Legal disclaimer: “Salty language” doesn’t begin to describe the words Jamail uses in this piece. If you read on, which we recommend, and find yourself offended, you will have no appeal.
Joe Jamail should not have as much going on as he does. The Houston attorney, renowned as one of the state’s most aggressive litigators, generous philanthropists, ready Scotch drinkers, and artful deployers of the word “motherfucker”—and quite possibly the greatest trial lawyer in American history—was born in 1925. Leaving aside who was president at the time, I’ll note only that Ty Cobb hit .378 that year. At the risk of sounding ageist, it was a long damn time ago.
Yet there Jamail was, in a Beaumont courtroom in December 2013, sitting first chair at the plaintiff’s table in another wrongful death trial. In a blue suit and pink tie, he was leaning forward on folded arms, with a white legal pad, black felt-tip pen, and knobby cane laid out in front of him. He patted at snow-white hair and took in his surroundings with intent blue eyes. The courtroom was round, with dark wood panels behind the bench, fifty empty gallery seats on the wall facing it, and a bullring in the middle for the lawyers. The bailiff had just exited to fetch potential jurors.
It was a rare quiet moment. The previous two days, Jamail had been at the center of a blur of activity, arguing pretrial motions in this court, racing across town to argue another motion in federal court, instructing co-counsel on strategy during breaks, throwing back drinks at the Holiday Inn lobby bar in the evening, and staying glued to his iPhone every free moment in between. His close friend and client Mack Brown was under pressure to resign as the University of Texas’s head football coach, and Jamail was constantly calling either Brown or UT president Bill Powers, in Austin, working to ensure that Brown would be taken care of should he decide to step down. Repeatedly I’d heard him say, “I love you too, Coach,” as he hung up, then turn to Janet Hansen, a diminutive attorney with a pageboy haircut who’s assisted him in a hundred-plus trials over 32 years, and tell her he’d rethought which witness to call first. Then, if the hour was right, he’d take a slow sip of Scotch.
His focus was now squarely on combat, and the prospect had him gleeful. “I’ve only tried one other case with Walter,” he’d announced on the way into court, nodding to Walter Umphrey, the Beaumont plaintiff’s attorney who’d gotten rich from asbestos cases and as an architect of the late-nineties tobacco litigation. “It was a cop with a leg injury. His only damages were pain and suffering. The defense attorney offered to settle for $300,000 before trial and for $5 million at trial. I’ll let Walter tell you the rest.”
“Joe asked if they’d give us that in writing,” said Umphrey. “The defense attorney said, ‘What if I just read it into the record?’ and Joe said, ‘No, I need you to put it on paper—so you can wad it up and shove it up your ass.’ ”
Jamail laughed like it was all news to him, tucking his head in his shoulders but keeping his eyes up to watch the reaction of everyone in earshot. He grabbed my arm to make sure I heard the real punch line. “Then Walter and I took them for $16.6 million!”
Like that case, this one was against an eighteen-wheeler driver and the trucking company that employed him. Early on Thanksgiving Day 2012, a retired couple named Vincent and Debra Leggio had set out for Mississippi from their home in Pearland. They were headed for a Biloxi casino to celebrate their forty-second wedding anniversary, even though it meant spending Thanksgiving without their three kids for the first time. But a thick fog covered Interstate 10 that morning, and the Leggios were soon part of a hundred-car pileup. Their Suburban crashed into a stopped Ford Fusion, and shortly thereafter, an eighteen-wheeler plowed into them. The Leggios died instantly, the destruction so total that DPS troopers didn’t realize there was a vehicle under the rig until hours later. Within days, the Leggio children hired Umphrey to sue the truck’s driver, Richardo Kerr, and his trucking company, C. R. England. A few weeks later, Jamail was brought in. His executive assistant of 34 years, Denise Davidson, gets her hair done by Mrs. Leggio’s sister.
From a legal standpoint, it was a good case but not a great one. The liability of the driver would be easy to establish. The black box in his truck showed that Kerr had never applied the brakes. At the point of impact, he’d been traveling 72 miles per hour, the maximum speed allowed by a device on the truck’s engine, despite federal regulations that require commercial haulers to use caution in bad weather. The fact that the wreck occurred in a jurisdiction as notoriously plaintiff-friendly as blue-collar Beaumont also boded well for the Leggio kids. But the amount of money they could recover made the case worth a gamble by the defense. As cynical as it sounds, their parents’ sudden deaths meant there were no medical bills or pain and suffering damages. And the parents were in their sixties. Though their age guaranteed a certain sympathy from the jury, their children were adults and fairly well-off.
Merely getting Jamail’s signature on their pleadings added value to their claim. No lawyer has ever known the kind of success Jamail has. His $10.5 billion verdict in Pennzoil v. Texaco in 1985—still the largest jury award in history—was merely the most famous. He’s had five verdicts for over $100 million and more than two hundred for at least $1 million. Forbes has repeatedly declared him the world’s richest practicing attorney and estimates his net worth at $1.7 billion, a particularly staggering figure when you realize that most of it came from contingency fees from settlements and jury awards. That record has created a mystique around Jamail. Or if you’re less romantic, it gives him sixty-plus years of very real momentum, and in the courtroom it’s unmistakable. Two days before the start of the Leggio trial, the defense attempted to move the case to federal court. The motion was argued before Judge Ron Clark, a George W. Bush appointee who’d been a favorite of the tort reform lobby when he served in the Texas House in the nineties. In a quick decision from the bench, he stated that while he had the power to take the case, he would deny the motion based on its timing (the jury panel had already been seated in state court). But out of nowhere he added that he’d polled his clerks and staff, and they’d voted to sustain. “They wanted to keep it, and I think they would have learned a lot,” he said. “It would have been fun. I’ve never seen you try a case, Mr. Jamail.”
Now, back in state court, Jamail had to perform, and the defense’s last, best chance was that he wouldn’t be up to it. When jury selection finally got under way, he gave them hope. For one brief moment, Jamail seemed like an 88-year-old man. As 48 potential jurors took their seats, he shuffled slowly to a lectern in the center of the room, his pants cuffs clinging to the tops of his low-rise, zip-up boots. He smoothed out his hair, then spoke haltingly. He fumbled the Leggios’ introduction, calling two of the kids by their dead parents’ names. They looked at one another with deep concern. He referred to the trucking company as “C. R. Edwards.” The courtroom fell awkwardly quiet.
And then something clicked. Jamail says he can tell in a glance if he’s connecting with people. All he needs is eye contact. Looking at the panel, he started to feel it. He’d reviewed their questionnaires and knew who sat where, which panelist was the second-grade teacher, the refinery safety inspector, the hospital chaplain, and the surgical tech. He fed on their attention. He asked who remembered the pileup. Every one of them did. He asked if any had been in it. One woman raised her hand. She asked him, “What do I do if the evidence doesn’t match what I saw?” Another lawyer might have made her promise to set aside her impressions and moved on; Jamail started making his case.
“Was the fog dense?” he asked.
“My husband couldn’t see beyond our truck.”
“Was it so bad that anyone in it should have stopped or slowed down?”
“You’ll do,” he said, prompting a big laugh.
For the next hour he lightly peppered them with questions, all without notes. He dropped in key facts about the case, always with assurances that he’d prove them at trial. And then he asked the defense attorneys to stand so he could introduce them. The two lawyers, Darrell Barger and Scott Edwards, seemed caught by surprise. Through pretrial hearings they’d presented a tight showhorse-and-workhorse routine. Barger was the salesman, with windblown gray hair and a bright-white toothpaste-ad smile. Edwards was larger, with short brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses, tightly bunched features, and a law-library tan.
They stood up hurriedly and nodded when Jamail called their names, both with slight grimaces. As they sat back down, everyone knew the courtroom belonged to Jamail.
This past October Jamail changed the brass plaque outside his office atop One Allen Center, in downtown Houston. Since he’d moved into the building, in 1975, that sign had read “Jamail & Kolius,” even though his partner, Gus Kolius, had essentially retired to a yacht in the Caribbean in the eighties and died in 2006. But at the start of 2013, shortly after taking the Leggio case, Jamail downsized. He let go of the two attorneys who prepared his cases and assisted at trial, along with ten members of his support staff. He reduced his office space from 12,000 square feet to a more manageable 6,000. Then, finally, he changed the name by the door to read simply “Joe Jamail, Lawyer.”
I happened to visit his office the morning the old plaque came down. Jamail wasn’t in yet, so Davidson and Hansen walked me back to a space they call Joe’s Trophy Room. It used to be his library, but in 2012 he donated the contents to Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law. According to Jamail, UT wanted it but TSU needed it. The gift was valued at $3 million.
Now the rows of floor-to-ceiling shelf space in the large, windowless room were occupied by items celebrating Jamail. There were dozens of picture frames, most containing photos of Jamail with lawyers and judges and famous drinking buddies like Darrell Royal and Willie Nelson. Others held news clippings, like a March 1988 cover of Manhattan,inc. picturing him waving a highball in a crowded bar, with the line “Joe Jamail’s $400 Million Happy Hour.” There were autographed footballs, miniature Texaco tanker trucks, and a bejeweled, crushed-velvet crown encased in glass that local judges gave him after Newsweek dubbed him the “King of Torts” in 1973. Two low shelves held phonebook-size volumes containing all the Pennzoil pleadings. A bronzed copy of the case’s final judgment hung on the opposite wall, just above a stack of ring-bound souvenir copies of his Pennzoil closing argument.
Davidson and Hansen stopped at an aisle of shelves packed with well-stuffed, beat-up accordion folders. This was the greatest-hits wall, choice selections of testimony transcripts from dozens of cases. Hansen grabbed a random deposition, which turned out to be his cross-examination of an accident-reconstruction expert in another case against a truck driver. “This was a good one,” she said and started reading aloud from page one.
“Joe’s first question: ‘Do you always grin that way?’ Answer: ‘Often.’ Question: ‘Are you tickled about something? About the money you’re getting paid for your testimony, perhaps?’ ” From the outset, Jamail had the witness off balance and agitated. A page later, the expert opined that Jamail might be a poor lawyer. “ ‘You’re going to see how poor I am, asshole,’ ” read Hansen, when suddenly Jamail walked in.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked.
“Reading a depo from Eubanks,” she said.
“Oh, shit,” said Jamail. “That was my warm-up before Pennzoil. Mr. Eubanks had been paralyzed in a car accident. And God, he’d been drunk.” Jamail started laughing. “He drove into Bettie Sue Cream’s front yard. She was a sculptress who specialized in cement chickens. Had a hundred of them in her yard. He knocked the heads off all those cement chickens.”
“He was your client?” I asked.
“He was. A witness who’d been driving behind Eubanks said he hadn’t weaved once and he’d been run off the road by a truck with a decal on the side that looked like the logo of Hughes Drilling Fluids. So we sued them. In jury selection I addressed his condition head-on. I asked the panel if they knew anyone who’d ever been drunk. Of course they had. So I said, ‘That’s nothing compared to this guy. His blood-alcohol level measured .24 two hours after the crash. But here’s my question: Can you still award him money if I prove that had nothing to do with this wreck?’ The ones who said no were disqualified. It meant they wouldn’t follow the judge’s instructions.”
“We got $6.7 million for him,” said Hansen.
“Well,” said Jamail, “a million of that got knocked off on appeal. But shit, by then the interest made up for it. I didn’t care.”
He turned to head to his office but stopped and pointed to a pin-striped gray suit hanging on the back wall. He said it once belonged to Bill Noble, assistant general counsel for BP. Jamail had represented a handful of claims against BP after the 2005 explosion at its Texas City plant that killed 15 people and injured 170. According to Jamail, Noble had settled with Jamail’s clients early so that lawyers with lesser claims couldn’t use his case as a road map.
“I had about twenty clients,” Jamail said, “and the bill ran up pretty damn high. When the time came to give him his releases, I told him, ‘I’ve got your money. Now I want your clothes. I want that goddamn Chicago pimp suit you wear.’ So he gave it to me.”
The Leggio trial started Monday morning, December 16, with Judge Donald Floyd presiding. Jamail ceded the honors of delivering the opening statement to Chip Ferguson, a partner in Umphrey’s firm. A big, animated guy, bald on top with a gray goatee and wide bowlegs—Jamail liked to joke that if Chip could straighten his legs, he’d be seven feet tall—Ferguson had done the heavy lifting before trial, overseeing discovery and conducting depositions. He previewed the case for the jury in a loping East Texas drawl, detailing not just Kerr’s conduct leading up to the crash but his spotty driving history and C. R. England’s decision to keep him on the road in spite of it. To get a big payoff, he and Jamail needed jurors to lay as much blame on C. R. England as on Kerr.
The defense’s path to victory was less clear. Their strategy appeared to be twofold: disrupt and minimize. Only seven working days remained until Christmas, and if the trial ruined jurors’ holidays, they’d likely take it out on the plaintiffs. Scott Edwards made repeated, contentious objections during Ferguson’s opening and three lengthy motions for mistrial when it ended. Then he downplayed Kerr’s driving record in his own opening that afternoon. Kerr wasn’t a bad driver, he was merely one of a hundred motorists who crashed that morning upon encountering a sudden, mysterious fog. But oddly, Edwards failed to express any sympathy for the deceased. The jurors, who’d looked genuinely saddened by the end of Ferguson’s presentation, hardened as Edwards talked on.
Jamail called his first witness once Edwards finished. Over lunch he’d changed his mind about leading with C. R. England’s corporate representative, although that would have been more in line with his usual practice: “Start with the defendant, fuck him like a tied-up goat, then let the defense try to catch up,” as he puts it. Instead he called the driver, Richardo Kerr, and took a more measured approach. A short, round-faced 34-year-old Jamaican immigrant, Kerr had been sitting motionless behind the defense table. He wore what appeared to be a brand-new dress shirt that was two sizes too big, and he looked scared to death, supremely aware that he’d done something terrible. Jamail realized he didn’t need to vilify him and that doing so would be a mistake, particularly in front of a jury that was half African American and heavily working class. So he talked gently. He was serious but not stern.
“Mr. Kerr, you’ve taken an oath to tell the truth,” he began. “Your lawyer, or England’s lawyer, repeated over and over how many vehicles were involved. I don’t know how many times he repeated the words ‘mysterious fog.’ He talked about it popping up suddenly, like lightning. Did you keep count of how many times he said that?”
“I wasn’t keeping count.”
“About a dozen,” said Jamail. “Well, my job is to talk about your conduct.”
And then he did. For the next hour he went over Kerr’s driving that day and in the years leading up to it. He kept his tone soft, like a grandfather reluctantly disciplining a grandson, always finding a way to tie Kerr to C. R. England. He asked about an earlier wreck Kerr had had driving his own car, one that had also caused two deaths. “You were not suspended or put on probation by C. R. En-gland as a result of that?”
Jamail walked to the witness stand and handed Kerr a summary of his driving record and employee personnel file, then stood next to him while they went over it. It contained speeding tickets; a citation for cutting off a car with his eighteen-wheeler; and reprimands for skipping safety meetings, failing to maintain his vehicle, driving too many hours without resting, and falsifying log entries. Kerr admitted that they were all serious violations of company, state, or federal safety regulations.
Jamail put his hand on Kerr’s shoulder. “Mr. Kerr, I’m not here to embarrass you. I’m trying to get to the facts, okay?” He asked Kerr to count the number of violations. There were 33.
“And C. R. England kept you on the payroll?” he said. “They continued to give you jobs and put you back on the highway?”
Then Jamail had Kerr read a passage from C. R. England’s employee manual: “There is no such thing as a weather-related accident.”
“Yet your lawyer is saying that weather was the cause of this?”
“It doesn’t match up with this, does it?”
“It’s not what the manual says, no.”
Jamail moved on to the accident, keying in on a text message C. R. England sent its drivers that morning, warning of bad weather around Beaumont. It came in five minutes before the crash, but Kerr hadn’t read it.
“If I’d have received that message,” Kerr said, “I would have pulled over, yes.”
Jamail wrapped up. “Tell me what ‘preventable’ means.”
“That it was your fault,” said Kerr.
“If your company wrote that in a report to your next employer, they were saying it was your fault, correct?”
“Pass the witness.”
In Houston, Jamail works at a long, uncluttered conference table in a sparsely furnished corner office roughly the size of a convenience store. The view through its windows is distinctly personal. When he looks to the west, he sees kids skateboarding at the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark, a project he gave $1.5 million to in 2007. If he turns north, he sees the backside of the city’s grand old central library, which Jamail helped restore with a $1 million donation in 2008. Looking up he sees towers containing law firms and corporations he’s battled for years. “There’s the Shell building,” he says. “Shit, I’ve probably taken $600 million just out of there.”
The view is effectively an outsized trophy case. “That building across Dallas Street is the old Texaco building. There was a big Texaco star on top of it when I moved in here, but it’s not there now.” He starts laughing again. “Hugh Liedtke [the Pennzoil founder] was up here one day, and he said, ‘You son of a bitch, all you have to do to feel good about yourself is look out your goddamn window.’ ”
He grew up two and a half miles to the east, on Everton Street. It’s an industrial area now, hidden from his office by nine decades of climbing skyline, but in the twenties and thirties it was a tree-lined, middle-class neighborhood anchored by the Jamail clan. His dad and two uncles were the sons of Lebanese immigrants, and they lived on the same block and owned successful grocery stores. Some of Jamail’s friends now attribute his affinity for underdogs to growing up an undersized, ethnic outsider. “The Depression did more to me than being a little Lebanese kid did,” he says. “We had money, but I remember seeing men waiting in line around the block at Farmer’s Meat Market. My pop said they were getting food that was about to go rotten for their families. It fucking made me cry.” He tracks his independent streak to his mom. “She smoked once in a while, had a glass of wine, went to the races with my dad. Women didn’t do that.” He holds particularly warm memories of a sock full of marbles he used to incapacitate a bully when he was eight. “He went straight down. Then I walked toward the three little pimps with him, and they ran like hell. That taught me that if you knock down the biggest bully, the rest will scatter.”
He says he was a “shitty kid,” wayward, interested only in fighting, goofing with shoppers in his dad’s store, and, once he got older, drinking beer and chasing girls. After graduating from St. Thomas Catholic School, he spent two days at Texas A&M and quit. He then enrolled at UT but barely lasted a month. In September 1942, when he was sixteen, he forged his father’s signature to enlist in the Marines, then earned multiple trips to the brig for running away. He served in the Pacific, came home, and eventually returned to UT, where he fell for an Austin girl named Lee Hage. A petite brunette, she was a friend of his sister’s, only seventeen but about to earn an education degree from Incarnate Word, in San Antonio. Like him, she was Lebanese, but her father, a wealthy Austin businessman, saw no upside to Jamail. For two years, neither did Lee. Eventually she relented. He made her laugh, and she gave him a sense of direction. They married in the summer of 1949, and that fall, at her urging, he entered UT law school. “Everything I’ve ever accomplished was done to impress Lee.”
After he passed the bar, in 1952, she stayed in a teaching job in Austin, pregnant with the first of their three sons, and he went to work at the big Houston defense firm that would become Fulbright & Jaworski. He swears he lasted only twenty minutes. “They gave me an office, a yellow pad, and a goddamn mean-looking secretary. It dawned on me that representing some insurance company that believes it’s their privilege to collect premiums and deny liability didn’t suit me.” He started hanging around the courthouse, scrounging for indigent criminal defendants and trial experience. He was soon hired as a prosecutor. “I sent people to the penitentiary as fast as I could, never thinking about whether they deserved it. I just wanted another scalp. Halfway through that first year, I thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ ” He started looking more closely at his cases. Too many of the defendants charged with felony car theft were high school joyriders. And everybody charged with marijuana possession was black. He dismissed enough cases to receive scathing coverage in the newspaper. In 1954 he quit and started taking plaintiffs’ work.
“I can’t describe the feeling I got the first time I won a jury award for an injured person,” he says. “It was hard in those days. You had to have a unanimous jury verdict, and one percent of contributory negligence barred all recovery. It was so satisfying to realize I could do it. And I’ll tell you what motivated me: competitiveness. I was betting on me. That’s what a contingent-fee lawyer does.”
By then Lee was in Houston raising their boys, and Jamail started trying as many cases as he could, sometimes up to thirty a year. As the victories and fees mounted through the sixties, he built enough influence to lobby the Legislature for plaintiff-friendly procedural changes, making him a tort reformer of a different stripe. Then a 1967 Texas Supreme Court decision opened the door to product liability cases, and Jamail put the precedent to good use. In 1969 he sued General Motors on behalf of a Houston schoolteacher paralyzed in an accident caused by a faulty steering wheel. The jury awarded her $1.5 million, Jamail’s first million-dollar personal injury verdict. In 1977 he sued Remington Arms on behalf of an Austin lawyer paralyzed when a rifle his young son was unloading misfired, shooting him in the back. The gun maker paid out $6.8 million, the largest pretrial settlement in history at the time, and then recalled the rifle.
He got on a roll that has yet to end. He won Pennzoil in 1985. He prompted Honda to stop making three-wheelers with a $16.6 million personal injury verdict in 1988. In 1992 alone he negotiated a $270 million, mid-trial settlement on behalf of children living near a toxic-waste dump and won a $560 million jury award against Coopers and Lybrand for accounting fraud.
Theoretically, his methods—relying on hypotheticals, rattling opponents, getting unfavorable facts to the jury as early as possible—can be taught in law school. And despite constant talk of whiskey-drinking, he devotes long hours to preparation. But none of that gives any sense of why he wins so big. He absolutely loves the fight, delights in getting as deep in an opponent’s head as he can. That’s why, when attorneys tell Jamail stories, they mention the money he’s won but focus on things he does that few other lawyers have the nerve to try and almost none could get away with. In depositions, with no judge around, he’s hit attorneys in the face and called countless more witnesses “asshole” than just the one who testified against Eubanks. He once took a $675,000 judgment against Sears into the retail chain’s downtown Houston location, commandeered the intercom, and informed employees that he’d just taken over the store.
“The first time I ever laid eyes on Joe Jamail was during a deposition of an eighteen-wheeler driver in Houston,” says Ferguson. “Joe walked in twenty minutes late, sat down between the driver and his own lawyer, and interrupted to ask what kind of truck he’d been driving. It was a Mack truck. Jamail said, ‘Two most overrated things in the world: Mack trucks and teenage pussy.’ ” His brashness unsettles everybody in the room. “You can’t predict Joe,” says Houston lawyer Fred Hagans. “That uncertainty breeds anxiety, which breeds mistakes, which breeds settlements.”
He comes across as a relentless but otherwise regular guy. When he goes to UT’s home football games—which are played on a field bearing his name, thanks to a $5 million donation—he spends nearly as much time talking to parking attendants as to the regents who stop by his box, and he claims to enjoy it more. Juries pick up on that regard for people. “Talk like you’re sitting in your living room,” says Jamail. “You can’t tell the jury to put themselves in the position of the plaintiff, but you can make them believe he’s their neighbor.” Once Jamail does that, he boils even the most convoluted cases down to simple, human terms. That’s how he won Pennzoil. Hugh Liedtke had reached an oral agreement to buy a majority interest in Getty Oil for a price near $1.8 billion, with a myriad of details left to be worked out. Three days later, Texaco made a better offer and Getty reneged. Jamail convinced the jury that Liedtke was just another hardworking everyman who should have been able to rely on a handshake.
Even adversaries admire him, and not begrudgingly. Hugh Rice Kelly is a co-founder of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the lobbying group behind the mid-nineties push that reined in the plaintiff’s bar, and he says attorneys like Jamail were never the problem. “Monstrous jury awards aren’t offensive if they’re supported by evidence,” says Kelly. “Some plaintiff’s lawyers have a tinge of dishonesty. When they leave a room, you smell a little brimstone. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that about Jamail. He may kill you, but he won’t cheat you.”
“You have to take every single five-thousand-dollar and ten-thousand-dollar case to trial,” said Jamail, placing his Scotch back on the bar. We were sitting at the Beaumont Pappadeaux, and he was reciting advice he gives young attorneys. “If your client wants to settle, tell them, ‘The other side thinks you’re a fucking liar and won’t pay you what you deserve.’ Then tell them the trial date’s set and when they’re supposed to be there.” He followed that with the legal advice he gave Billy Joe Shaver when the songwriter called him after being jailed for shooting a man in the face. “Call Dick DeGuerin.”
It was Thursday. The fourth day of the Leggio trial had ended an hour earlier, and Jamail was waiting for Ferguson to stop by so Jamail could update him on settlement talks he’d been having with Barger. (“The problem is that England’s insurance carrier doesn’t know Darrell’s reputation,” explained Jamail. “He’s a damn fine lawyer.”) In the meantime, Jamail was holding court. He talked about his uphill pursuit of Lee—“She was dating Bobby Layne’s favorite receiver, Byron Gillory. Do you see what I was up against?”—and about a black suit he once bought off a waiter and gave to Willie Nelson so the singer could sit with Jamail and Darrell Royal at a bowl-game banquet.
Jamail felt good about the trial. It was moving slowly, but the jury seemed to have fallen in solidly behind the Leggios. That was Jamail’s doing. On Tuesday he’d turned them hard against C. R. England with his questioning of its corporate representative. Gary Thompson was in charge of the company’s safety standards, but with a big gut and no suit, he looked like pure middle management. Jamail established early that Thompson had never talked to Kerr or his supervisor and didn’t even know who Kerr’s supervisor was. He’d not investigated the accident himself and saw no relevance in bringing along anyone from the company who had. But he did state with certainty that the sole cause of the wreck was a sudden fog. The implication was that C. R. England didn’t care about anything but saving its skin.
Then came the clincher. Jamail pulled an old plaintiff’s-lawyer trick, asking if a penny per second—the smallest amount of currency for the shortest measure of time—would provide adequate compensation for what the Leggio kids had suffered. It sounds small, but measured over the projected life-span of the deceased—multiplied by two parents and three kids—it would come to a lot of money. Thompson resisted the bait, but Jamail pressed.
“When a family has been destroyed, you will agree that the surviving members suffer as a result of that?”
“I assume so,” said Thompson flatly.
“How would you feel about it?”
“I’ve lost parents. I didn’t have emotional distress over it.”
The jury looked disgusted and Thompson could feel it. As Jamail walked him through Kerr’s driving violations and conduct before the wreck, Thompson agreed to every point with plain resignation.
Everything went Jamail’s way from that point on, including a made-to-order fogbank Wednesday morning that turned the jurors’ drive to the courthouse into a harrowing experience. Ferguson handled the witnesses that day, and Barger—smooth when he spoke but fidgety while he sat—scratched at his head so hard it started bleeding. That night at dinner, Jamail called Barger from the table. He got his voicemail. “Darrell, it’s Joe,” he said. “I’m out with Walter and Chip, and I want you to know we’re having a drink in your honor.” Now Jamail was really enjoying himself. At the end of trial Thursday, Ferguson got in a shouting match with a young attorney on the defense team who stood up in the gallery and accused him of misstating the record. After Judge Floyd recessed and left the courtroom, the attorney stepped forward. Jamail got in his face. “You’re not lead counsel, so you sit your ass down!” Barger moved between them. “Darrell, you tell him to shut his ass up or I’ll kick the shit out of him!” Without blinking, the young attorney returned to the gallery.
Afterward, outside the courthouse, Edwards apologized.
“Who the fuck was he?” demanded Jamail.
“One of our appellate attorneys.”
“He looked like a fucking appellate attorney,” said Jamail.
He was still amped up at Pappadeaux, luxuriating in his Jamail-ness. “Do you remember Abe Lemons?” he asked. He’d just ordered a second Scotch, which somehow brought to mind the Longhorns basketball coach from the late seventies. “The refs had to walk past his office on their way to the floor before games. He’d stand in the doorway and call them names. ‘How are you cocksuckers going to fuck me tonight?’ Finally somebody complained. The university president was Lorene Rogers, the first woman president of a major university. She sent a report down to Darrell [Royal], who was athletics director. He called Abe into his office and handed him the write-up. Abe read it, paused, then said, ‘ “Cocksucker” really looks bad on the printed page, doesn’t it?’ ”
Jamail has always said that the secret to his long marriage to Lee was that they were both passionately in love with the same man. Yet sitting at the bars in Beaumont, he worked her into every other story. One night he described a lost weekend with Willie, then ended with “I could only do that because Lee was out of town.” I asked about his famous di Portanova case, a billion-dollar fight over a family trust involving feuding heirs of the Cullen fortune. His opposing counsel was Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attack dog in the Red Scare crusade, precisely the kind of figure Jamail liked to trounce. And he did. But he answered with this: “I wouldn’t charge the Cullens, so when I won they gave me an island. It was where the Colorado River hits the Gulf. Had mosquitoes as big as goddamn bluebirds. But it was beautiful, the largest habitat for migratory birds in North America, with huge sand dunes and an oyster reef right off the bank. Lee and I loved driving down there with beer to eat oysters.”
“Did you go a lot?” I asked.
“Twice,” he said. “Lee decided to give it to the state to use as a camp for underprivileged kids. But Parks and Wildlife won’t let you designate the use of gifts. I don’t know what the fuck they did with it.”
She provided the impetus for his philanthropy, which started with relatively modest gifts to local schools in the mid-fifties. “Her mother died from complications of giving birth to her. Growing up without her mom made her self-reliant, compassionate.” Shortly after Pennzoil, she told him they needed to start giving real money away. “I thought she meant a million dollars. She said, ‘No, Joe, I mean a hundred million. We’ve got plenty of money.’ ” To date he’s donated $256 million to schools, museums, hospitals, and parks all over the state.
“Every couple months I’d go to the Palm, pick up a lobster, get some paper plates, and ask her to meet me for a picnic by the arboretum in Memorial Park. We did that for fifty years, until she got sick. We happened to like each other.”
She was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2005. Through the first year of treatment they managed a relatively normal routine, but she spent almost all of 2006 in the hospital. Jamail stayed with her every night, except for three weeks he spent at trial in Austin defending a discrimination case against UT. “At the end she had a trache in and couldn’t talk. Right before Christmas she wrote me a note: ‘Take me home.’ Two hours later we were there. And three weeks after that, she died.”
He still lives in that house, a Mediterranean-style mansion hidden behind a giant hedge in River Oaks. Lee designed it, picked out every stick of furniture and almost every piece of art. There is a painting and an etching by John Singer Sargent, a Toulouse-Lautrec, and a scattering of Charles Umlauf sculptures. Jamail’s one big contribution is the centerpiece of the living room, a large oil painting he commissioned of Lee as a young woman in a white frock, looking up over her left shoulder and smiling.
The rest of his few decorating choices are more humble and harder to find. By the bar there’s a framed New Yorker cartoon showing a naked guy sitting at a bar, telling the drinker next to him, “. . . then she got hold of this guy Jamail.” And back in his dressing room, just above a stack of flasks—“Whenever we went somewhere that wouldn’t have Glenlivet, Lee’d buy me a flask and sneak some in”—is a small black and white photo of Jamail standing next to Lee, who’s seated in the same pose as the portrait in the living room. “That’s where the painting came from. We were in a tiny cantina in Mexico City. She’s maybe twenty-eight, has already had the boys, and she’s laughing because I looked like a train wreck. We were drinking red wine out of goatskin bags, and I’ve got it all over me. I bought that photo for a buck.”
He winds down his days about twenty feet from her portrait, by a fireplace on the back porch with a Scotch and a cigar, listening to big-band CDs and looking at two Umlauf sculptures, one a nude of Farrah Fawcett and another called Icarus. That’s where he celebrated the end of the Leggio trial. It settled abruptly, as lawsuits will, on the afternoon of Monday, December 23. The defense’s strategy to stretch things out had increased the Leggios’ willingness to bargain, but Jamail’s efforts had strengthened their hand. That morning he’d lit into C. R. England’s lone witness, an accident reconstructionist, with such efficiency that at one point Barger fell back in his chair and almost to the floor. During a break, I heard Jamail tell him, “Call your people and get me $9 million so we can fucking get home by Christmas!” Soon enough, Barger presented an acceptable offer.
(The final figure was confidential, but when I asked Barger later to confirm a rumor I’d heard—that one of the defense attorneys had told another Houston lawyer, “We only overpaid by a factor of five, and that felt like a win”—he said he hadn’t made that comment but also wouldn’t deny it was true.)
Judge Floyd announced the settlement to the jury, thanking them for serving and stressing how important their participation was to the system. But there was no way he’d get the last word.
“Your honor,” said Jamail, “could I please address the jury?”
“Of course, Mr. Jamail.”
“Friends, I’ve probably tried more cases than any other attorney in the country,” he said, “and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more attentive jury. These guys”—he pointed at the defense table—“cheap as they are, never would have settled if they hadn’t seen how attentive you are and gotten scared. And I’ve been in front of this judge before. He’s mean. But you came every day, you listened carefully to the evidence, and you made the difference. Thank you for what you’ve done for this family.”
Afterward, outside the courtroom, he shook every juror’s hand, received hugs, and signed autographs. He had groundwork to lay. He never knows when he’ll get another case in Beaumont. And there’s always a chance one of those jurors might find him- or herself in a tough spot and need a good lawyer.