For the last week, curious lawyers have been cramming into a small Orange County courtroom to watch two feuding titans of the tort world clash in a legal malpractice case.
Representing four plaintiffs is San Francisco's flamboyant Melvin M. Belli, 77, who relishes the "King of Torts" sobriquet given him years ago by a magazine. He has pioneered new courtroom techniques and helped to usher in the products-liability era during his often controversial career. He co-founded what is now known as the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, the nation's premier organization for the plaintiffs' bar.
The defendant is Los Angeles lawyer R. Browne Greene, 48, less known publicly but regarded as one of the state's top trial lawyers. He is a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, an elite group of 100 plaintiffs' personal injury lawyers nationwide who each have won at least one jury verdict of $1 million in damages, exclusive of punitive damages.
For all they have in common professionally, Belli and Greene have been at war for years.
"They're both big-time trial lawyers, and big-time trial lawyers have big egos," said Los Angeles attorney David R. Glickman, who knows both men.
The malpractice trial, in which testimony began last Monday in Superior Court in Santa Ana, centers on claims by four of Greene's former clients that he failed to tell them about a $2-million settlement offer in a 1981 trial, which was subsequently lost, and that he later tried to cover up his actions.
But the lawyers' dislike for each other, which they both have long acknowledged and which became evident in Greene's testimony Wednesday, threatens to overshadow the malpractice trial--in part because the feud and the credibility of several witnesses are so intertwined.
So far, testimony has put into doubt the credibility of the plaintiffs' key witness, private investigator Walter C. Goode of Orange, who worked on cases for Greene's firm before taking the malpractice case to Belli.
In coming days, other witnesses are expected to testify about Belli's anger at losing a client with a well-publicized case to Greene, and of Belli's successful efforts to get the client back. They also may tell about Belli's role in Greene's losing campaign for the presidency of the California Trial Lawyers Assn. and about how a public statement attributed to Belli led to his taking on the malpractice case against Greene.
If the feud is not exposed entirely in the malpractice case, the rest will probably be told in two other suits against Greene arising out of events in 1981, or in suits Greene and his partners say they plan to file against Belli.
For Greene and his firm, known in 1981 as Greene, O'Reilly, Agnew & Broillet, the origins of the feud with Belli are obscure. Partner Charles B. O'Reilly said law firm members began hearing in the late 1970s that Belli, whom none of the lawyers knew personally, was making disparaging remarks about Greene and the firm.
For Belli, the start of the feud is clear: "Greene tried to steal one of my cases."
The case involved Hollywood stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz, 28, who was paralyzed in a car crash near Las Vegas on June 25, 1980, while she was doubling for actress Farrah Fawcett in the movie "Cannonball Run." Von Beltz was a passenger in a modified car that went out of control and crashed head-on into a van.
Von Beltz and her family had hired Belli in the fall of 1980 to file a negligence suit against the producers, director and others connected with the movie. But by the following spring, according to Greene and lawyers in the Belli firm at the time, Von Beltz and her family had become concerned with the lack of progress in the case.
On the advice of another lawyer, Von Beltz switched from Belli to Greene, who filed a $10-million lawsuit on her behalf on May 28, 1981, less than a month before the time for filing such a suit would have run out.
Yet only a few weeks later, Belli filed a $71-million suit on behalf of Von Beltz.
What happened, said Greene and the former Belli lawyers, was that an angry Belli spent a few hours with the Von Beltz family and wooed her back as his client.
Belli's office actually filed two suits, one of which was a photocopy of Greene's 37-page suit with the first and last pages retyped to insert the Belli office name and the new amount of damages sought. Nine other pages were retyped with minor changes, and the name of Greene's firm was blocked out on all but one of the remaining photocopied pages.
Some of the skirmishing between the two lawyers is evident in the bills they sent each other. When Greene first got the Von Beltz case, he said the Belli firm billed him $20,000 for work already done. When Belli got the case back, he complained that Greene billed him for hiring a limousine to pick up Von Beltz for an office visit.
One Case Settled