The Man Who Crushed Texaco

Joe Jamail didn’t win the biggest lawsuit in the history of the world by being a sweetheart.

“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

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