The Passion of Victoria Osteen

A flight attendant went after the Osteens in court, bringing on trials and tribulation for one and all

Every little Catholic boy and girl knows about the Stations of the Cross. (Maybe other religions, too; we can't speak for them).

For one glorious spring day, students get out of class to watch as priests mumble their way around the church. Legend has it the collars are talking about the various tortures and annoyances Jesus went through on his way to being crucified, but usually there's too much whispering and strenuous attempts to withhold laughter amongst the young'uns to hear much of what's going on.

The go-getters at Houston's massive Lakewood Church are about as far from Catholics as you can be, unless these days there are priests out there yammering on about how God really, really wants you to be rich, contrary to what the Bible says.

Brown's version of Joel: "Please allow me to introduce myself..."
Scott Gilbert
Brown's version of Joel: "Please allow me to introduce myself..."
Nope, there's no catfight at all going on.
Scott Gilbert
Nope, there's no catfight at all going on.
Determining damages can be a highly scientific process. Or not.
Scott Gilbert
Determining damages can be a highly scientific process. Or not.

But Houston experienced a Stations of the Cross ceremony this month, as Victoria Osteen underwent her own Passion Play of suffering, redemption and attorney's fees in the noble effort to beat back a lawsuit filed by a Continental Airlines flight attendant who claimed Osteen pushed her in the boob during a dispute over some spilled liquid.

Some spilled liquid on a first-class seat bound for Christmas in Vail, but don't be disturbed by that. We're sure Mary and Joseph had a first-class mule on their way to Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

(And that Mary would have raised holy hell if the saddle had contained a couple of drops of liquid. Little-known fact: Mary could be quite the prima donna when it came to travel arrangements.)

The epic, transcendent courtroom battle between flight attendant Sharon Brown and Victoria Osteen provided many lessons for those watching. Rusty Hardin was able to restore (a little bit) his Roger Clemens-tarnished reputation, and the world got a closer look at attorney Reginald McKamie.

The closer look wasn't necessarily ­flattering.

McKamie presented a case that was...interesting, if not exactly designed to win.

Witnesses who said the opposite of what he thought they would, even though they were his own witnesses; countless objections by Hardin sustained by an exasperated judge; McKamie firmly establishing (God knows why) that Victoria Osteen had not changed her version of events; strange claims about hemorrhoids and whether the brief incident should be worth 10 percent of Victoria Osteen's wealth; and a final argument that left observers giggling: let's just say it was an engaging ­performance.

(Fun fact: McKamie ran for DA in 2004 and was endorsed by the Houston Chronicle. On the other hand, he was running against Chuck Rosenthal, so who's to say the endorsement was so wrong?)

McKamie would talk only briefly to us after the trial; Hardin referred all questions to Lakewood Church.

But who needs them? Anyone who followed the trial learned that there are Ten New Commandments, and the parties to the suit broke almost all of them as Houstonians watched in awe.

(Note to the Osteens: The so-called "commandments" are a Bible-related thing. They don't specifically talk about how God wants everyone to get rich, so you may not be familiar with them.)

The Ten New Commandments, all dealing with what has to be the world's most overhyped discussion about a spilled drink:

Commandment the First:
Thou Shalt Not Bring a Knife to a Gunfight

There have been many, many mismatches in history: Georgia vs. Russia, Grenada vs. the United States, Brad Lidge vs. Albert Pujols.

But seldom has the world witnessed such a David-vs.-Goliath battle as Reginald McKamie vs. Rusty Hardin. There was no upset this time.

McKamie's unique courtroom style, which we'll endeavor to somehow explain throughout, was the equivalent of a train wreck that fell off a bridge onto a shipwreck that then drifted into a 20-car pileup on the interstate.

It began when McKamie became incensed that the Osteens were plugging their new best-seller and not going on Larry King Live and saying, "By the way, Larry, we feel it's only fair to hand over four or five million to Sharon Brown, with a couple extra million for her attorney."

An annoyed McKamie fired off a passionate press release urging reporters to write the true story of the Osteens. "Are you willing to tell the story of an average American who was merely doing her job when she was physically attacked and verbally demeaned by a powerful megastar?" he asked.

He backed this up by attaching deposition transcripts...that showed, essentially, that McKamie was no Rusty Hardin.

It's too bad that depositions aren't written more like stage plays, or this excerpt, where McKamie asked if the Osteens were role models, would have looked like this:

HARDIN (Rolling eyes) Where is this going? I mean, [Joel's] going to answer these questions, but I find it highly offensive. What does whether or not what they are or what they are not have to do with this?

McKAMIE (Sounding like a sarcastic teen): It has a lot to do with it.

HARDIN (Slowly, as if speaking to a six-year-old): What? Please state for the record what.

McKAMIE (Like George Costanza sputtering to yet another boss): What it is, it has — it has destroyed my client's faith in what her actions were. And I'll get around to it and —

HARDIN (Utterly exasperated): She is claiming in this case that this has affected her faith in God?

McKAMIE (As if thinking, "Hey, good idea"): It is, yes.

HARDIN (Wondering, "I went to law school for this?"): And that is a cause of action, and that is something she's decided to be compensated for?

McKAMIE (Feeling, "Oh yeah, I've got him backed into a corner now"): That's part of her damages.

As events would show, things didn't improve from the time of that deposition.

Commandment the Second:
Thou Shalt Not Call a Mega-Church "a Cult" in Front of a Houston Jury

Sharon Brown took the witness stand as part of McKamie's making her case.

That was pretty much inevitable, one supposes, but it did have the unfortunate effect of opening her up to cross-­examination by Hardin.

A cross-examination that revealed to the jury that during her earlier deposition, Brown had referred to Lakewood Church as "a cult" and Joel Osteen as "the devil."

She somehow didn't manage to add "And the rest of you Jesus-lovers? You're fools!! Do you hear me? Superstitious, gullible, idiotic FOOLS!!! Now please decide in my favor in this case."

Osteen's massive money-printing, ­theology-lite operation has come in for criticism (often from us), but calling it a cult? And him the devil? That's not exactly what you learn in "Connecting With Juries 101."

Brown tried to backtrack from her comments, saying that during her deposition she had been tired, on sinus medication and the anti-depressant Lexapro and the sleeping pill Ambien (See Lawyering for Dummies, page 159: "How Not to Prepare Your Client for a Deposition").

McKamie, wily court dog that he is, of course knew that the "cult-devil" comments would come up in trial and possibly bite him in the ass. So he had a strategy to deal with the issue.

We assume he did, at any rate. Whatever it was, he chose to keep it a secret.

Commandment the Third:
Thou Shalt Not Mention ­Hemorrhoids

You're suing for a ton of money in a highly publicized case. You want the jury, and the public, to take you seriously.

You probably shouldn't try to claim that part of why you're suing is that Victoria Osteen gave you hemorrhoids.

"My ass, your honor!! It burns!!" is really not quite up there with the "Who are these men?" soliloquy from Verdict or "You can't handle the truth!" from A Few Good Men, when you come to think of it.

And nothing against Sharon Brown, but we don't want to come to think of her hemorrhoids. (We're just thankful she didn't actually say the "My ass, your honor!!" line or that McKamie eschewed a demonstration of the trauma of applying Preparation H.)

Brown, or McKamie, must have sensed that the hemorrhoid line of attack was backfiring because she tried to take it back. She said that in her (fateful, apparently drug-addled) deposition, she had merely said she had experienced stress, and stress can lead to hemorrhoids.

Which wasn't the best thing to say, since Hardin pointed out that in the deposition she actually had simply said she developed hemorrhoids as an effect of the incident. (Maybe it was the Lexapro. Or the Ambien. Or the sinus medication. Or the tiredness.)

There was much chuckling over the hemorrhoid stuff — except, maybe, from people who suffer from them. And it turns out it was all for naught — after the trial, the jury foreman told curious reporters that the word "hemorrhoid" was never uttered during deliberations.

Then again, the jury dismissed the case so quickly they didn't really have time to address every ridiculous angle to it.

Commandment the Fourth:
Thou Shalt Not Discuss What Joel Osteen Was Really Thinking During All of This (The only commandment that wasn't broken)

During the trial, testimony showed that Joel Osteen mostly kept to himself during the alleged argument, until at one point he offered to clean the mess up himself. Victoria, naturally, told him not to bother.

So we are supposed to believe...what? That Joel never heard the two arguing? That he thought it wasn't a big deal? That this kind of thing happens so often it was just another day in first class with ­Victoria?

We're inclined to think the last option is the most likely.

Here's how we envision Joel's interior monologue as he settles in for the jaunt to the slopes of Colorado:

Dearest God, thank you for being the kind of Savior who understands that a hardworking preacher needs to get away from his Houston mansion and rejuvenate among the quality people at a — what the hell?

Ah, geez...It's just a little water, Victoria. It's not going to kill you. Oh, great, just great — make a scene. This is what I need to start off a vacation: you squabbling because someone spilled something. This is surely not worth getting all worked up about and — FOR THE LOVE OF GOD will you sit down!!

Deep breaths. Take some deep breaths, Joel, ol' buddy. Oh Lord of All Things, I don't ask for much beyond the occasional best-seller, the audiobooks, the DVDs and the Vail vacations. But if you could puh-leeze get my wife to just sit down, I will do anything you want. Within reason. I'm sure we could work something out.

Ah, never mind. Is there any way to make myself smaller in this seat? Pretend I'm asleep? (Fat chance, with Cruella De Vil here berating the help.) I don't hear anything, I can't hear anything, not paying attention, na-na-na-na-na. I'm not hearing anyth — MY GOD IT'S JUST SOME LIQUID!!

Am I going to have to actually get involved? Tell me I'm not actually going to have to get involved. Please tell me I'm not going to have to get involved. Shit, I'm going to have to get involved.

He rises and speaks. "Look, I can clean it up. It's really not — "

"SIT DOWN, JOEL. NOW."

"Yes, dear."

Commandment the Fifth:
Thou Shalt Not Ignore the Most Basic Rule of Trial ­Lawyering

Even your grandma knows from watching Matlock that there is a basic rule drummed into every trial lawyer: Never ask a witness a question that you don't already know the answer to.

McKamie flouted that rule in flamboyant fashion, by calling a witness who completely contradicted everything he was trying to prove.

He could have had Hardin call that witness, we suppose, but that would have been less fun than shooting himself in the foot in front of a jury.

The very definition (unfortunately for the lawyer who produced her) of a surprise witness, Barbara Shedden was a passenger on the famous flight.

She was McKamie's last witness before he rested his case. And she completely destroyed it.

Shedden said she saw a discussion, but no assault, and "there's no way" there could have been an assault that she didn't see.

It surely was only a matter of time constraints that prevented McKamie from calling the rest of his witness list:

1) The president of the Victoria Osteen Fan Club

2) Joel Osteen's agent, in a video-­conference call from his newly purchased yacht

3) Sharon Brown's still-bitter ex-­husband

4) The executive director of the Anti-Frivolous Lawsuit Association.

Commandment the Sixth:
Good God, Not the Race Card

Which is worse? Sharon Brown saying Victoria Osteen acted the way she did because Brown is African-American, or Joel Osteen then going on the witness stand to say one of his childhood friends was black?

Unfortunately, we got to find out. And the answer is, it's a toss-up.

Determined to press all the annoy-the-jury buttons he could, McKamie introduced the race card.

As if Victoria Osteen doesn't treat the help like crap no matter what their color is. She doesn't look at color, people. She looks at status.

If you are lowly enough to be in the service industry, it matters not to her if you be black, white, brown or blue: As long as you fulfill her every whim immediately, you and she will get along just fine.

The most puzzling thing about Joel Osteen's "best friend is black" routine was that he was talking about a kid he knew growing up in Humble.

Which he consistently mispronounced, without the silent "H." Kind of made you wonder about the rest of the tale, the whole black-friend part.

Then again, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Joel Osteen would have trouble with the word "humble" in any of its forms.

Commandment the Seventh:
Thou Shalt Not Remind People of Lionel Hutz

Here are some quotes. Some come from McKamie (before, during and after the trial) and some come from the dearly departed Lionel Hutz, ace Simpsons lawyer voiced by Phil Hartman.

Can you tell the difference?

a) "Pfft. Doctors. Doctors are idiots! There is no telling what type of permanent injuries he might have. You might have to wait on him hand and foot for the rest of his natural life. That's the down side. Now here is the good part. You can ching ching ching cash in on this tragedy."

b) "Trust yourselves. Trust the law...trust the system."

c) "She's a hero to me. She has ­convictions."

d) "I don't use the word "hero" very often, but you are the greatest hero in American history."

e) (To a female witness who says she's 60 years old, not 50) "Jesus. Okay. You look good for 60."

f) "This is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film The NeverEnding Story."

g) "Isn't a person's dignity...worth a half of a percent...of a painting by an imperfect man?"

h) "Ugh. If I hear "objection" and "sustained" one more time today, I think I am going to scream."

i) "Well, that's...a measure of damages of — mental anguish damages. And mental anguish damages includes a lot of factors, and it's a broad area — it includes grief, grieving, loss of different things."

j) "Wrong!!! You are not fine! You are in terrible pain!"

(Answers: Hutz for a, d, f, h, j; McKamie for the rest. Don't feel bad if you didn't do too well. It was a very difficult quiz.)

Commandment the Eighth:
Thou Shalt Not, for Crying Out Loud, Ask for 10 Percent of Victoria's Net Worth

As the trial began, the general public quickly absorbed two things: There had been a brief incident on an airplane, and the lawyer was asking for millions of dollars over it.

While it would have been fascinating if McKamie had won his case and therefore got to open the Lakewood/Osteen books, a lot of impossible things would be fascinating if they somehow happened.

So all McKamie's "10 percent" claim accomplished was to cement in the public's mind the utter Hutz-ness of it all.

After the trial, in the brief interview he gave us (which, to be sure, was more than Hardin would do), McKamie was his usual eloquent self: "Well, what you have to understand is...a money judgment is the only thing the court can provide. And that's, that's all the jury system can do," he said. "As we said all along, we wanted the jury to determine what that should be. And as imperfect as the justice system is, that's all that can be provided."

Oooooh-kay. As to how you get to 10 percent, McKamie was less ­forthcoming.

But we imagine a very scientific process. Involving a dartboard.

Commandment the Ninth:
Thou Shalt Not Utterly Baffle the Jury During Final ­Argument

Convinced — somehow — that he had not yet done enough to fatally cripple his client's case, the wily McKamie went to his ace in the hole — a bizarre closing argument.

And by "bizarre" we don't mean simply that he tried several times to talk about things that had not been brought up as evidence during the trial. By this point, the over/under on how many objections Hardin would successfully raise during Mc­Kamie's final argument was a solid seven.

No, much more bizarre was the apparent decision to a) first insult the jury's intelligence by showing rudimentary pictures of things like a hammer (don't ask), and then b) make them question your sanity by introducing a groundbreaking legal theorem in which a plaintiff's damages are determined through a ratio involving how much Vincent Van Gogh paintings are being sold for.

The Van Gogh theorem was magisterial; it showed McKamie was willing to go where no lawyers had yet dared to tread. Joe Jamail, of course, decided to ask the jury for a billion dollars in damages in the famous Pennzoil case because of a Picasso sketch he saw once, but he didn't have the balls to tell the jury about it. Instead he just used a lot of accounting mumbo jumbo.

McKamie, on the other hand, went for the jugular. Because Van Gogh paintings were worth a lot of money, and because Van Gogh was kinda insane, and because his client may have been pushed in the tit, his client should get $400,000 in mental-anguish damages.

There is a long, long, long leap of logic on the winding journey that is that previous sentence, but McKamie was not only gladly jumping it, he was asking the jury to come along on his Evel Knievel ride.

Sadly for McKamie, sadly for his client, they chose instead to remain on the "not-crazy" side of the ledger.

But even now, law schools across the country are introducing courses that are helping attorneys determine damages in their slip-and-fall cases by a close study of Sotheby's auctions. ("Your honor, Monet would ask for nothing less than $50,000 for the soft-tissue neck injury my client developed from this fender-bender!")

You know, if someone would have told you, before the final argument, that Mc­Kamie would not make his "10 percent of net worth" claim, you'd have said, "Ah, he's finally coming to his senses."

And you would have been wrong.

Commandment the Tenth:
Thou Shalt Not Wallow in Self-Aggrandizing Self-Pity. Please.

Okay, so you've been the subject of a nuisance lawsuit. You've been exposed as someone who gets a little high-handed with the help on a first-class trip to Vail. You've been accused of having the ability to induce hemorrhoids.

We're sure the whole experience was annoying. But, if you were to listen to the Osteens in the celebratory Sunday services after the jury came back in their favor, you'd think Victoria had actually undergone the Stations of the Cross and incredibly survived.

"I'll probably never speak of this again, but if it can help anyone it's worth it," she somehow summoned the strength to say August 17. (By "probably never speak of this again," we assume she means "unless we've got another book to sell, that is.")

Victoria offered this to the frantically cheering audience: "I remember praying some days, and I would anoint myself with oil. I felt like, I wish I could go in and just anoint that whole courtroom." Anoint the whole courtroom with oil? On what planet are these people living? (Don't answer, we already know — Planet McKamie, named after the God of Odd Statements.)

According to Victoria, the entire ordeal almost made her give up preaching. We believe this segment is taken from the Book of St. James Brown, wherein the star leaves the stage only to oh-so-reluctantly return for the sake of the fans: "The truth is, I didn't want to come back [to preaching]. The truth is, I wanted to stay home. I wanted to forget it. I thought, 'You know what, God, maybe you are trying to tell me this isn't what I'm supposed to do. Maybe you're trying to tell me I need to sit home.'"

(To which God replied, "You know what, Vickie, what I'm trying to tell you is to live a life devoted just a little bit more to openhearted charity toward all and not so much on raking in big bucks." At least that's how we hope God replied, if He exists.)

That's not to say that Victoria was totally disingenuous throughout the celebratory pep rally. She said how she had tried to pray for Sharon Brown.

"I can't tell you that every time I did it I thought I meant it," she said.

No shit, lady. Then again, we're pretty sure you thanked God every night that Brown got Reginald McKamie as her ­lawyer.

But we should not belittle Victoria Osteen's pain, the utter torture she was put through by a God that had seemingly forsaken her. She did, after all, have to put up with the horror of some liquid on her first-class seat to Vail.

Even Jesus never had to go through that.

rich.connelly@houstonpress.com

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