John O'Quinn Still Looms Large at the Courthouse, Even in Death

A photo of John O'Quinn taken in 1997 for our feature, "What Did He Do To Deserve This?"
A photo of John O'Quinn taken in 1997 for our feature, "What Did He Do To Deserve This?"
Houston Press archive

When legendary Houston attorney John O’Quinn died in 2009, he had more than 1,200 automobiles but no children to leave them to. The collection was called Classy Classic Cars and was among the largest in the world, but on the night he crashed into a tree going 60 miles an hour on Allen Parkway, he was driving a Chevy Suburban, with his own private driver and friend in the passenger seat.

Following his death, O'Quinn was eulogized immediately as one of the biggest personalities to walk through Harris County courts and was recognized across the country. He was known most for winning a $17 billion lawsuit against Big Tobacco companies and a $100 million suit against Dow Corning, a breast implant manufacturer, in the 1990s. While he was alive, he had been called the “Lawyer From Hell” on the cover of Forbes magazine; the “unchallenged king of breast implant litigation” in a 1997 Houston Chronicle feature — and also “the Most Disliked Attorney in the State” by the Texas Young Lawyers Association.

That’s largely because his major success was, throughout his career, tainted by ethics complaints filed with the state bar — like allegations that he illegally solicited clients, who were families of victims in a high-profile airline crash in 1994. Getting charged with a DWI right around that time didn't help much either. In 1997, just as his trial for the ethics complaints approached, we wrote a feature that revolved around what he allegedly told police when they arrested him: “What the fuck did I do to deserve this?”

But in the seven years since he died, John O'Quinn's name is still lingering in courthouses — and not just in Harris County. He's been sued 40 times since he died, twice just in the past two weeks, with suits in federal court, in New York, California, Florida, 12 in Mississippi. Most of the suits have been filed by former personal injury clients, accusing his now-defunct law firm of malpractice and saying they got shorted money. The man who is standing in O'Quinn's shoes throughout all this is the same man who stood by him as his attorney through many of those ethics complaints court proceedings: Gerald Treece, the executor of O'Quinn's will. Treece's own attorney, Dale Jefferson, described him as O'Quinn's “best friend in the whole world" — which has come with a cost.  “The moment that John O'Quinn died,” Jefferson said, “Gerald Treece walked into a hornet's nest.”

And not only is he fighting in court against many of O'Quinn's former clients, he's also battling O'Quinn's own organization, the John M. O'Quinn Foundation. That's where things get even messier.

Since O'Quinn had no children, the foundation was the sole beneficiary of his will, which he'd set up to give millions in charity grants to children's hospitals, universities and other organizations that help disadvantaged kids. As executor of O'Quinn's will, Treece is entitled to compensate himself reasonably for being in charge of liquidating O'Quinn's assets (like his giant car collection), channeling funds to the foundation and winding down the law firm while dealing with all of its lawsuits, among other responsibilities.

But “reasonable compensation” is a matter of opinion, and in a lawsuit, the foundation claims that Treece has been paying himself millions more dollars than he's earned and also overpaying third-party accountants and other professionals to do a lot of the work for him. This has resulted, according to the foundation's attorneys, in Treece's excessively spending $55 million that otherwise could have been used to help the children.

This is the kind of fight over money in which it's easy to burn through hundreds of thousands of dollars in the blink of an eye. Like most contested estate cases, it revolves around the wishes of a dead person who is no longer around to clear things up.

To date, according to Jefferson's answer to the lawsuit, Treece has overseen the liquidation of more than $350 million in assets that include 868 cars and 3,000 items of O'Quinn's memorabilia, settled more than $1 billion in debt, so far defended 35 lawsuits involving roughly 1,700 plaintiffs, and distributed about $75 million to the foundation. Using discretion that O'Quinn gave him in his will, Treece is giving himself $15.5 million for all that work.

But attorneys for the foundation say that, in addition to that being way too much, Treece never adjusted the price to reflect the fact that he delegated a lot of the work. "He's paying himself [for] that work even though it was performed by somebody else," Robbin Gibbs, the foundation's attorney, said. 

The foundation has also accused Treece of unreasonably spending O'Quinn's estate money on things like paying for someone to do his own personal tax return, paying someone $400 an hour to go to Verizon to shop for a new cellphone for him, paying someone for investment advice, paying for a $50,000 Audi and paying his gas money each month to get from The Woodlands to his job as a law professor at South Texas College of Law. According to the suit, he's even spent it on frivolous things like an application for an EZ tag and taking new cars for test drives. In other words, things that don't have much to do with executing O'Quinn's will. 

Jefferson has responded to all these allegations by, first, writing most of the above items off as “nickel-and-dime stuff” anyway, and clarifying that Treece has since reimbursed the foundation for all those miscellaneous expenses. “They haven't lost a single dollar,” Jefferson said. (Attorneys for the foundation, however, say that this "just add it to my tab" practice violates his duties as executor of the will under Texas law.)

Jefferson added that the reason Treece was chosen as executor is that O'Quinn wanted to take care of his friend. While he was alive, Jefferson said, it was customary for O'Quinn to send an accountant, who was a close friend, out to go car shopping or phone shopping, in the same way Treece did. "John wanted him to continue with the status quo," Jefferson said. "This is what he would have wanted."


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