The larger-than-life trial lawyer on tort reform, his first big case—and why he would bring back public floggings.
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Some people will assume that you’ve written your new book, Lawyer: My Trials and Jubilations (Eakin Press), as a way to retry your old cases—not necessarily to settle scores but to have the final word.
I can’t think of a case I want to retry. I don’t live in the past. I enjoyed all my cases, but there are some that were more poignant than others, and some of the ones that people think were the most important to me really weren’t.
Well, which ones were the most important to you?
Every one was, at least at the time. But a particular one I’m thinking of is my first big case. I represented a man who had been drinking a bit. He’d gone to buy some fried chicken at Youngblood’s over on South Main [in Houston]. He had made a turn and come back behind Rice Institute—now it’s Rice University—and there was a cement island in the middle of the street with two large oak trees on it. It was raining, and he hit the curb, went over it, knocked a “Keep Right” sign down, went a few feet, hit a tree, and was mortally wounded. The man had worked for the U.S. customs department, and his widow wanted his funeral bill paid by the city, which maintained the street. The city, of course, laughed at her. Nobody would take the case. I’d been out of school a couple of years, looking for something to do, so I took it. Well, the truth is, I owed the bank $5,000, and the banker called me and said the widow was his friend. At any rate, I won it.
You’ve been called the King of Torts, so let me ask you about tort reform. You were against it, I take it?
It’s tort deform, not tort reform. When Bill Hobby was lieutenant governor, the first tort reform act was being hotly debated in the Legislature. Bill kindly asked me to come and be the state’s lawyer. He wanted me to strike a reasonably fair deal that wouldn’t discourage businesses but would keep them from making shabby, shoddy products that could really harm people. So I proposed a cap on punitive damages of four times actual damages. I was for some measure of real reform. Today, what you’ve got is a bunch of paid lobbyists trying to emasculate tort law for one purpose: to hurt the victims, not the trial lawyers. And the very people who are doing it, when it’s their child who’s injured, it’s me or guys like me they run to first.
Surely you acknowledge that not every lawyer is ethical—that there are ambulance chasers who want to game the system. Isn’t tort reform a check on those folks?
I would reinstate the law permitting public floggings. What those ambulance chasers have done is they’ve taken a profession and made a rotten business of it. I’d disbar them, each and every one. When I started practicing law, it was unethical for me to give you my business card unless you asked for it. Now there are billboards.
So we’re not going to see your picture on the back of the phone book?
No, sir. No ads in the phone book, either. Just my name.
How much longer do you plan on doing this? Is there a point at which you say, “I’ve had a great run; enough is enough”?
When they do a lobotomy on me and remove this ego of mine, I’ll probably quit. But I can’t picture myself sitting around the house. I travel a lot, and I’m already drinking early enough in the day. If I didn’t have anything to do, it would be a bad scene.