In Memoriam: E. Thom Rumberger 1932-2011

09.16.11

ORLANDO, FL - E. Thom Rumberger, a legal titan and staunch protector of Florida’s Everglades, died on September 7, 2011 at Hospice in Tallahassee at the age of 79.

The death, following complications from diabetes, was confirmed by Frank Sheppard, managing partner of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, “We were deeply saddened to hear that our friend and partner, Thom Rumberger, passed away. Throughout his life he served as an inspiration to all who knew him.”

While Mr. Rumberger was known for his brilliant achievements in the courtroom and his leadership in building one of Florida’s leading product liability law firms, it was his passion for preserving Florida’s Everglades and his efforts on behalf of educational and political reforms that shape his legacy.

At his death, Rumberger was a partner at Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, a law firm with offices in Florida and Alabama. The firm represents corporate clients throughout the United States with a focus on business and commercial litigation. 

With co-founding partners, Bud Kirk and Dick Caldwell, Rumberger launched the firm in 1978 in Orlando and quickly established the firm as a powerhouse in automotive product liability by building a national reputation for overcoming obstacles and winning cases for clients. An example of their resourcefulness occurred in 1983 when a jury ruled in favor for General Motors after Rumberger convinced the judge and the U.S. Marshals Office to remove the entire window frame of the fourth-floor Tampa courtroom so that a car could be entered into evidence by being lifted by a crane and pushed through the window.

The firm’s practice has grown throughout the years to include a variety of complex civil litigation matters, including labor and employment, construction, professional liability and other types of litigation.

In another high profile case, Rumberger represented Teresa Earnhardt, the widow of NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt, as she opposed publication by the media of photos from Earnhardt’s autopsy. Soon afterward, Rumberger championed legislation passed by the Florida state senate in March 2001 that makes the release of autopsy photographs a third-degree felony.

A dedicated environmentalist, Rumberger represented Save the Manatee Club and served as lead counsel for The Everglades Foundation. As chair of The Everglades Trust, Rumberger leveraged his legal and political experience to advocate for Everglades restoration, ultimately resulting in the passage of two constitutional amendments, including the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. The Audubon Society recognized him for his efforts to preserve the Everglades in 2004.

“Thom was as passionate about the law as he was about the Everglades, and he was a larger-than-life presence both in and out of the courtroom,” recalls Bud Kirk. Dick Caldwell adds, “His love for the intricacies and fairness of our legal system drove the firm’s success. Everyone in the firm is treated like family, a culture that Thom helped cement from the first day we opened our doors for business.” A former chair of the board of trustees of the Collins Center for Public Policy, Rumberger also lent his efforts to ensure low-income families were provided with health and educational opportunities. 

His political interests led Rumberger to chair Florida Lawyers for President Bush and serve as Florida General Counsel for President George Bush in the 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns, as well as the Bob Dole campaign. Representing the Republican Party of Florida in 1992, he was instrumental in redrawing the historic district lines during the Florida Redistricting. He served on the Governor’s 2001 Select Task Force on Elections, the 2002 Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology, and chaired the Florida Legislature’s Study Committee on Public Records in 2002. 

Rumberger, born in Ocala in 1932, had his first experience in capturing the attention of an audience in an unusual setting. At the age of 22, he was hired by Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute at Florida’s Silver Springs, where he entertained tourists by wrestling alligators and handling venomous snakes. Following service in the U.S. Marines, Rumberger entered the University of Florida where he earned his law degree. He was a member of Florida Blue Key and served as associate editor of the University of Florida Law Review in 1960.

Rumberger went on to serve as a County Prosecutor and Florida Special Assistant State Attorney. In 1967, he was appointed Circuit Judge for the Florida Eighteenth Judicial Circuit. Following a stint as Assistant to the Governor of Florida and a member of the Florida Land Sales Board, he became County Attorney for Seminole County, a post he held from 1971 to 1974. 

“Thom was a charismatic trial lawyer who tried cases from Maine to California and anywhere in between,” said Sheppard. “He will be missed. You just can’t fill the void left by an icon.”  

 
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