What Did He Do To Deserve This?

"My sense is that he's extremely frustrated right now. Things seem to be out of his control. It is hard to control what somebody writes about you."

-- Lawyer Ed McAninch on former partner John O'Quinn

Around 6:50 on the evening of November 19, HPD officers Jeffrey Anderson and Kirk Beck pulled over a black Chevrolet Impala they had seen headed west out of downtown at 80 mph. According to the police report on the incident, the driver ran two red lights and briefly managed to elude a siren-blaring patrol car before bringing his car to a stop in the 2400 block of Memorial Drive.

As the driver reached to retrieve his proof of insurance, the police report states, the officers noticed a near-empty bottle of Absolut vodka in the glove compartment. The driver's pants, the officers also reported, were flecked with a small bit of vomit, and they were unzipped.

After refusing to blow a Breathalyzer and failing a field sobriety test, the driver was detained on a DWI charge, and sometime during the evening he apparently had a question for the Houston Police Department:

"What the fuck," the police report quotes John O'Quinn as asking, "did I do to you to deserve this?"

Although O'Quinn later denied making the statement, it's a question he might well have put to his other accusers of late. While the police report captures him in an embarrassing light, the DWI was the least of the problems publicly besetting O'Quinn, the personal-injury lawyer who's been vilified by corporate interests as the national poster child for tort reform and hailed as a hero by clients for whom he's reaped millions.

Of more pressing concern is an 89-paragraph grievance by the State Bar of Texas accusing O'Quinn of using associates to improperly solicit clients after a North Carolina airplane crash. Ultimately, the State Bar maneuver could end in O'Quinn's disbarment -- or in no action at all. Then there's the seemingly unending investigation by the South Carolina attorney general of the same allegations. That investigation, which is supposed to be presented to a grand jury sometime next month, could result in criminal charges against O'Quinn associates and possibly the lawyer himself -- if the state can obtain corroborating evidence against him.

The DWI charge was quietly resolved two weeks ago, after O'Quinn, who had retained Richard "Racehorse" Haynes to defend him, entered a no-contest plea and was found guilty by County Court At-Law Judge Mark Atkinson. The judge fined O'Quinn $2,000, ordered him to pay another $2,000 to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and sentenced him to four days in jail (which he didn't have to serve, since his booking into jail equaled "good time" for the sentence).

In an interview with the Press prior to his plea, O'Quinn acknowledged that his driving was "erratic" on November 19, but he denied that he was drunk and claimed that some details in the police report -- that he tried to elude police, that his pants were unzipped and had vomit on them -- were untrue.

That report also mentions that Carl Shaw, a 34-year-old attorney who works for O'Quinn and figures prominently in the State Bar allegations against his boss, arrived on the scene shortly after O'Quinn was stopped. An ex-court bailiff who put himself through night school at South Texas College of Law, Shaw, according to the report, identified himself as a peace officer and informed the HPD patrolmen that O'Quinn had been drinking because of problems at home.

Shaw -- who is a reserve constable's deputy -- asserted to the Press that the police report was false, that he in fact told the officers that O'Quinn was sick, not drunk, and that he never stated O'Quinn was having domestic difficulties.

Richard Laminack, the O'Quinn partner and friend who answered many of the questions on O'Quinn's behalf for this story, said his colleague was not drinking before he left the office that evening, but had fallen ill and had been sleeping on an office couch before departing for a function at the River Oaks Country Club.

Laminack and several others who know the 55-year-old O'Quinn well said it is unlike him to drink too much, except on infrequent celebratory occasions. But they did acknowledge that O'Quinn doesn't always obey the rules of the road: He's been known to speed and run red lights, and even head the wrong way down a one-way street when leaving his office -- been known, in other words, to follow the direction he wants to follow, whatever consequences may ensue.

Lawyers -- or people working for them -- are forbidden to directly recruit clients in person or by telephone. Legally, the practice is called solicitation; colloquially, it's known as case running. Critics of the legal profession and those pushing reforms of the tort system have another, even less flattering term for it: ambulance chasing. It's a violation of the ethical rules of the State Bar of Texas, the quasi-governmental agency that polices lawyers, and it is also against the law in Texas and South Carolina.

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Mary Flood