Walter Umphrey
Managing Partner
Provost * Umphrey Law Firm
Beaumont
74

Beaumont plaintiffs lawyer Walter Umphrey has had huge success, obtaining billions of dollars of verdicts and settlements in asbestos litigation over 40 years and helping negotiate a historic $17.3 billion settlement for Texas with tobacco companies.

Umphrey, managing partner of Provost * Umphrey Law Firm, also has a long history of representing labor unions, which are prominent in Southeast Texas where he lives and built his firm. His close ties to labor unions and its members helped Provost * Umphrey develop a practice of representing individuals who allege they were injured by exposure to asbestos.

Umphrey says he got involved in asbestos litigation in 1972 after listening to some trial testimony in Borel v. Fibreboard Paper Products Corp., which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in that case that manufacturers had a duty to warn of asbestos dangers.

“I tried probably the third [asbestos] case in the nation,” he says. “We represented a majority of unions in this area, so in a year we had thousands of cases.”

Umphrey’s asbestos cases included two large class actions — Cimino v. Raymark Industries Inc. and Jenkins v. Raymark Industries Inc., et al. — but he says he has taken many more to trial and settlement.

“I can’t tell you how many millions we’ve received in verdicts and settlements. We still have 31,000 active asbestos cases, but some in bankruptcy,” he says.

Umphrey’s name is recognizable to many Texans for his work on behalf of the state when then-Attorney General Dan Morales took on the tobacco industry. Umphrey led a team of lawyers in State v. American Tobacco Co., et al., which was filed in 1996. “Our firm was in a position that I could take three years and do that,” he says. [See "Where Juries Are King and Trial Lawyers Make Them Sing."]

“We felt we could make a federal RICO case; we were going to give it a shot. That went a long way in the industry settling with us,” he says. The litigation ended with a $17.3 billion settlement in 1998 with the firms taking 15 percent plus reimbursement of expenses.

“If history was going to be made, I wanted to be part of it,” Umphrey says.

He still gets to work at his firm at 6:30 a.m., he says. “I don’t want to see anything I’ve built deteriorate in my lifetime,” he explains. Provost * Umphrey has had 47 to 50 lawyers for the past several years, and offices in Beaumont, Houston, Tyler, Nashville, Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark., Umphrey notes.

Umphrey, 74, is a 1965 graduate of Baylor Law School, where he helped fund construction of the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center that opened in 2001.

Umphrey says you’ve really made it as a trial lawyer when you can handpick three or four cases a year and speak your mind.

See “The 25 Greatest.”