Business As Usual

The State Bar of Texas tries again to KAYO John O'Quinn but can't lay a glove on him

Ethics rules in Texas and elsewhere are derived from U.S. Supreme Court rulings and local guidelines. Lawyers can send so-called Shapero letters touting their firm to victims or victims' relatives; they generally cannot make "cold calls," showing up uninvited at homes or hospital rooms. (Much to the chagrin of plaintiffs' lawyers, representatives of an airline's insurer, usually carrying a low-ball settlement offer, aren't constrained as tightly.)

But if you already have a client from an air disaster, nothing prevents you from investigating that crash. And if that investigation forces you to talk to other victims or their relatives, you're free to ask the people you're talking to whether they have a lawyer yet.

You are also not prevented from talking to a victim if you happen to represent him in an unrelated case. And that's what happened to Benton Musslewhite.

A roguish, 67-year-old charmer, Musslewhite has had a hand in cases from Agent Orange to Bhopal. He's shown up at oil-rig disasters all over the world, urging people to file their suits in the United States (and, coincidentally, to consider hiring him to do so).

He was suspended for three years by the bar in 1989 for running cases while he was on probation for, of all things, running cases.

Some say that the mere fact of not already having a client wouldn't have slowed Musslewhite down (the lawyer is, in fact, also facing case-running charges from the subsequent ValuJet crash), but fortunately for him, among the hundreds of clients he was representing in a toxic-tort case was one Floyd Doucette, whose son Dorrian was horribly burned in the USAir crash.

Nine days after the crash, Benton called his son Charles and asked him for a ride to Doucette's house, where they signed him and his son up as clients on behalf of O'Quinn. (Only O'Quinn, Musslewhite says, has the financial resources needed to pursue such high-stakes cases.)

Within days of signing up Doucette, a squad of highly unlikely investigators headed out to South Carolina, where most of the victims lived. They included a woman calling herself Betty Edward, a man named George Dillard, an O'Quinn employee named Darlene Hopper and Charles Musslewhite, who headed the operation. Benton Musslewhite and Carl Shaw also made visits to the state, and O'Quinn flew in to hold a press conference.

The firm had also hired a professional investigative firm out of Dallas called the Information Bank of Texas but were paying Edward and Dillard hundreds of dollars a day (the fee later jumped to $1,000 a day) to do their own "investigating."

The tab seems high for people with no formal training, but Musslewhite testified he was looking for "people persons" who could work with harried survivors and relatives.

O'Quinn's firm eventually handled about a dozen USAir cases, earning $4.5 million in fees. No one gave much thought to the matter until Betty Edward decided she was getting ripped off.

Edward says she was owed $455,000 in bonuses and pay; O'Quinn's people will tell you she was trying to extort $7.5 million out of the lawyer to keep quiet. When she found no relief, she took her complaints to the archconservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, setting in motion the events that led to such a weak case being brought to trial.

About 18 months after the USAir crash, a Journal associate editor named Max Boot began writing a series of op-ed columns based on Edward's claims. The columns prompted the South Carolina Attorney General's Office and the State Bar of Texas to investigate the matter.

O'Quinn, Musslewhite and Shaw eventually pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of giving legal advice in South Carolina without having a license from that state. Solicitation charges were dropped.

The State Bar of Texas's situation was clouded with politics and history. In the late 1980s they had gone after O'Quinn in a high-profile disbarment trial, but vivid internal disputes among members led to what was commonly seen as a slap-on-the-wrist settlement for O'Quinn and Musslewhite (O'Quinn received a public reprimand and performed 100 hours of community service; Musslewhite got probation, which he promptly violated).

Since then, O'Quinn had only become even more noted. Fortune magazine put him on its cover as a "Lawyer from Hell;" Forbes had tabbed him one of the nation's richest attorneys; and a string of courtroom victories in breast-implant cases, Texas's tobacco lawsuit and various other attention-getting causes had kept him in the headlines.

Armchair psychologists in the state's legal community were forever buzzing about the Yberdriven O'Quinn, about why he needed to still associate with Musslewhite and aggressively seek cases when his success allowed him to pick and choose. Most pseudoshrinks, knowing of O'Quinn's emotionally bereft upbringing by a stern father and absent mother, concluded that he couldn't stop himself until he had toppled the legendary Joe Jamail as Texas's top attorney.

From the beginning the bar treated O'Quinn's South Carolina case in a unique manner, appointing a blue-ribbon panel of attorneys to serve as a quasi grand jury and refusing to consider any settlement offers (even though bar rules seem to mandate at least one settlement offer, one of several due-process complaints in O'Quinn's countersuit that is seeking reimbursement of his attorneys' fees).

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