Watson Lives His Dream
Aaron Watson had a big year in 2014. The young attorney in Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty and Proctor law firm won a $12.6 million verdict for his client, making it his second million dollar-plus verdict in two years. He was honored by the National Trial Lawyers Association as one of the top trial lawyers in the nation under 40.
Watson credits his faith and the mentorship of such legal legends as Willie Gary and Fred Levin for his success. On Jan. 16, he will be recognized with other community leaders with the Living The Dream award for his commitment, vision and leadership to keep the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alive.
“I really do feel like I am living my dream,” Watson told Inweekly. “Coming from Prichard, Alabama which was, as we call it, ‘the hood.’ We had five kids in the house. My parents didn’t have a lot of money.”
He is the second person in his family to earn a college degree. “I set my mind to something here in Pensacola. I said I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “I have had the opportunity to work with two legends, Fred Levin and Willie Gary—something I don’t think any other young attorney in this country has done.”
Learning From Legends
Willie Gary, who lives in Stuart, Florida, earned his reputation as “The Giant Killer” by taking down some of America’s most well-known corporate giants on behalf of his clients. He has won some of the largest jury awards and settlements in U.S. history, including more than 150 cases valued in excess of $1 million each.
Gary is no stranger to Pensacola. In 2001, he was awarded $18.28 million against the media giant Gannett Company for the false portrayal of his client, Joe Anderson, in a series of Pensacola News Journal articles, though eventually the judgment was reversed on appeal.
When he was student at Stetson University College of Law, Watson interned in 2008 with The Law Firm of Gary, Williams, Parenti & Watson. Watching Gary in the courtroom helped the intern become more himself as a trial lawyer. The semester prior to working for Gary, he had unsuccessfully tried out for Stetson’s trial team. He admitted that he was trying to fit a mold of what he thought an attorney should be.
Gary showed him something different, more akin to Watson’s upbringing.
“I grew up in a household where my father was a pastor,” he said. “He would always preach these fiery sermons, and I didn’t know at that time that I was being trained to speak with that same righteous indignation.”
Gary mentored the intern, letting him work on multi-billon dollar litigation against Motorola. Watson said, “He pulled me into his office and had me listen to his opening and closing arguments. I saw Willie in court. I saw that he was just being himself. I said, ‘Is your dad a preacher?’ He was like, ‘No, but my brother is. I just use what I have learned my entire life.’”
Gary had a trait that Watson has since learned that all great trial lawyers possess. “When they speak people listen,” he said. “When an opponent got up and spoke, people were, you know, twiddling their thumbs. One guy was asleep. When Willie got up and spoke, he literally preached. One thing about preachers, they have the ability to connect with people.”
Gary helped Watson mold his style. When he tried out again for the Stetson trial team, he made it in the first round. He was recognized as a regional champion in trial advocacy. Watson was later named as a national champion when he finished first in the nation of 248 teams from 148 law schools in the American Association for Justice trial competition.
“I kept being myself, so when I would go to Harvard and Yale against these kids that are probably 10 times smarter than me,” he said, “I learned that if I am prepared, if I just use that gifts that God has given me, then I can go and I can beat anybody.”
Watson had an opportunity to join Gary’s law firm, but decided to come home and work with the Levin Papantonio law firm. He said that he wanted the opportunity to work with some of the top litigators in the country.
“Some people just have the gift to move people. Fred Levin, Mike Papantonio and Troy Rafferty have that gift,” he said. The firm gave the young attorney the chance to learn from whom he considered legends in his profession.
On his first day of work, he was told that Fred Levin wanted to mentor him.
“It was a dream to work with Fred,” Watson said. “I have had the opportunity to try cases three times with Fred. I see how he thinks. I see how he outthinks the opponent. This is chess to him—it ain’t checkers. He is out thinking you. He is not going to fight you on the law, he is going to fight you on the common sense stuff that you never even thought about.”
He worked with Levin on the Yamaha case, which had a $3.4 million verdict. “The whole case was about whether or not their vehicle, it was like a souped up golf cart, was stable or not; whether it tipped too easily,” he said. “They advertised that it went up mountains and up rivers and this or that stuff.”
There was a video of the firm’s team riding on the actual cart and failing to make it tip over. “We were turning the cart this or that way,” he said. “I didn’t like the video. I didn’t want us to show the video in court.”
Since the case was about stability, Watson knew Yamaha’s attorneys would argue they couldn’t get the vehicle to turnover.
Levin didn’t care. He said, “I don’t care about the video. Let them play the video all day. That is not what the case is about. The case is about what they did before they ever put this machine on the market. The emails and all this where they knew that this thing was rolling over and they still put it on the market.”
The Levin team focused on the corporate conduct rather than the actual incident, and they won the case.
“To have that type of high level of mentorship from Fred and Willie and for them to take the time to show me the ropes,” Watson said. “It is almost like wanting to be a basketball player and Michael Jordan and Koby Bryant are mentoring you or wanting to be a boxer and having Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson as mentors. You know that your future is going to be bright by having some of the best mentor you.”
One of his first high-profile cases with the Levin Papantonio law firm was that of Victor Steen, an African-American teenager killed by a Pensacola policeman.
Steen, age 17, was riding his bike when he was run over by Pensacola Police Officer Jerald Ard. The video taken from inside Ard’s patrol car showed the officer chasing Steen, trying to shoot the black teenager with a Taser and suddenly turning and pinning him under his car. Steen was pronounced dead at the scene.
After a two-day coroner’s inquest last February to review the incident, Escambia County Judge John Simon concluded that Steen’s death was “an unfortunate accident” and recommended that criminal charges not be filed against Ard.
Watson represented the Steen family in a lawsuit against the City of Pensacola. The case impacted the young attorney.
“When I first reviewed the video and I had to look at the autopsy photo, man, it hardened me,” he said. “I came out a bright-eyed lawyer thinking that everything was right with the world. You handle a case like that and you see that they’re some ugly things that happen in our society.”
He did understand that the police had their side of the story. He said, “One thing it did teach me was that as ugly as society can sometimes be, there is always going to be two sides to the story. As much as I had to console my client and prepare my side of the case, I had to anticipate their side of the case as well.”
The Steen case had two sides. “As much as we had an argument that this officer used excessive force, he was negligent, he fired a Taser from a moving vehicle at a bicycle,” Watson said. “The other argument that the officer had was, ‘Well, the person that I fired at should have stopped.’”
Victor Steen’s death became very personal for him. “I became Victor Steen. Victor Steen was me,” he said. “Because when I was his age, I was doing the similar stuff, stuff I probably shouldn’t have been, stuff at his age that my folks would not have been proud of.”
When he was a student at Pine Forest High School, Watson had earrings and wore necklaces and baggy pants.
“If you look at me when I was in high school and Victor Steen, we were actually the same person,” he said, “Victor and I could have been friends because I’ve got friends that look just like Victor Steen. I had friends that didn’t go to church every Sunday, that have gone to jail and we were best buds. I could have easily become that.”
Watson said, “Victor to me was potential. He made a decision that should not have cost him his life, but he could have become me. That is what bothered me so much. That’s why we took that case.”
The Steen case received national attention and resulted in one of the largest civil rights settlements to date against the city of Pensacola.
Watson turned 30 last year and understands the lack of hope that permeates the black community. For him, black nihilism is a real problem.
“Black nihilism is where folks think that they can’t achieve just because of their circumstance,” he said. “When I speak to the students at Pine Forest, especially the black males, I say, ‘Listen, I know you probably heard somebody tell you can do what you want to do and you can achieve what you want, but I am living proof of that. You can be me. I am here in your face right now. I am the living proof of that.’”
He talks to the students about spaceships. “Everybody has a spaceship and you can go where you want to go,” Watson said. “I want to encourage them. Listen, some think because of their circumstances or because they messed up and have a criminal record, they can’t do A, B and C. You can. You can do it and you can do it big if you just set your mind to it and have good work ethics.”
Watson has seen the power of strong work ethics in his father, Larry Watson, who grew up a sharecropper in Scooba, Mississippi, a town with a church, gas station and graveyard. Today, Rev. Watson is the senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Pensacola.
The young attorney said, “Literally, we went from cotton fields to courtrooms. When people hear that, a cotton field, they think of oh, two hundred years ago, slavery. No, my folks, my parents were picking cotton and stuff just a generation back.”
Watson wants to make a difference with the next generation. He said, “Pensacola helped to raise me. Pensacola has been supporting me since I’ve been here. For me to just to sit in my office, just try cases and not try to reach somebody would be a disservice because I’ve been given so much.”
He added, “Whatever I can do I try to do it. Just to let people know that you can be somebody. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t be somebody.”
Third Annual Living The Dream
What: This event honors individuals who either currently live in Pensacola or who are from Pensacola and are exemplifying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17
Where: New World Landing, 600 S. Palafox
Cost: $40 per ticket
Living The Dream 2015 honorees:
Mamie Hixon, University of West Florida
Captain Keith Hoskins, NAS Pensacola
John Peacock, Edward Jones Financial
Jessica Lee, Kia Autosport
Teri Levin, Levin Rinke Resort Realty
Ezra Merritt, DDS
John Peacock, Edward Jones Financial
Aaron Watson, Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor
Previous years honorees are:
Dr. Tara Gonzales
Roderick Bennett MD, MBA, FACEP
Alexa Canady-Davis, MD
Lonnie D. Wesley, III