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 worth of a business and cap punitive damages at a certain percentage of that net worth. You think they did that? No. What they said was, punitive damages can’t be more than double what the actual damages were. They weren’t worried about small businesses; they were worried about big businesses. How do you send a message to Ford Motor Company that they shouldn’t make a car with a gas tank that explodes if the only punishment you can visit on them is two times the actual damages? Ford laughs—they couldn’t care less about paying two times the actual damages. In fact, that’s what happened with the Pinto. When they went around the table and talked about what it would cost to recall the car and fix it so it wouldn’t blow up, they got a dollar figure. Then they asked their lawyers what it would cost to pay a legal judgment, and they got another dollar figure. Which number is more expensive? Oh, it’s more expensive to stop the blowing up? Well, let’s don’t do that. Let’s let them blow up and burn and die and then let’s pay the judgments. That’s stockholder value!
Surely not all corporations are bad. Does it really make sense to be so anti-corporate?
Be careful: I’m not anti-corporate. I’m just against corporations that do bad things, that somehow think they’re above the law. When a corporation does something that results in the death of people, what prison do you put them in? What prosecutor prosecutes that misconduct? It doesn’t happen, does it? The law doesn’t say that if a corporation commits murder, we can take all of its assets. Things have been arranged in such a way that there is no meaningful way for society’s main judicial instrument against criminal misconduct to have any force against a corporation. It works great against people. If a person commits murder or steals or lies or cheats, he can spend a lot of time in prison. But when a corporation lies and cheats and steals? No consequences. Now, I think the vast majority of corporations are perfectly honorable and ethical and are doing a good job and should be left alone. I’m not against all corporations, just as I would not be against the whole human race if I were a prosecutor—only that part of the human race that violates the law.
So what consequences would you propose? Give me an alternative to the current system.
Punitive damages cannot exceed, say, 20 percent of a company’s net worth.
Would you be willing to look at a two-tiered deal in which one rule applies to big corporations and another applies to small businesses?
Yes. If a defendant’s wealth is less than $10 million—I’m just pulling this number out of the air—then it’s one set of rules. If it’s more than $10 million, it’s whatever a jury thinks is reasonable.
I wonder what the public would think of that. They don’t seem to care much about the subject, do they?
The same methods that sell Palmolive soap have been used to anesthetize the people into not caring about the erosion of their basic liberties. They say you can put a frog in a pan of water and if you turn the heat on, the frog won’t get out—he just stays in there until he dies. The technique has been to just put this whole thing—the right to trial by jury—in a nice pan of water and slowly heat it up. The ultimate goal is to take away that right from the people.
What’s good about the American people is that it may take a generation or two, but they wake up and say, “Uh-uh, we’re going to do what’s right, and we’ll elect the leaders who’ll see that it gets accomplished.” When are they going to wake up? I don’t know. What’s going to cause them to wake up? I don’t know. Do I hope they wake up? Yes.
Let’s talk about one of those potential leaders, George W. Bush. You’re a longtime Democrat, and you gave money this year to both Bill Bradley and Al Gore. It goes without saying that you’re not supporting the governor this fall, but what do you think of him?
He’s a nice guy. He’s got great parents, whom I frankly admire. Those are two big pluses for me. But I was extremely disappointed in his handling of environmental problems in the past legislative session. There was a considerable movement to do something about polluting chemical plants on the Gulf Coast. We had been promised that they were going to be put out of business. And some kind of law could have passed. But Governor Bush went on television and said, “Oh, don’t worry. I have a plan: the Bush Plan.” Well, the plan turned out to be the honor system. George said, “The executives from these companies came to my office and sat there and looked me in the eye and said, ‘Governor, we’ll fix it.’ And I trust them. We don’t need new laws.” And also part of the plan was that the same companies were going to give millions to his presidential campaign. I’ve got a problem m with that.
I know from my own work that this part of the world has many, many chemical plants that leak out highly toxic substances. Back when we passed our clean air and clean water laws, the chemical industry went forth with its lobbyists and said, “Just pass laws that will apply to the new plants, but don’t make the existing plants retool. We’re going to shut them down in a few years anyway. Don’t worry about it.” So the Legislature let them go. Now, what happened was that the chemical industry never closed those plants down. They’re too valuable. They have a competitive edge. They get to operate inefficiently. It’s cheaper for them to make the product than it is for the new plants, which have to have extra engineering to run clean. They get to run dirty. Because business is driven by one thing and one thing only—greed—those plants are still operating.
Sea turtles are important, and protecting them is important, so don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say: The endangered species that I’m concerned about is humankind. The cancer risk in the part of Harris County where all the chemical plants are located is four to six times the national average. Is that a coincidence? No, it is not. Those people breathe cancer every day. George W. Bush hasn’t done one thing to reduce the cancer rate along the Ship Channel. I don’t see that he has any environmental record that he should be bragging about.
You give money to other candidates too—not just on the presidential level. What do you think about the current system of campaign finance? Critics say that you and other trial lawyers give too much and are part of the problem.
Campaign finance is a problem, but not because of what I or other trial lawyers have given. There has to be some political money to back those who believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people, because there is going to be lots of political money to back the people who believe in government of corporate power, by corporate power, and for corporate power. Trial lawyer money is the only money available to accomplish that. As we all know, money has too big a determinative effect on political races, so you’ve got to have some or you don’t have a chance to be competitive.
Free TV time for political candidates might fix the problem.
It’ll never happen, at least not in the near future. It’s in the financial interest of the networks to keep things the way they are. All this obscene money in politics is being used to enrich the media. The whole thing about the First Amendment, the power of the press, is that we want a watchdog who isn’t afraid to bark once in a while. Then we put it in the economic interest of our watchdog to be quiet. What kind of watchdog have we got?
One such watchdog, the Wall Street Journal, unleashed quite an amount of artillery at you in 1995 and 1996 and 1997. You’d think you were Bill Clinton. What did you make of it?
I thought it was a very unfair attack, not based in fact.
Did you say so to them?
They made no effort to call you, to come to you and say, “Mr. O’Quinn, we’re preparing stories about you. We feel you’ll want an opportunity to respond”?
Correct. They made no effort to do a balanced story.
It wasn’t a case of your declining to comment.
If it was all so unfair, you’d think you might be inclined to sue, having so much experience in the courtroom yourself.
Look, the law is one-sided on the issue of suing the news media. Besides, how do you sue somebody who has barrels of ink? You just have to learn to live with it. That’s about all you can do. They have the power to treat people unfairly, and they do it.
I want to press you on this point. You make a very passionate case for standing up for the little guy. You say you do it better than anyone. Yet when it comes to defending yourself, you don’t rise to the challenge?
I have two choices. I can spend my time and energy fighting for my clients, fighting on matters where I can make a difference, or I can spend my time on matters where I can’t make a difference. I choose to make a difference.