John O’Quinn Objects

He thinks the Houston Chronicle is out to get him, tort reform is a joke, and George W. Bush should be more compassionate toward the environment, but he isn’t anti-corporate—he swears! An exclusive interview.

When he answers the door of his mansion—and, let’s face it, there’s no other way to describe a 9,742-square-foot palazzo in the swanky River Oaks section of Houston—the state’s best-known, least-loved, and most-feared plaintiffs lawyer greets me warmly. He extends a hand, ushers me inside, and after offering me a cold drink, pours his long, lean frame into a comfy chair. We make polite chitchat as if we’ve known each other for years, and I begin to wonder if I’ve come to the right place. For weeks, in preparation for my visit, I’ve been reading all the negative stories about him, and I’ve steeled myself for a showdown with a drawling pit bull—a cross between Atticus Finch and Attila the Hun. Instead, sitting before me is Mr. Congeniality.

Of course, few have gotten rich, and many have gotten poor, underestimating John O’Quinn, whose career has seen its share of high points. He won record-breaking multimillion-dollar jury awards against corporate giants Tenneco and Amoco in 1988 and 1993, respectively, and in recent years has extracted multimillion-dollar settlements from the breast-implant, tobacco, and diet-pill industries. But there have also been lows: for instance, the State Bar of Texas’ attempt—unsuccessful, it turned out—to disbar him over charges that he improperly solicited clients in South Carolina following an airplane crash, leading the Wall Street Journal to publish an undeniably mean-spirited series of articles questioning his ethics, his character, and everything else short of his right to take a breath. He has also been sued by former clients and former employees who say he cheated them out of money they were owed (he denies it). Then there are the stories about his personal life—the two stints in alcohol rehab, the drunken driving charge that went nowhere, his much-gossiped-about split last year from his wife.

When the tape recorder rolls and we get down to business, stories of the bad old days take second chair to the good times—the passion he feels as the champion of the little guy and the energetic broadsides he levels at his many enemies, to whom he gives no ground over the course of the morning and into the early afternoon. “They feel they can weaken my resolve if they demean me,” he says. “Maybe they can weaken my passion if they torment me and dishearten me. They want to make me say, ‘I don’t need this aggravation. Why don’t I just quit?’” Five minutes with the guy and you know that’s simply not an option.

Let’s begin with the issue of your reputation, which is not good in some circles. Why?

What I do is what I want to do, so I’m not complaining. What I do is represent the powerless against the powerful, and I think it’s important that I do that for several reasons. First, I do it extremely well—so well that some people say I can’t be beat. I’ve been blessed withtalent, and I’ve got a level of commitment and passion for what I do. I’m not going down; I’m going to win for my client. Also, I care about the larger issue. I always tell the jury, “This case is extremely important to me,” and I explain the larger social significance of the issues in the case. So when a defendant goes up against me, they fear me not only because they’re going to lose the case but because I’m going to get caught up in the larger issue and I’m going to want to have something done about it.

And this translates into you getting a bum rap?

The Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chronicle, the only daily paper in town, is apparently for tort reform—friendly words for an unfriendly concept. The idea is that rich, powerful corporations should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and not be held responsible. Greed is good: That’s their theology. And so the Hearst Corporation wants to discredit me. They can’t beat me in the courtroom because they’re wrong and they don’t have enough talent and passion and commitment, despite the fact that they can hire teams of Harvard Law School graduates. Failing that, they try to beat me outside of court. That is the new method powerful corporations employ to win lawsuits: to change public opinion in advance. They’re actually engaged in a very subtle but real form of jury tampering.

I’ll give you another example. During the trial to determine whether Chevron poisoned the land that Kennedy Heights is built on, the company’s public affairs manager, a guy named Mickey Driver, goes on Jon Matthews’ talk show on radio station KPRC. And he starts running his mouth—not only about how this case is outrageously wrong and unfair, but that they have this lawyer named John O’Quinn and have you heard he had trouble with the Bar association. They were trying to discredit me in the minds of the jurors even before the trial started. And when we picked the jury, the judge brought in a lot of extra people, around one hundred in all, because he thought some might have to be disqualified. He asked them, “Anybody heard of John O’Quinn?” Fifteen hands go up. “Anybody know anything about him that would keep you from being fair in this case?” A number of the people with their hands up said yes. Some said, “I would be unfair to Mr. O’Quinn’s client based on what I’ve heard about him.” They’d never met me. They’d never dealt with me. That was jury tampering. And it was done on purpose.

You’re clearly against tort reform. Why?

Supporters of tort reform are for corporate power, period, in the guise of correcting what’s wrong with the system. We had to do something because all these small-business owners in Texas were worried about punitive damages—they couldn’t sleep at night. It was bad for business. So what was the solution that the Legislature came up with after being lobbied heavily? You’d think that if the issue was protecting the small-business man, they’d look at the net

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