HOUSTON — \o7 Solomon Casseb Jr., Richard B. Miller and Joseph Jamail Jr. have been known in South Texas for years as prominent lawyers, moving in important social and political circles.
But now they are suddenly thrust onto the national stage, thanks to the biggest civil case in U.S. history--Pennzoil vs. Texaco.
Until three weeks ago, the 23-month-long legal dispute over Houston-based Pennzoil's contention that Texaco improperly lured Getty Oil out of a merger deal last year drew little attention. Presiding Judge Casseb, lead Texaco lawyer Miller and Pennzoil lawyer Jamail labored with little notice in a tiny Houston courtroom.
But on Nov. 21, a jury sided with Pennzoil and awarded it $7.53 billion in actual damages and another $3 billion in punitive damages, a sum so huge that giant Texaco has been forced to consider bankruptcy while it appeals the decision.
\f7 These are the three men who were the key courtroom figures in this historic case.
Pennzoil's earthy lead counsel is known to his peers as "King of Torts" for his masterful handling of wrongful injury lawsuits.
But in his first year of law school at the University of Texas, Joseph Dahr Jamail Jr. flunked torts. Such an undisciplined and unexceptional student was he, in fact, that one law professor rebuked him for "just taking up a seat" and advised him to give up law and join the family grocery business in Houston.
"In your ear," Jamail recalls muttering under his breath. But the verbal abuse he got that day inspired his passionate pursuit of a legal career and helped forge some of his best-known traits: determination, persistence, discipline and astute use of verbal abuse to throw opponents off stride.
During the Texaco-Pennzoil trial, Jamail regularly fired insults at his counterpart on the Texaco team, Houston attorney Richard Miller, calling, for example, the balding Miller "the Skull." By the time the trial ended, he had filed a professional grievance against Miller with the state bar, and Miller had formally charged Jamail with filing frivolous grievances.
"He just keeps coming at you," says one Houston lawyer who has faced off against Jamail in the courtroom. "And the amazing
thing is, his bullying never seems to hurt his case with the jury. Most of us can't get away with that."
The gray-haired, 60-year-old Houston native, whose family is related to that of Lebanese President Amin Gamayel, charms jurors with his flamboyant and earthy language, pronounced Texas drawl and mischievous good ol' boy demeanor.
"They're feeding us the same old warmed-over bull as they have been for two years," he told a reporter during a break in the court hearing last week. And during one lengthy, technical argument by Texaco lawyers last week, a bored Jamail threw paper wads at the obviously delighted court reporter.
He greets courthouse elevator operators by name and often spends weekends helping out at the swank Jamail family grocery stores.
Jamail is equally admired for his skills at picking and persuading a jury and condensing complex legal issues to a working man's understanding.
"He is the quintessential trial lawyer," says Gerald Treece, assistant dean of the South Texas College of Law in Houston. "He is tremendously persuasive, easy to listen to and easy to believe."
Jamail, ironically, got his start at the predecessor firm to Houston's Fulbright & Jaworski, one of the law firms now representing Texaco. After brief stints there and in the district attorney's office, he took up personal injury law in 1955, a specialty that has made him a millionaire.
His track record for winning record-breaking restitution for victims of corporate negligence is among the best in the country, and he is cited by the Guinness Book of World Records for winning the largest individual cash settlement ever--$6.8 million from Remington Arms Co. in the late 1970s for a client accidentally shot by his 14-year-old son in a hunting accident.
Jamail's clients usually are working people--"real people," as he calls them. But they also have included football star Earl Campbell, the family of the late Texas multimillionaire H. R. Cullen and now Pennzoil, whose chairman, Hugh Liedtke, has been a personal friend of Jamail for some 20 years.
Jamail has always said that he took the Pennzoil case strictly as a "labor of love," but Liedtke said in a recent interview that the lawyer will be paid. "We just don't know how much yet."