Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Attorneys John O'Quinn and Benton Musslewhite aren't buddies anymore

The temporary truce between John O'Quinn and Benton Musslewhite -- a truce that helped the pair beat ambulance-chasing charges brought against them by the State Bar -- hasn't lasted long.

So much for wartime romances.
Musslewhite is taking his former associate to court, having filed a lawsuit February 11 that is nothing less than a 60-page cri de coeur over what he says is a decade of insults, unfair treatment and financial ripoffs by O'Quinn. If the suit isn't tossed out, it promises to be one of the messier divorces in recent memory.

It has passion: "John O'Quinn put Benton Musslewhite through a living hell from 1987 through 1992, and from 1995 to and through the present and into the foreseeable future," the lawsuit says.

It has hurt feelings: O'Quinn "would try to make it falsely appear that Musslewhite was nothing but a 'broker' lawyer and that Musslewhite was the person who always got O'Quinn into trouble with the State Bar, when in fact the opposite was true," it states.

It has self-righteousness: "I file this lawsuit with deep regret, much reluctance and terrible sorrow," Musslewhite says.

And, of course, it has big money: Musslewhite seeks more than $200 million in actual and punitive damages. He also wants a receiver appointed to handle the cases he and O'Quinn still share, because of his "deep concern" over O'Quinn's "recent health problems," which include well-publicized treatment for alcoholism and stress.

About the only thing the suit may lack is a good guy. Even though the bar failed in December to convince a jury that O'Quinn and Musslewhite had masterminded a case-running operation in the wake of a 1994 air crash, the trial, with its reminders of earlier disciplinary problems for the pair, further hurt their damaged reputations.

And for the state's image-obsessed insurance-defense lawyers, who have long seen the pair as the epitome of the kind of unscrupulous greedy lawyer who brings disrepute to their profession, any legal fighting between the two is the equivalent of the Iran-Iraq war when it comes to choosing sides.

Musslewhite and O'Quinn have long been tangling over money -- Musslewhite claims O'Quinn owes him millions for cases he's referred to him; O'Quinn claims he's owed millions by Musslewhite.

Musslewhite has filed for bankruptcy protection, and O'Quinn's lawyers will likely argue that the new suit brings up claims that already have been settled in federal court.

Even if it doesn't survive, the suit offers some intriguing tidbits: There's Musslewhite's claim, for instance, that O'Quinn promised to settle their differences if he just put off filing his lawsuit until after the State Bar case was over. O'Quinn "broke his solemn word," a wounded (if perhaps insanely naive) Musslewhite says.

There's also his little dig at O'Quinn's vanity: Musslewhite says the more famous lawyer, ever mindful of his boast that he's never lost at trial, balked at taking cases that presented a challenge. "O'Quinn refused to try [two] cases because he thought they were unwinnable and thus O'Quinn, as was generally his practice when it came to tough cases, avoided trying the case himself because of his extreme sensitivity about protecting his 'winning record,' " the lawsuit says. (Musslewhite claims to have taken the cases himself and won them.)

Musslewhite also claims that O'Quinn brought on the pair's troubles with the bar both in the late 1980s and last year by not paying employees. Those employees -- who Musslewhite says were legitimate investigators but who the bar says were case runners -- got angry at being stiffed and took their stories to the bar or to the news media.

"In his inimitable way, O'Quinn would pay only a part of the amounts due and then ignore the pleas for full payment by these creditors, thus enraging them and causing them to threaten Musslewhite and O'Quinn with false and frivolous complaints to the State Bar," Musslewhite's suit claims.

"A grueling trial of the Texas State Bar case has just been completed, with exoneration of both O'Quinn and Musslewhite," the suit notes. "However, terrible damage was done to Musslewhite simply by virtue of O'Quinn causing the charges to be brought in the first place."

(Musslewhite notes that anything he or O'Quinn did in connection with the air crash was legal and protected by the First Amendment.)

O'Quinn could not be reached for comment on the suit, but in the past his lawyers have belittled Musslewhite's monetary claims and rejected his claims of unfair treatment.

The suit landed in the court of 133rd District Judge Lamar McCorkle.

E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.

 
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