At the end of 2015, Texas lost the King of Torts. Joe Jamail died in late December at the age of 90. It seems strange knowing he is never going to be in court again. His impact on our civil justice system was huge.
Texas Monthly writer John Spong said that Jamail was the “Greatest Lawyer Who Ever Lived.” Spong cited Jamail as his source. I heard lawyers call him that most of my career. Jamail took the title when he won the largest jury verdict in history. In Pennzoil v. Texas, a jury awarded Jamail’s client more than $10 billion dollars.
That case, and 200 hundred other verdicts and settlements of more than a million dollars, made Joe the richest working trial lawyer in the country.
I was fortunate to have the best seat in the theater when Jamail appeared in court in the BP explosion case. He was on the witness stand testifying as an expert regarding when attorneys should refrain from discussing their trial cases with the media. He stated under oath that he never did that until his trials were over. I looked out in a courtroom packed with attorneys of all ages from both the plaintiff and defense bar listening to him in awe. It was as if he were giving a history lesson in Texas jurisprudence. The respect he drew from his peers was strong, even from those who knew his testimony was not the whole truth and nothing but. After the hearing three reporters approached me to tell me they went out drinking with him each day after court while he was in many a jury trial.
I have no doubt that Jamail was one of Texas’ greatest trial lawyers. But my assessment is not based on the size of his verdicts, settlements or bank accounts. He did make history with those numbers.
Jamail was a great trial lawyer because he had nerves of steel, no fear, compassion for those who hurt and a talent for making jurors care as much as he did about his clients. He understood how to persuade others to do what he wanted and what his clients needed them to do.
His success was driven by an enormous ego. That is a compliment. I have seen most of the best trial lawyers in this state in action from the highest seat in the courtroom. The best all have extremely healthy egos. And they are driven by their passion for justice.
I cannot say Jamail was the best. In the civil justice system the best I ever saw is Ernest Cannon. I watched Cannon get a standing ovation from a jury panel of about 200 persons. His success is based on same qualities I described in Jamail.
I was also lucky enough to have the best criminal lawyers in my court as well. But that is for another column.
I was one of those fore-mentioned attorneys in awe of Jamail. So was he.