He keeps on proving juries just love him

Lawyer: Days after settling the $185 million Merry-Go- Round case, Baltimore attorney Stephen L. Snyder looks to his next big score.

Sun Profile

April 29, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Looking back, David Levin says, he understands how Stephen L. Snyder won a $2.8 million verdict for the family of a woman who died after gall-bladder surgery.

Levin, an Annapolis lawyer, is still certain he beat Snyder on the expert testimony, the medical details, the sometimes tedious scientific evidence. But Snyder triumphed in the hearts of the jurors, and that is the only battlefield that counts.

"There was a heavyset woman in the front row who sold real estate, and she thought Snyder was the cat's meow. Every time Steve opened his mouth, she smiled," Levin says of the 1995 case. "He's like that every time. He connects with two or three people in the jury, and he just doesn't let go."

Lawyers for Ernst & Young took that lesson to heart this week. Rather than face Snyder before a Baltimore jury, the accounting giant agreed to pay an eye-popping $185 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that Ernst & Young's bungling brought down the Merry-Go-Round clothing chain.

With the exception of the state's $4.4 billion tobacco deal, it was the largest legal settlement in Maryland history. It was the latest and biggest hit for the 51-year-old Snyder, who will share more than $70 million in fees.

After Peter G. Angelos, who has earned hundreds of millions suing asbestos makers and could make $1 billion on the tobacco case, Snyder is now indisputably the most successful plaintiff's attorney in Baltimore.

Yet Snyder, the strutting, shouting, weeping, cajoling master of the jury case, seems to have plenty left to prove. In his 30th year as an attorney, he remains strikingly insecure, uncertain of his status in Maryland's clubby legal world.

His style provokes strong opinions, good and bad, often from the same person. Lawyers who know him well call him "a piece of work," "brilliant," "dangerous in front of a jury," "big-hearted," "a control freak" and, curiously, "unhappy."

Most lawyers who have tangled with him consider him a skilled trial attorney with an uncanny feel for what wins over a jury and a savvy negotiator when settlement talks begin. But some begrudge him his success, describing him as more showman than lawyer, a flashy cynic who manipulates unsophisticated jurors by twisting the facts.

This makes Snyder crazy. His voice pained, he demands: "How many of these big cases do I have to win before people stop saying it's a fluke?"

How many, indeed. Snyder appeared on Maryland's legal map in 1983, with a $2 million jury verdict against Dr. George Richards, a radiation therapist who overdosed numerous patients. Many of them subsequently brought their cases to Snyder, launching a lucrative business exposing the mistakes of doctors and sometimes lawyers. Among many big awards, he claims the state's largest medical malpractice verdict ($10.35 million) and legal malpractice verdict ($12 million).

Moving into business litigation, he settled a racial discrimination and fraud complaint against Baltimore's cable television company for $100 million in cash and stock, receiving as his fee so much stock that he was given a seat on the board. He won two cases against Bell Atlantic, one for $11 million, the other for more than $25 million -- though on retrial the latter case produced only $1 million, a footnote Snyder's resume omits.

Even during the preparation for the Merry-Go-Round case, Snyder took time out to win a breast implant suit in Washington. On Jan. 4, a jury awarded $10 million to the plaintiff, the largest verdict ever in such a case.

Yet for Snyder, characteristically, it wasn't enough. He's certain the award was smaller because the jury took a holiday break.

"The venom that was there had dissipated over Christmas," he says. "It was very unfortunate."

And now there's the colossal payout from the Ernst & Young case, which pitted the scrappy 10-lawyer Pikesville firm of Snyder, Weiner, Weltchek & Vogelstein against old-line, 360-lawyer Piper & Marbury. The $70 million will be divided with four partners, but Snyder says he gets "the predominant share."

Not that he was struggling. At his not-quite-palatial home off Park Heights Avenue north of the Beltway, complete with swimming pool and tennis-basketball court, he parks a silver 1999 Rolls Royce, a red '97 Ferrari, a silver '98 Mercedes convertible and a '99 Mercedes truck. He has a penthouse in an exclusive Miami neighborhood and an Ocean City townhouse.

Carefully placed atop the stack of current magazines in his office off Reisterstown Road is an old copy of Baltimore Magazine with Snyder on the cover, resplendent in double-breasted suit and spotted tie, illustrating a piece on "Baltimore's best lawyers."

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