The Man Who Crushed Texaco
Joe Jamail didn’t win the biggest lawsuit in the history of the world by being a sweetheart.
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“There’s no lawsuit as pure as Ivory f—ing soap. Leave all the bullshit at home. Just bring the facts.” Joe Jamail is circling a conference table, his large nose bulging with aggression, his face bright red, his eyes a startling blue. A small 62-year-old man with a powerful back and hanging arms, he’s wearing tan suit pants, a pink shirt open at the neck, and his customary Italian boots that have zippers on the sides and one-inch heels. Two walls of he conference room at his law firm, Jamail and Kolius, are a sedate corporate brown. The other two are glass and look out from One Allen Center in downtown Houston to the hot, scrubby coastal plain east of the city.
Jamail is midway through his account of the Texaco-Pennzoil trial, a battle that forced the eighth-largest corporation in America into bankruptcy. As Pennzoil’s lead attorney, Jamail won a record judgement of $10.53 billion in 1985, and even if Pennzoil gets only the $3 billion settlement proposed by Texaco as a term of its bankruptcy reorganization, the sum would still be the largest ever in American civil law.
With Pennzoil v. Texaco Jamail jumped from being the country’s most successful personal injury lawyer, the “king of torts,” to being the giant-slayer of the corporate world. Gesticulating, pacing, crowing, Jamail is putting on a grandstand performance of the trial and playing all the parts. His mood swings from tender to irate as he details first the sincerity and intelligence of Pennzoil’s witnesses, then the stupidity and dishonesty of Texaco’s. With relish, he tells how he made John McKinley, the chairman of Texaco, look like a fool and a liar.
“One of the things I did, one of the opportunities I seized, was when I looked up at the jury selection and saw John McKinley sitting her in a Houston courtroom,” Jamail recalls. “I guess Texaco brought him down to show him off to the jurors. Now, I couldn’t have gotten a subpoena on him out of state, but when I saw him I turned to Susan Roehm, one of the lawyers from Baker and Botts, and told her to get me a subpoena. McKinley just smiled when she walked up. I guess he thought she was going to ask for his autograph.
“What this meant was that I could put McKinley on the stand as a hostile witness. Texaco would have eventually called him, but they would have tried to make him look good. I could make him stink.” Jamail bends at the waist and makes a gesture with his hands and arms as if he were rubbing manure on someone. “I could make him stink real good, and they’d have to come along behind me and try to perfume him up.”
Jamail checks to make sure that I appreciate this tactic, then smirks. “McKinley started out putting on his country-boy act for this group of jurors, who were all highly intelligent people. He couldn’t remember a thing. Every day fifty Wall Street Journals are delivered to Texaco’s corporate headquarters in New York, but somehow he didn’t happen to remember reading the story on January 5, 1984, saying that Pennzoil had reached an agreement to buy Getty Oil. Somehow, no one at Texaco happened to read the Wall Street Journal on January 5.” Jamail makes a face that expresses wild exasperation. “Who in the name of anything that’s holy is going to believe that? I finally asked McKinley if he remembered anyone at Getty referring to the situation as a bird in the hand.
“No, he didn’t.
“I asked if he knew what that might have meant.
“No, he didn’t know.
“I finally asked if he knew what the words ‘bird in the hand’ meant.
“No, he didn’t know.
“That’s when I saw everyone in the jury physically, bodily turn from him. I went on to make him admit everything–that what Texaco did was willful, intentional, knowing. I felt better after that.”
Jamail wraps up his performance of the eighteen-week-long trial in a snug forty minutes, then throws his arm over my shoulder–as he is given to doing, even with men much larger than he is–and walks me down the hall of Jamail and Kolius.
The firm has no partners–only eight associates, including Jamail’s son Dahr. Gus Kolius works only a few months a year, spending the rest of the time on his boat in the Caribbean. In large corporate cases such as Texaco-Pennzoil, much of the work is done by attorneys at other law firms. Jamail stays relatively uninvolved until the case actually goes to trial. Six attorneys at Baker and Botts in Houston prepared the Pennzoil case and briefed Jamail along the way. Jamail’s competitors estimate that if he closed his firm tomorrow, he would still take in several million a year in payments on old settlements. To date Jamail has won more than sixty million-dollar settlements, and if he were to get even a fraction of his usual one-third contingency fee for the case he would be far and away the richest lawyer in America.
Jamail stops at the end of the hall to show me a framed platinum LP of Willie Nelson’s Stardust. “I told Willie it would never sell, so he gave me this. And here’s Willie and Darrell Royal in front of my house,” he says. He points to a photograph of the singer and the former University of Texas football coach standing on a flight of brick stairs. “They showed up at my house the night before final arguments to drink beer with me.”
Next to the photograph are pictures of Jamail with friends or in the courtroom. In a small office an enormous leatherbound scrapbook covers a whole desk, and in the coffee room an entire wall is encrusted with news clippings, fan mail, a pair of women’s underpants stamped with the name of a bar, and a T-shirt with the Texaco logo altered to read “Jamaco.”
He leads me into his large corner office, which is furnished with a couch, club chairs, an imposing desk, and a telescope. “All this glitter and money is bullshit,” Jamail says, giving me a penetrating blue stare. “I’ve made all the money I can ever spend and I’ve had all the publicity I ever want and it’s bullshit. But I like what I do. A couple of years ago, when I was on TV, they were interviewing me and a doctor about malpractice suits. When the doctor started blaming lawyers for the cost of insurance, I told him that was just fine. While his professional antecedents were bleeding George Washington with leeches, mine were writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
“Have you read it?” he asks, going over to his desk. “I keep it right here and read it all the time. You ought to read it.” He looks around, then shouts at his secretary, “Denise, where’s my Declaration of Independence?” A search ensues. Then he takes me by the arm and hustles me back down the hall to his waiting room. “That’s all right; I’ve got one out here,” he says, stopping me in front of a large bronze facsimile that hangs behind the receptionist’s desk. “It’s a beautiful document. It and lawyer are all that stand between us and anarchy.”
On Sunday nights, Joe and Lee Jamail like to have their sons over for family dinner at their new house on Indian Circle, the high-security enclave where the George Bushes once owned a residence. Beyond the entry hall, looking out on a bayou, are a living room, a dining room, and a den with 25-foot ceilings. Oriental carpets are scattered on the hardwood floors, and American antiques are mixed with traditional couches and chairs upholstered in rich royal blue and tan.
The Jamails live well but simply. They also own a beach house on Galveston Island, but they have indulged in none of the usual Texas displays of wealth–no ranches, no planes, no art collections, no attempts to make a social splash. They entertain friends quietly at home. A small, dark-haired woman, Lee is a licensed interior decorator who dresses conservatively and has many of her clothes made. She recently joined the board of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the State Higher Education Coordinating Board. She is a close friend of Betty Liedtke, whose husband, Hugh, runs Pennzoil. According to her sons, Lee is the only person who can stop Joe in his tracks with just a look. Lee never gives interviews, explaining that she is a private person and that she can hardly recognize her husband in news stories about him.
Sunday night dinner is a time for debate. Joe Jamail does not like small talk; he likes to discuss the big issues. He also likes to read the classics–Twain, Shakespeare, Chaucer–and he says that what counts is good friends and family. Joe’s oldest son, Dahr, looks most like Lee. A small, wiry bachelor, Dahr, 33, has frizzy brown hair, a heavy, ledgelike brow, blue eyes, and a long, thin nose. In temperament Dahr is like his father; he is a trial lawyer, and he exudes natural gold-ol’-boy aggressiveness. He wears corduroy jeans and boots to the office and a green suit and boots in the courtroom. By comparison, his brother Randall, 29, newly married and soon to take the bar exam, seems almost debonair. He has that same long, thin nose but is taller and more relaxed. He is quick to tell you that he is macrobiotic and that he has written, performed, and produced his first album, The Story Teller. Dahr and Randall run nine miles a day, Randall in the morning, Dahr in the evening. The youngest son, Rob, handles family investments from a nearby office building, but every day he takes his lunch to Jamail and Kolius and eats with his father and brothers.
Joe’s sons adore him; none of them reveal any of the problems that sons often have with extremely successful fathers. When they talk about growing p, it sounds idyllic, almost like a sit-com. The family always used to have dinner at a small table in the kitchen, because Joe liked to be able to reach out and touch everyone. The boys went to the Kinkaid, an exclusive private school, and they played in bands. Their all-American childhood was a sharp contrast to their father’s.
Joe Jamail grew up on the east side of Houston in a family compound that was culturally more Mediterranean than American. The adults spoke Arabic, and the children–as many as 25 of them, counting fifteen first cousins and various second and third cousins–were raised as brothers and sisters. Joe Jamail’s grandfathers had come to Houston from Lebanon in the 1880’s, along with four cousins. Joe’s father and two uncles went into the grocery business, and when they married, all lived in the same house. Following family tradition, Joe’s father married a distantly related cousin, so Je was “Jamail on both sides.” Joe’s father was handsome, a big, brawny man who, as a nephew recalled, “would knock a guy out if he didn’t like what he said.” Joe’s mother was beautiful, with deep brown eyes.
Later the three men built separate houses on three corner lots of an intersection in the east end of Houston, and two cousins built houses next to those, bringing the number of houses in that Jamail compound to five. Nevertheless, Joe Jamail’s father and one of his uncles feared that the family was drifting apart. In the twenties they formed the United Jamail Club, which eventually counted more than four hundred family members, including Jamails in Louisiana. All of them were Christian and came from the same small valley in Lebanon (the president of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel, is Joe’s cousin). The Jamails multiplied and prospered in America. They made millions in the real estate and grocery businesses–the deluxe Jamail stores on Kirby and Shepherd belong to Joe’s cousins–but the Jamails always lived conservatively and remained outside the establishment.
Joe Jamail, in many ways, was an exception in the family. He learned early on how to make other children do what he wanted. He was something of a prankster and a troublemaker, the sort of little boy mothers try to keep their children from playing with. He went to St. Thomas, a Catholic high school, then to Texas A&M, which in the forties was exclusively male and mostly military. Jamail says that he “escaped” after two days–simply went out to the highway and caught a ride to Austin, where he enrolled at the University of Texas in pre-med. “I never went to class,” he recalls. “I couldn’t stand the smell of formaldehyde, and I didn’t like science. I didn’t even bother to drop out at the end of the year. I just left.”
He enlisted in the Marines in 1943 and severed in the South Pacific during World War II. At age nineteen, he returned to Houston where, he says, he lay around his parents’ house and drank until his father finally told him to get a job or go to school. “He told me that either way, I had to get my horny young ass out. He gave me a couple hundred dollars and suggested that I drive over to New Orleans to think things over. I got as far as Lafayette before I got drunk in a bar,” he says. “There was a character there, a lawyer named Kaliste Saloom, who knew my family and who sort of took care of me. The next morning I went by his office and saw him wheeling and dealing on the telephone, and I thought that that would be a pretty good life. I spent a year at Southwestern Louisiana Institute then transferred back to the University of Texas, where I majored in English and history.”
This time Jamail stayed. He was part of the first generation of Jamails to acculturate completely. Joe Jamail developed a swagger and a style of speech that was pure UT. In 1949 he married Lillie Mae “Lee” Hage, who cam from a prosperous Lebanese family in Austin. At the urging of Lee and his mother, Jamail enrolled in law school at UT. He flunked torts his first year. “I didn’t do too well until my second year,” Jamail said, “when I realized that there were no right or wrong answers and that my professors were interested only in how well I could develop an argument.”
After graduating, he took a job with Fulbright, Crooker, Freeman, Bates and Jaworski, the large Houston defense firm, but he quickly left that job to work as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. Two Harris County judges took an interest in Jamail and encouraged him to develop his own style, to be completely himself in court. He stayed at the DA’s office a year. Then in 1955 Jamail and George Cire, an old friend from St. Thomas who would later become a federal judge, started a practice in personal injury law, the branch of litigation sometimes referred to as ambulance chasing.
Jamail’s first big success came in 1957, when he won what was at that time considered an impossible case. A drunk driver had hit a large oak tree growing on a traffic island on a tree-lined boulevard. The driver died, and his widow sued the city. Jamail based her claim on the ground of hazardous nuisance, arguing that several drivers had struck the same tree and that the city should have either taken it down or posted a better warning. The jury awarded the widow $85,000, the city cut the tree down, and Jamail became an overnight celebrity in Houston.
A series of wins followed, each larger than the previous one. At a time when $100,000 still sounded like a lot of money, Jamail extracted $675,000 from Sears for selling a pair of jumper cables without instructions; $1 million from the owner of an apartment complex after a twelve-year-old boy climbed an electrical pole in the playground burned off his hand; $6.8 million from Remington Arms when the safety on a rifle failed, causing a fourteen-year-old boy to shoot and paralyze his father.
Jamail was favored in the late sixties and seventies by changes in the law and political atmosphere. The Legislature rewrote a number of laws that benefitted plaintiffs–even if they were partly at fault. Jury decisions no longer had to be unanimous; a 10-2 decision was adequate. Moreover, a growing distrust of doctors, insurance companies, large corporations, and government made jurors much more willing to award damages.
Joe Jamail had the uncanny ability to take almost any set of facts and turn a courtroom into a theater of morality, a contest between good and evil. He could read jurors and understand what really bothered them. He made jurors think that he was one of them, that they were there together to discover the truth. “Jamail can get right in the jury box,” said Mack Glover, a Houston defense attorney. “By the time h’s halfway through a trial, he’s in the box, having a private conversation with each and every juror. I don’t know how he does it–a raised eyebrow, a look–but he can do it like no one else.”
Jamail’s style was emotional, intuitive, and brilliantly quick. He understood the depths of prejudice in the popular mind and he knew that the most logical appeal wasn’t necessarily the best. He could sense when jurors wanted a witness punished, and he didn’t mind doing it.
Outside court, Jamail was a brilliant pretrial strategist. When he filed for a client, he didn’t go after just one defendant. He sued everyone involved. Then, rather than worry about who bore the greatest responsibility, he would pick out the defendant with the weakest defense and the deepest pockets. Jamail would then bring the other defendants, one at a time, over to his side with promises of dismissals and conditional settlements. In exchange, he controlled their peremptory strikes, dominated jury selection, and slanted testimony in order to place maximum blame on the defendant left holding the bag. Such deals were not illegal. They were usually spelled out in contracts that were actually admissible evidence but written in language so damning to the defendant that he would usually choose not to have this evidence read in court. As one Houston attorney succinctly put it, “The entire trial would be rigged so that Jamail could smash the weakest attorney.”
In pretrial depositions, outside the purview of judge and jury, Jamail was a master at making witnesses talk. One tactic was to begin by dropping the Big Bomb. In a deposition taken from Paul di Portanova, an Italian baron involved in a trust fight against his ex-wife’s family in Houston, Jamail started by establishing that the baron was the father of Ugo and Enrico di Portanova. Jamail then added, “You have two other children, correct?”
“Do I have?”
“You do not have?”
Jamail promptly produced Italian birth certificates for additional children. Jamail recalls that at that point di Portanova lost his command of English.
On another occasion, convinced that an expert witness was lying, Jamail told him that he “wouldn’t be conspicuous in a toilet bowl.” To a Japanese man he was sure was hiding behind an interpreter, Jamail said threateningly, right in the man’s face, “During the war I killed a hundred of you slant-eyed little bastards,” then watched as the man came up out of his chair, having forgotten his feigned ignorance of English.
Success, as it came, was a commodity Jamail knew how to use. He made a habit of befriending judges, beginning with the two who had coached him in the district attorney’s office. Not only did he make judges’ lives more interesting by putting on a good trial, but Jamail also took judges drinking and contributed generously to their campaigns. As he became richer he increased the amount of his political contributions and his influence. Since 1980 Jamail has contributed $238,600 to the campaigns of the nine State Supreme Court judges who heard the Texaco case, according to the Dallas Times Herald. He gave heavily to appeals court judges too. Jamail also became influential among his peers. And once he started getting more cases than he could possibly handle, he was in a position to help other attorneys. A case with a sure settlement of $50,000 or $60,000 might not necessarily interest Jamail, but plenty of other lawyers would be grateful to him for throwing such cases their way.
Jamail was also adept at dealing with people who displeased him. When an associate left Jamail’s firm and tried to take with him a case pending in Matagorda County, Jamail assigned his own share of the settlement to the widows and orphans of Matagorda County and named a county judge’s wife as trustee. If the associate wanted the money, Jamail told him, he could sue those parties. At an earlier point in his career, Jamail walked into his office and without warning fired four associates and their secretaries.
He understood that it didn’t hurt to appear ruthless. In fact, it worked to his advantage. He didn’t hesitate to use publicity to foster such an image. When Sears lost its case to him and failed to post bond for the settlement, Jamail–armed with a writ, a deputy sheriff, and a local television news crew–went down to the busiest Sears store in Houston and announced that he was taking over.
By 1980 Houston attorneys were starting to say that Jamail’s glory days were over. He had won all the big cases. He had all the money he could possibly use. There was no reason for him to keep going. What those other lawyers didn’t understand about Jamail was that what they did for money, he did for pleasure. He relished combat. He delighted in intimidating and insulting other lawyers to break their concentration. In a case against Roy Cohn, the one-time lawyer for Senator Joe McCarthy who recently died of AIDS, Jamail stood up and glared at the New York lawyer while slowly intoning, “What I see here is a strange, weird, queer…” Watching Cohn’s face turn red, Jamail let the sentence hang in the air for a moment before he finished with the word, “motion.” Later Jamail pushed his way into a press conference Cohn was giving and said, “I’ve checked on Cohn, and he hasn’t gone to trial in sixteen years. I figure I’m going to have to whip him with barbed wire to get him into court.”
Jamail brags that he carries a $35 million libel-and-slander policy and exults in saying and doing outrageous things. Once, in Waco, a reporter asked Jamail and some other lawyers in a big case what they did while waiting for the verdict to come in. “I masturbate a lot,” was Jamail’s reply.
Last spring Jamail slugged a lawyer twenty years younger than himself during a deposition in the conference room at Jamail and Kolius. Jamail decided that the younger lawyer had insulted his witness, and so, as he told one of his friends later, “I knocked the little bastard down. Then I got him in the corner and kicked him.”
In an even more recent deposition, Jamail told Franci Beck, an attractive 36-year-old lawyer at Susman, Godfrey, and McGowan, “When I care what you think, I’ll make you a partner. Until then, you can kiss my ass.”
“No, thank you, Mr. Jamail,” she responded.
“Why not?” asked Jamail. “It would be the best lovin’ you ever got.”
Beck later said she understood that Jamail was trying to intimidate her but it didn’t work.
Surprisingly, most of Jamail’s colleagues in Houston don’t appear to be offended by his behavior. On the contrary, they seem to enjoy reporting on the eruptions of this local Vesuvius. Paul Stallings, who is the head of tort litigation at Vinson and Elkins, one of Houston’s most conservative law firms, says, “Jamail represents his clients with considerable flamboyance, but what’s important are the results he gets. If Jamail is the lawyer, defendants tend to want to settle.”
It’s a Thursday afternoon in April at Jamail and Kolius. Joe Jamail is on the telephone, pacing back and forth, ranging out around the room as far as he can, until he hits the end of the cord. Texaco has just declared bankruptcy, the biggest company in American history ever to do so. Texaco employees are demonstrating in Austin, urging the Legislature to intervene by passing a law that would limit the amount of the Texaco settlement. The sky is blue, but the feel in the air is of a roiling storm, of shifting forces and imminent collapse. Jamail is obviously happy to be in the middle of it. The bank of phone lines is flashing on his desk. He takes one call after another. When his secretary says that there is a reporter on one of the lines, Jamail barks, “Not now!” His tone changes, however, when she says a minute later, “It’s Hugh Liedtke.”
“Hugh,” he says, sitting down for the first time, his voice becoming soft and his face contemplative as he talks to the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Pennzoil.
Hugh Liedtke grew up in Tulsa, graduated from Amherst College, received an M.B.A. from Harvard, and got his law degree from the University of Texas. In 1949 he went into the oil and gas business in Midland, where he met George Bush. Together they formed Zapata Petroleum, which by the late fifties had made the two young men millionaires. In 1959 they amicably divided Zapata. Liedtke then bought an interest in a small, languishing company in Pennsylvania that sold a motor oil called Pennzoil.
In 25 years Liedtke turned Pennzoil into the twentieth-largest oil company in the United States. His driving ambition was to make Pennzoil a major; he thought he saw the way in 1983, when he read that Gordon Getty, the heir to J. Paul Getty, was involved in a battle with the management of Getty Oil. Gordon owned 40 percent of Getty Oil’s stock. The J. Paul Getty Museum in California owned 11.8 percent.
On December 28, 1983, Pennzoil announced an unsolicited tender offer to buy 20 percent of Getty Oil. Then Liedtke forged a behind-the-scenes deal with Gordon Getty to take the company private, with Getty controlling four sevenths of the stock and Pennzoil controlling three sevenths. The key to the deal was an agreement the Getty Museum had made to sell to Pennzoil its stock for $110 a share, if the museum board agreed. The Getty Oil board met on January 2, 1984, at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York and, after 25 hours of almost uninterrupted negotiations, accepted $112.50 a share. On January 4 a press release was issued to the Wall Street Journal announcing that the parties had reached an “agreement in principle.”
Hugh Liedtke was ecstatic. As far as he was concerned, the deal was done. But while his lawyers were putting together a definitive contract to complete the transaction, Getty Oil investment banker Geoffrey Boisi, of Goldman Sachs, went shopping for a higher bidder. On January 6, Hugh Liedtke woke up to the news from New York that Texaco had bought Getty for $125 a share.
He was furious. After consulting with John Jeffers and Irv Terrell of Baker and Botts, Pennzoil’s regular outside counsel in Houston, he decided to sue and asked Joe Jamail to come in as lead counsel. Liedtke and Jamail were close friends; their children had gone to school together. Liedtke then consulted with Terrell and Jeffers, who supported his decision. With four more lawyers from Baker and Botts, who would prepare the case, Jamail would be lead counsel. He would call the shots, plan the strategy, and take the publicity. Jamail did a good amount of the jury selection. Then he, Jeffers, and Terrell, divided the courtroom work into thirds.
As usual, Jamail managed to turn the trial into a morality play, focusing on what a promise is worth, what a man’s word is worth. He set up the case as a contest between New York and Texas, between double-dealing lawyers and trusting oilmen, who make deals on a handshake. Trial observers say he skated over some of the fine points of New York contract law (some said he didn’t understand them) and obfuscated others. He drew out Texaco’s witnesses in a way that made them look alien, like proponents of some false morality. In his cross-examination of Marty Lipton, who is known as the most brilliant takeover lawyer in the United States, Jamail was at his best in setting a jury against a witness. As lead attorney for the Getty Museum, Lipton had been instrumental in putting together both the deal with Pennzoil and, when a better offer came along, the deal with Texaco. Lipton is Jewish, with wavy hair, large facial features, and thick glasses. To testify, he wore a double-breasted blue suit with a red silk handkerchief in his pocket. Through a series of questions, Jamail made Lipton tell the jury that for people like themselves there was one set of rules and for people like Lipton, who deal in billions of dollars, there was another. It was hardly a revelation, but among the twelve jurors who had been sitting week after week in a hot, stuffy courtroom for $6 a day, Jamail had managed to hit upon a mother lode of latent prejudice and resentment.
If Jamail understood how to anger the jurors and how to flatter them, he also established what can only be described as a special rapport with the judges. He had made a $10,000 contribution to the campaign fund of state district judge Anthony J. P. Farris, who received Jamail’s check two days after he was assigned pretrial jurisdiction over Pennzoil v. Texaco. Texaco’s lead counsel, Richard Miller, moved to have Farris removed from the case, but the visiting judge who heard the motion found that according to the Texas constitution, “mere bias” was insufficient grounds to disqualify Farris. When Farris became ill two thirds of the way through the trial (Jamail later served as a pallbearer at his funeral), he was replaced by state judge Solomon Casseb, Jr., a Lebanese-Italian from San Antonio and childhood friend of Jamail’s.
Texaco’s lawyers made some big mistakes–primarily in not giving the jury a more reasonable theory than Pennzoil’s for assessing damages–but Texaco was hamstrung almost from the beginning. Jamail moved, and Judge Farris ruled, that the jury be denied knowledge of Pennzoil’s suits in Delaware against Getty Oil, Gordon Getty, and the Getty Museum, pending the conclusion of the Houston trial. This made it easier for Jamail to convince the jury that Texaco should be held solely accountable for its actions. When the jury brought in the astonishing $10.53 billion judgment, most courtroom observers assumed the judgment would be overturned or drastically reduced. The most a New York jury had ever awarded in punitive damages was $5 million, and that had been slashed on appeal. But Casseb signed the order.
“The thing that most people don’t understand about Joe Jamail is that he’s weird,” says David Bebout, an attorney dressed in a glen plaid suit, sitting in his office at Jamail and Kolius, where he has worked for fifteen years. “When I say weird, I mean like Carlos Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan. I’m convinced that Jamail can project his will on other people. Just being near someone, he can make them feel however he wants. It’s weird.”
Jamail, at that moment, is in his office next door, projecting his will via telephone, calling state senators, legislators, and lobbyists, trying to head off a tort-reform bill backed by groups concerned that jury awards and the resultant cost of liability insurance have gotten out of hand. Jamail, who has measured his success by astronomical jury settlements, has been active in tort reform, which many plantiffs’ attorneys call “tort deform.”
At this point, no on e was certain what would happen with Texaco now that it had gone into bankruptcy court, but the thinking in Texas had begun to change. People were beginning to say that Liedtke and Jamail should have settled, that Texaco would be destroyed, and that Pennzoil would have to stand in line with the rest of Texaco’s creditors. Jamail said that was bullshit, that Pennzoil would have accepted a reasonable offer, but none was made. Neither Pennzoil nor Texaco would say, but according to speculation, Pennzoil had been willing to settle for $4 billion, which was $2 billion more than Texaco thought it owed. The bankruptcy court had ruled that Texaco’s appeal to the Texas Supreme Court could move forward unabated, but no one expected a Texas court to overturn the judgment, on which interest was mounting at nearly $3 million a day.
After Jamail gets off the phone, we agree to meet later in the day at the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, in a large, windowless building on the edge of downtown. When I arrive Joe and his son Dahr ware sitting in the front row, just behind the rail that separates the audience from the attorneys. Joe is slouched in his chair, his pant legs hiked ups so that his boots look too large on the floor in front of him. With the Jamails is Jim Kronzer, the appellate lawyer work on the Pennzoil case, an immense man with white hair who bears a resemblance to Hugh Liedtke.
The hearing is deadly dull. Jamail occasionally looks around the room to see who is present, then rolls his eyes. Afterward, the lawyers for both sides talk in friendly fashion, and everybody gets on the elevator. “If this elevator crashes,” says Dahr, “it’s going to be lawsuit city.”
“Yeah, but who are you going to sue?” his father asks. “These guys don’t have any money. I guess you could sue the last guy who got on the elevator.” Everyone laughs.
They hang around outside on the sidewalk for a few minutes before going their separate ways. “Fats, you’re coming for a drink,” Jamail tells Jim Kronzer.
On the Gulf Freeway, four o’clock traffic has started to back up. As Jamail weaves his black Jaguar around cars and trucks going about forty miles an hour, he calls his office to check in. Then Kirk Douglas calls from California. “Kirk’s a good friend of mine,” Jamail explains. “He wants me to represent him in a lawsuit.” When an opening appears in the traffic, Jamail runs his car up to eighty, then exits and loops back on the feeder road to Randall’s, a bar with a pink-brick façade, a neon sign, and potholes in the parking lot. Inside, he peers through smoke then heads towards a table of men in the rear. A shout goes up from the table when the men spot Jamail.
Jamail sits down next to Ronnie Krist, a large, burly plantiffs’ lawyer with thinning crinkly hair, and everyone orders another round. Next to Krist is Rob Taylor, a defense lawyer wearing a gold chain around his neck. G. P. Hardy, another burly plantiffs’ lawyer, and a colleague of his from Matagorda County, Richard Starnes, are also at the tables. When Jim Kronzer comes in, followed by Harry Reasoner, a dapper Vinson and Elkins attorney involved in the Pennzoil case, I realize that I’ve seen the group twice before–in a framed photograph in Jamail’s office and in a large oil painting that hangs right above the photograph. Most of the men have nicknames: Jeep, Creep, Fats, Crown, Coyote. Jamail is Podge.
It’s clear that Podge is the center of attention; nothing really happens in the group without him. Krist puts a hand on Jamail’s shoulder and says, “When I call Joe’s house at night, if it’s nine o’clock, I don’t ask Lee if Joe’s still up. I ask if he’s passed out. And If I call in the morning, I always ask if he’s finished puking. Ain’t that right, Podge?” He slaps Jamail on the shoulder, and all of them guffaw.
They’re all drinking fast and talking. Jamail smokes cigarettes through a small white holder. When a judge’s name comes up, Jamail says, “Mark my words, I’m going to make it my personal business to have his job. It’s not that I don’t like him, but the man’s spineless. Out of a banana I could carve more backbone than he’s got.”
Suddenly a good-looking blonde comes over and sits on Jamail’s lap. A hush falls over the table and everyone seems tense. When the woman gets up and walks away, they all start razzing Jamail. “What can I say?” Jamail says and laughs. “I love my wife. She had money when I didn’t.”
At my side, Kronzer, the “Crown,” who has just described a trial as a “palace of perjury,” is discussing turkey fries with Richard Starnes. “Don’t you know what they are?” Starnes asks in a voice that reminds me of Gomer Pyle. “Turkey nuts. Bread ‘em and fry ‘em, and you’ve got some good eatin’. But you’ve got to poke ‘em with a knife first, or they explode in the grease.”
The conversation moves on to a trip they took together to a fancy resort in La Jolla, California, to celebrate Kronzer’s birthday. They recall how Jamail gave the manager “the worst ass-chewing ever.”
“Jeep is always threatening to beat the shit out of somebody,” says Kris, “but Podge here went him one better last week and actually did it.”
Jamail repeats the story about punching another lawyer during a deposition. Then he laughs and says, “I was lying out at my house in Galveston last Sunday afternoon when Krist calls. I had been soaking up gin for about five hours–only drink it on Sunday–and Krist wants to know what people would think if he punched this guy.”
“There’s this lawyer I’ve been dying to punch,” Krist interrupts to explain. “I wanted to know if everybody would think I had done it just because Joe had.”
“And I told him yes,” Joe said, “they would.”
Jamail and Krist hoot. Then Jamail butts Krist with his head, and they embrace in merriment. They order some more drinks, and the waitress arrives with a large platter of fried food–shrimp, squid, and strips of steak. All of them dig in, and when the food is gone, it’s time to go.
On the way out Jamail pulls me aside. “Now, I don’t bring many people out here,” he says, giving me one of his penetrating looks, “but this is a real special place to me, and I wanted you to see what I’m really like.”
Outside, it’s a spring evening. Watching Jamail and his pals standing in front of the bar, talking and laughing, I couldn’t help but think that Jamail looked a bit like a schoolyard rowdy, the smallest and fiercest boy, the leader of the pack.
In the months to come, I occasionally wondered if he hadn’t played too hard, if the prize might not slip out of his hands. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a brief with the Texas Supreme Court backing Texaco’s arguments that Pennzoil had violated the SEC rules in its original bid for the Getty stock. It appeared–at least in the press–that Texaco still might have a chance, but on November 2 the Texas Supreme Court refused to review the original statement.
The cry from the East Coast was indignant. The Wall Street Journal ran a story saying that the Texaco case raised questions of the integrity in the Texas courts, that the decision was in the hang-‘em-high tradition of Judge Roy Bean. The New York Times called it the sort of justice one would expect in countries run by colonels in sunglasses. CBS’s 60 Minutes aired a segment on the Texas courts titled “Justice for Sale?” in which Mike Wallace followed Joe Jamail around at a conference of state judges and announced how much Jamail had contributed to judges Robert Campbell, William Kilgarlin, and Oscar Mauzy. Jamail’s Pennzoil victory dovetailed with and was clouded by a growing concern about the Texas courts. The issue of the Texas court system came up again last December, when Texaco and Pennzoil, through the intervention of financier Carl C. Icahn, hammered out the terms of a $3 billion settlement, which still awaits the approval of the shareholders. When I stopped by Jamail’s office in December, he seemed relatively subdued. He showed me an editorial in the Wall Street Journal speculating that his legal fee would be $600 million, then suggested that we go into the conference room where we had first talked.
“No, it won’t be that much,” Jamail tells me once we are inside the conference room. “But it will be a lot of money.” (In light of Pennzoil’s announcement that the company would pay a total of $400 million for legal fees, one could conservatively guess Jamail’s part will come to more than $200 million.) “But the money doesn’t really matter. I’ve been a multi-millionaire for a long time. My sons are rich. Lee and I have already decided that we’re going to give most of it away to charities.”
And the criticism?
“It doesn’t bother me,” says Jamail, “because it domes from a very narrow interest group: The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and CBS. When Mike Wallace, that purveyor of distortions, called and said he wanted to do me on 60 Minutes, I said, ‘Fine, do me live, but I won’t have my views end up on your cutting-room floor.’ But of course, he wouldn’t do it. When I got down to that judges’ convention in Corpus and saw that they were filming, I knew it was going to be a hatchet job on the Texas courts.
“These people distort the truth, and they don’t care who they malign. Yes, I gave Judge Farris a $10,000 campaign contribution. They print that, but they never print that I made that pledge in a letter six months before the case came up. And even after Farris got the money, there was no way of telling which of the twenty-five judges on the docket would end up with the case. When you bribe a judge, you don’t write him a check.
“No, criticism like this doesn’t bother me because it’s narrow. It comes from institutions that don’t trust people. They don’t want jury trials because they say people can’t understand complex issues. They don’t want to elect judges.” Jamail gives me a look of wild dismay. “Do you want the governor of this state to appoint judges? If you do away with jury trials and elections, then you cut the people out all together. These guys don’t trust the people and they don’t like the people.
“It’s just fine with me if these assholes hate me. I want assholes like this not to like me because I’ve made a career representing people–hurt people who don’t lobby and don’t advertise. Next month I’m taking a case to court, a Mexican family here in Houston. The mother went into the hospital for a routine hysterectomy and died in the recovery room. She left four beautiful little girls, and I’m their only hope.
“No, people should thank God for me and lawyers like me.”