing damaged crops, and looking farmers in the eye to determine whether he trusts them enough to take on their case.
“You get your feet dirty,” said Martin, whose solo practice is based central Florida, a land of orange groves and grapefruit stands. “I’ve stepped in a lot of mud.”
Martin knows mud. He grew up surrounded by Florida’s trademark citrus groves. In winter he was sometimes called upon – for a $20 fee – to fire up smudge pots of diesel fuel in his neighbor’s orange groves to save the crops from a deadly frost. His father, Ephraim Snow Martin, was a prominent agricultural lawyer himself. In the mid-1930s, the elder Martin helped write the Florida Citrus Code, which regulates the processing of citrus fruit in that state, Martin says.
Martin, 60, worked for more than a decade as counsel for The Coca-Cola Co.’s Minute Maid division, one of the country’s largest purveyors of orange juice. But since then, his practice has taken him far beyond Florida oranges.
In the past decade he has carved out a serious niche as a trial lawyer for agricultural interests. Blueberries, tomatoes, eggplants, and nursery plants are among the cornucopia of flora whose interests, by extension, he has represented since his Lakeland, Fla., practice went national in the late 1980s.
Martin has come a long way from his first agricultural case, in which he represented a farmer who expected perfectly round watermelons to emerge from his fields. Not long before harvest time he discovered that he was growing the elongated variety, for which he claimed there wasn’t a market that year. The argument? That he was sold the wrong seed. The case was resolved with a $60,000 settlement. Since then Martin has won several multi-million-dollar verdicts, including $2.6 million for a Florida farmer who was sold the wrong variety of cherry tomatoes. He also won a case in U.S. District Court in Atlanta for $4.6 million on behalf of a supplier of nursery stock to Home Depot.
In the 1990s he was in the news again with a handful of cases representing farmers whose crops were harmed by the pesticide Benlate, a Dupont product which apparently had herbicidal qualities.
Today, roughly 80 percent of Martin’s practice is devoted to representing agricultural plaintiffs. His recent cases include:
A $1.8 million verdict in a herbicide poisoning case, currently on appeal, in which the Florida farmer he represented claimed that a herbicide known as 2,4-D produced giant, but unsaleable green peppers, undersized cantaloupes and thorny eggplants that were too prickly to be picked.
A suit by 13 blueberry growers in New Jersey who claim that Diazinon AG 600, when mixed with a fungicide, inhibited crop production for several years. The judge ruled against Martin’s client on a pretrial motion earlier this year, finding that a federal insecticide statute precluded a suit based on incorrect labeling. Martin has appealed, arguing that his suit was based on false advertising and design defect.
A claim by a Florida bean farmer who was allegedly sold the wrong variety of beans – resulting in a loss of $500,000.
A pair of crop insurance cases in which insurers are disputing the claims of Martin’s clients that weather damaged their nursery plants.
Clearly there’s more at stake in these cases than just a few beans or blueberries. With hundreds of acres planted, a farmer who mistakenly sows a variety of bean unsuited to his climate can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. Using the wrong pesticide or a pesticide that drifts to other crops can have equally devastating consequences.
Martin says there’s a market for agricultural lawyers just about everywhere.
“There is room in this field across America,” he said. “A hundred acres of tomatoes in Ohio can be worth a lot of money. It’s a field that begs for competent people. There’s an overwhelming need for trial lawyers who are highly competent and stick by the farmer.”
But any lawyer who is interested in the field should know that victories don’t come easily. Martin says agricultural cases are incredibly complex and typically take an investment of $100,000 and several years to bring to trial. That complexity is due to the fact that agriculture cases often involve multiple plaintiffs, such as the 13 plaintiffs Martin represented in the New Jersey blueberry case.
“They take years and hundreds of hours,” he said. “You have to be prepared to stare them down and try the case.”
A Family Affair
Martin wasn’t always enamored with the law. By the time he graduated from high school there were three lawyers in his family – his father, his older sister and his older brother. There are now six, counting his older sister, who recently stepped down from a Florida circuit court judgeship to become a Christian educator, and his two younger brothers. As a result of Martin’s early exposure to the gritty realities of law, the profession didn’t have the same glamour for him that it has for many prospective lawyers.
Martin studied English at the University of the South in Sewannee, Tenn., and, in the tradition of a growing number of lawyers, has penned an as-yet-unpublished legal thriller involving – surprise – pesticides that blind a young girl. He’s currently at work on a fictional account of an 1835 Indian massacre by federal troops in Florida.
“If I could retire today, I’d write literature,” he said.
For now, Martin is busy running his solo practice out of a four-story office building overlooking Lake Morton, one of Lakeland’s 16 lakes. A couple of years ago, he opened a solo practice after leaving the firm his now 94-year-old father started. One brother is still with the firm, which is located just one flight up, and they regularly refer business to one another.
Chris Skambis an Orlando attorney who has co-counseled with Martin in several cases, says Martin has a way of focusing on the pertinent details without getting bogged down in overly-technical aspects of complex agricultural issues, such as plant pathology and pesticide volatization. But there’s more to his approach than that, said Skambis.
“Mike is entirely unflappable,” he said. “Some of the worst things you can imagine happening can occur, and for him it will be as if nothing happened at all.”
Skambis cited one of Martin’s Benlate cases as an example:
“There happened be a document that his client authored blaming the crop damage on whitefly (a type of aphid). And in the trial he was saying it was Benlate. That was a very bad piece of evidence. But Mike just keeps his head down and moving forward.”
Skambis said Martin countered the evidence by arguing that his client assumed it was aphids because, at the time, he could find no other explanation for such widespread damage.
“To Mike, it was just one of thousands of facts, most of which favored him,” he said. Martin won the case.
Tampa attorney Bob Stoler was one of a team of lawyers who opposed Martin in another of the Benlate cases. He has since co-counseled with him in other cases, including a Florida civil rights case in which their client, a retarded man, is claiming that police used excessive force when arresting him.
“Mike is a very dangerous lawyer,” Stoler said. “He’s very low-key but extremely thorough. And you don’t realize how badly he’s kicking your butt until he’s done.”
Martin has been a small-firm attorney all his life. After passing the bar in June of 1967, he joined his father’s firm, working two days a week. But he spent the other three working as an assistant state’s attorney. Over the next four years, he tried more than 50 jury cases, ranging from drug possession to first-degree murder.
Martin said he’s exceedingly careful about the cases he takes on. If a farmer in Ohio calls him about a case, Martin will hop on a plane and check out the farmer’s field himself. Getting experts to look at the crops, and taking samples and pictures before they are plowed under, can be the difference between winning and losing a case.
“Plants that have been suffering are more susceptible to viruses and insects, as are plants after they have fruited or had vegetables,” he said. “I’ll get the local university to get someone out there lickety split.”
Martin’s specialty is trial work. Colleagues say he is particularly effective in convincing juries that he and his farmer clients are telling the truth. And he’s not big on high-tech presentations.
The lawyers who opposed him in the eggplant pesticide drift case used a slick, computer-driven PowerPoint presentation. Martin, however, stood the farmer up in front of the jury with a pointer and blown up photos of sick-looking vegetables and their normal counterparts.
“In most courts, you can have the farmer about three feet away looking the jurors in the eye and pointing to the photos saying, ‘Look at this picture. That’s what it should look like and this is what happened,'” said Martin. “Then in the final argument, I will say, ‘Remember when Mr. or Mrs. farmer showed you the pictures?’ In the final argument, I become the last expert witness.”
The approach is not simply fact-driven, said Skambis.
“Mike genuinely likes the farmers and he likes the jury to see how much they love what they’re doing and how they’re devastated by the fact that something happened to their crop. He does that very well.”
Martin has become such an expert on the proper legal methodology for estimating crop damage that he was recently asked to serve as an expert witness in an agriculture case in Miami. On his website, he posts concise outlines of important steps in determining crop damage totals and critical aspects of record keeping.
The articles are equal parts marketing strategy, altruistic exercise, and efficiency tool. If an Idaho farmer calls about a case, the farmer can check the site and take critical steps – or avoid mistakes – while Martin is still en route.
“Plants don’t malinger,” he likes to say. “Suffering plants will do their dead level best to tell you about it. But it’s like Quincy