The Insider

The All-Too-Human Family ...
We've won!" exulted John O'Quinn associate Carl Shaw, the warm-up act for the 400 or so residents of Kennedy Heights and sympathizers who gathered at TSU's Hannah Hall on the evening of August 21.

"We've got our judge," Shaw told the assemblage. "We're withstanding the tests they're trying to put us through."

Unfortunately for Shaw and O'Quinn, the victory was extremely short-lived. As the two lawyers and their clients would be reminded in a matter of minutes, the course of the Kennedy Heights lawsuit against Chevron calls to mind that catch phrase from the Hertz car rental commercial. When the meeting began, U.S. District Judge Ken Hoyt -- who, like the Kennedy Heights plaintiffs, is African-American -- was still behind the steering wheel. Before it ended, the lawyers and residents were stuck with "not exactly."

O'Quinn had convened the meeting to address mounting dissension within the client ranks over his firm's handling of the lawsuit. As part of the effort, the audience was treated to old-fashioned Sunday-service spirit-raising led by some of O'Quinn's favorite black politicians. But midway through the revival, Hoyt blew the top off the tent by phoning O'Quinn's office with the news that he was recusing himself mid-trial after it was revealed that his wife had worked for Gulf Oil more than two decades ago.

Hoyt's grip on the case had been shaky since Chevron tried to force his recusal for prejudicial comments the judge had made to lawyers for the energy giant. Although a panel from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to order him off the case, the judges were unusually harsh in describing Hoyt's remarks as "unfortunate, grossly inappropriate, and deserving of close and careful scrutiny." Reading between the lines, you didn't have to be a legal scholar to understand that the appellate judges were suggesting that Hoyt might considering jumping -- even if they weren't going to give him a push 31 days into the trial of a complex piece of litigation.

The three-year-old Kennedy Heights case is all about whether petroleum wastes buried by Gulf back in the 1920s caused illness and death among the African-Americans who later bought homes built atop the site in southeast Houston. Chevon purchased Gulf -- and its potential legal liabilities -- in 1985.

While the allegations that the pollution caused health problems among residents have yet to be proven in court, the case does seem certifiably toxic, at least to the judges who've presided over it. So far, the litigation has seeped through the courts of four state and federal jurists, including state District Judge William "Bill" Bell, who also recused himself after allegations were raised that he had made improper contacts concerning the case with lawyers outside his court. The lawsuit was later transferred to federal court. With Hoyt's recusal, U. S. District Judge David Hittner became the latest recipient of the legal hot potato.

But there was no hint of Hoyt's imminent departure when O'Quinn strode into the TSU auditorium last week. The charismatic and controversial king of breast implant litigation raised his fist in a power salute as he entered to the cheers and applause of the crowd.

The warm reception belied the purpose of the gathering, which had been prompted by increasing dissatisfaction among Kennedy Heights residents. Although no one from the audience spoke out during the meeting, it was clear from the speeches delivered by O'Quinn's special guests that at least some of the residents are unhappy with the lawyer's firm.

When questioned by The Insider, Shaw would only acknowledge that some residents are angry because they weren't among the 29 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He singled out one disgruntled Kennedy Heights woman whose husband reportedly died of brain cancer. O'Quinn was even less forthcoming: "I can't comment about what my clients and I talk about," he said.

A frequent spokesman for the residents, John Simmons, was also uncharacteristically silent about the reports of client disaffection.

"I can't speak about that right now," Simmons said by phone several days after the TSU meeting. "Maybe in a couple of weeks."

A lawyer who previously worked on the litigation says O'Quinn and Shaw have had difficulty dealing with the residents from the beginning. Until former city attorney Benjamin Hall joined the case for O'Quinn's firm, "all the lawyers that O'Quinn had on the suit were white, and they made some fundamental relationship-type mistakes at the beginning that are starting to show."

This attorney says many of the Kennedy Heights residents "are not convinced that the stuff made them sick, and a lot of 'em are not convinced that Chevron will ever pay." In seeking damages on behalf of some residents, the lawsuit has damaged the property values and ruffled the feathers of other homeowners who are not participants in the litigation.

O'Quinn, in an attempt to assuage residents' doubts, brought along some high-powered, if rather unusual, case managers to the TSU gathering. The audience was treated to -- or subjected to -- pep talks by City Councilman Jew Don Boney, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Robert Muhammad, the minister of the local Nation of Islam mosque. All were on hand to attest to O'Quinn's abilities and persuade the residents to stop questioning their attorneys. At times, the three seemed to be trying to browbeat the residents into unconditional acceptance of O'Quinn's leadership.

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