Joe Jamail, Houston’s Jamail & Kolius, Texas Lawyer Lifetime Achiever, Litigation Department of the Year, 2014 (John Everett)
Houston attorney Joe Jamail, 88, became a legend among lawyers nearly 30 years ago. Back in 1985, he won a $10.53 billion verdict for Pennzoil Co., which sued Texaco Inc. alleging tortious interference with Pennzoil’s contract to buy Getty Oil stock.
“It’s still the highest jury verdict ever,” Jamail, of the Law Office of Joe Jamail, said of his victory in Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco.
The case did not end with the verdict, however. Claiming that the Texas proceedings violated its rights under the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes, Texaco sought to prevent Pennzoil from enforcing the judgment. That battle began in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, continued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the high court’s April 6, 1987, opinion.
As noted in that opinion, the federal district court enjoined Pennzoil from enforcing the judgment, and the Second Circuit affirmed. In reversing the Second Circuit’s judgment, the Supreme Court concluded that the district court should have abstained from hearing Texaco’s claims.
After Houston’s 1st Court of Appeals reduced the judgment against Texaco to $8.53 billion, Texaco and Pennzoil settled for $3.3 billion in 1987.
“Nobody thought I could win, except Hugh Liedtke,” Jamail said about Pennzoil’s chairman.
The settlement for Pennzoil is a far cry from the amount awarded to Jamail’s first client in a personal injury case. Jamail said that during his final year at the University of Texas School of Law in 1952, he represented a waitress who worked at a bar that he and fellow students frequented. The woman had cut her thumb opening a beer bottle and filed suit against Pearl Brewing Co. in a state district court in Austin.
Jamail said that he had taken the Texas bar exam “on a dare” in 1952 and passed it, enabling him to represent the woman in court. But passing the bar exam did not necessarily prepare him to try a personal injury case.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” Jamail said.
When the late Mac DeGeurin, attorney for the brewery, offered Jamail $500 to settle the case, Jamail said that he told DeGeurin and the judge that $750 would be better. Jamail said the case settled for $750, and he received a $250 fee, which he and other law students drank up at the bar.
Jamail said that after he graduated from the UT law school in 1953, he briefly had a job at Fulbright & Jaworski.
“I stayed 20 minutes and quit,” he said. “I didn’t like working for $250 a month.”
Jamail worked in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office from October 1953 to October 1954. Dan Walton, then the Harris County D.A. and later a district court judge in Houston, named Jamail the chief prosecutor in Criminal District Court No. 3, where Jamail said he learned about prosecuting criminals when he spent an afternoon with the judge of that court.
But it is in civil law where Jamail made his mark and continues to do so, representing some well-known clients, including another legal legend, Houston criminal defense attorney Percy Foreman.
Jamail represented Foreman in a personal injury suit in the 1960s. Foreman, whose neck was injured when a truck hit his car from behind, sought $75,000 in damages to compensate for his pain.
According to Jamail, Foreman testified that the only time previously that he suffered a neck or back injury was when a horse fell on him in his youth. But lawyers for the defendant found evidence that Foreman had been treated for neck pain in the past.
To avoid having his client accused of lying, Jamail said he told the jury that Foreman had spent his life representing the poor and downtrodden but that he was now “old, forgetful and borderline senile.” After hearing that, Jamail said, Foreman jumped up and yelled, “You goddamned son of a bitch.”
After Foreman’s outcry, Jamail said that he turned to the jury and said, “You see, he doesn’t even know where he is.”
The jury awarded Foreman $75,004 in damages for pain, Jamail said, adding that he never knew why jurors added in the extra $4.
In 2009 Jamail represented the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which had intervened in In Re: Estate of Alfred C. Glassell Jr. in Harris County Probate Court No. 1. Glassell, a Texas oilman and philanthropist, divided approximately $500 million between his family and the museum in a 2003 will that, according to the museum’s second amended petition in intervention, was contested by his daughter, Curry Glassell. On Nov. 16, 2009, the six-member jury returned a verdict favoring the museum.
“The jury came back in 37 minutes,” Jamail recalled.
Beck Redden partner Murray Fogler of Houston, who represented Alfred C. Glassell III, executor of the Glassell estate, said that his favorite moment in the trial involved Jamail. Fogler said Glassell had collected pre-Columbian gold figurines, which he bequeathed to the museum. At one point in the trial, Jamail had Peter Marzio, the museum’s executive director, bring two or three of the figurines to court in a grocery bag, he said.
Fogler said that Jamail got the judge’s permission to publish the figurines to the jury and went into the jury box with the artifacts.
“He was talking to the jurors until finally the judge said, ‘Joe, I think that’s enough,’” Fogler said. “Not many people can get away with the things Joe can.”
Fogler also pointed out that Jamail did not charge the museum a fee for his work.
“I didn’t feel like I could charge them,” Jamail said.
Jamail didn’t need the fee. According to forbes.com, Jamail’s estimated net worth today is $1.6 billion.
Jamail has shared his wealth over the years. According to a March 5, 2013, news release from the University of Texas, Jamail was one of four people who received a presidential citation that year. As noted in the release, Jamail has been a longtime and frequent donor to the university, giving millions of dollars to a variety of colleges and departments.
But from his long legal career, Jamail said he is proudest of the fact that some of his clients’ cases have forced the recall of defective products. Those included a recall of rifles that the Remington Arms Co. Inc. announced in an Oct. 25, 1978, news release.
According to the news release, on Oct. 23, 1978, Remington insurance carriers settled for $6.8 million in a case that allegedly involved an accidental discharge of a Mohawk Model 600 rifle that left a man partially paralyzed. Jamail said he represented the plaintiff in John Coates v. Remington Arms.
Although he’s now at an age when many people prefer to take life easy, Jamail continues to represent clients. In 2013 he represented the grown children of Vincent Leggio Sr. and his wife, Debra. The Leggios were killed when a tractor-trailer rig slammed into their vehicle during a Nov. 22, 2012, pileup of approximately 100 cars on Interstate 10 in Jefferson County, according to the second amended petition in Leggio v. C.R. England Inc. filed in state district court in Beaumont.
Jamail said his clients sought damages for their mental anguish and reached a confidential settlement with the trucking company and its driver on Dec. 23, 2013.
When asked if he ever plans to retire, Jamail said, “You’ll read about it in the obituary.”