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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Sue 'em, his daddy did say

Jack Denton's father made his name taking insurance companies to court. Now, the son is picking up the fight with post-Katrina claims.

July 06, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Biloxi, Miss. — BY now, most everybody knows that young Jack Denton is back in this wreck of a town to do his late father's work.

They know they can find him sleeping upstairs in his father's old law office, which, after Hurricane Katrina, doubles as his apartment. They know they can find him with clients and colleagues down at Mary Mahoney's Old French House Restaurant -- his dad's old haunt, flooded badly, but open again for business. The green-jacketed waiters there call him "Mr. Denton."

That was what they called Will Denton too. He was a small, red-faced man with a big, bruising ego: Friends likened him to a bantam rooster. John Grisham, the novelist, called him "the greatest of Mississippi trial lawyers."

He died on a Houston operating table, nine months before the storm. That spared him from witnessing the destruction of the white-columned home by the beach in which he had raised his children.

And yet Jack Denton knows that if his daddy were still alive, he would wake up eager to greet each morning. Because Will Denton would have enjoyed suing the hell out of the insurance companies that have not fully paid the claims on hundreds of storm-battered Mississippi homes -- including his own.

Today, that job has fallen to his son, a 33-year-old with a boyish face and only a smattering of experience with insurance litigation. Earlier this year, he won what was arguably the most important post-Katrina lawsuit in Mississippi to date.

The case, which was decided in January, resulted in an award of $2.5 million in punitive damages to coastal homeowners Norman and Genevieve Broussard. A jury decided that State Farm insurance had acted in bad faith in declining to pay the claim on their flattened house.

The award was later reduced to $1 million by a federal judge, and lawyers for the company have appealed. But it put insurance companies on notice that they could face unsympathetic juries in hundreds of similar suits that have yet to go to trial.

Critics of Mississippi's legal morass see the worst kind of opportunism in trial lawyers like Jack Denton.

"I'm not say they're inherently evil ... and I'm not suggesting they're reveling in human suffering," said Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the American Tort Reform Assn. "But I think if you could put sodium pentothal in someone's arm down there, I think they'd admit they are relishing the aftermath of this storm."

For Jack Denton, the verdict, like the broader battle with the insurance industry, is a vindication of his father's calling. After Katrina, he said, lawyers are the only force down here that can hold the insurance companies accountable.

"We're the only ones with any kind of do-right stick," he said. "There's nothing to keep the insurance industry in check.... Doing the right thing. It's just not in them."

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IN his truck, Jack carries a statuette of an English barrister that his dad used to keep in the bathroom. Its base reads: "SUE THE BASTARDS."

It's common for trial lawyers to consider themselves righteous defenders of the little guy. This most charitable view of their controversial calling is often amplified in the poor, insular state of Mississippi. Oxford attorney Bill Walker thinks it has something to do with the state's "inferiority complex."

"Southern lawyers have always been great storytellers ... and there's no better story than the David and Goliath kind of story," said Walker, a former co-counsel to Will Denton who is working with Jack. "How some poor person from the backwoods triumphs over some pasty-faced, buttoned-down fellow from Boston. We like those stories."

It was Grisham who did more than anyone to burnish that myth, thanks in large part to Will Denton. Years ago, Denton visited a law class Grisham was taking at the University of Mississippi, and the older man's passion for the law had a profound effect on the future author.

Grisham later wrote that when he worked as a trial lawyer, "I wanted to be like Will Denton." The two became friends, with Denton serving as a legal advisor and inspiration for a number of Grisham's novels.

When Denton died after a failed heart transplant at age 62, Grisham delivered the eulogy. He humorously compared his hero to Robin Hood:

"Take from the rich, give to the poor, pocket 35% along the way," he said, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald.

Today, the Denton law office -- a restored, elegant Victorian home about a quarter mile from the coast -- is full of Hollywood mementos from Grisham and signed pictures of the author with Will.

On a recent afternoon, Jack met a potential client at the office door. The mood was decidedly mellow: Will Denton was famously intense but also prone to anger. The son has deliberately tried to temper those attributes. The two cats that had evacuated Biloxi with him were lazing on the foyer furniture. Jack wore running shoes with a crisp button-down and khakis.

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