The tension in the Beaumont, Texas, courtroom was as real as that in the Cotton Bowl if Texas and Oklahoma were tied with one minute to go. The parties had been in trial for three weeks and two days. On one side of the aisle were the families of three refinery workers killed in an explosion that had killed or maimed dozens of others. The rest had settled with the oil company. These three families were represented by Jackson Douglas Bryant, a lawyer who in another era would have been a riverboat gambler. He convinced them to turn down million-dollar settlements before trial. The loss of their loved one was worth far more than a paltry million dollars. He even turned and walked away when the company lawyer offered five million per family at the close of evidence. He was confident that a Jefferson County jury would take care of its own.
After two days of jury deliberations, his clients had exhausted every possible topic of conversation and sat, stone-faced and nervous, on the wooden benches. Several of them wondered if they were making a mistake by rejecting enough money to provide for themselves and several generations of kids and grandkids. Still, they crossed their fingers and followed the advice of Jack Bryant.
On the other side of the rail, where the lawyers strutted their stuff as if actors on stage, the company attorneys were huddled with their client, whispering to each other about Bryant’s refusal even to counter their fifteen-million-dollar offer. Bryant was standing at the bailiff’s desk, resting his hands on his cane and debating whether the Houston Texans would ever make the playoffs. Bryant was a Texans fan, but the bailiff had written them off once the Saints acquired Drew Brees and won a Super Bowl. He was now officially a part of the “Who Dat?” nation. If the tension got to Bryant, he was too good a poker player to let it show. Somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty years old, he was a lean six feet with brush-cut brown hair swept back from a widow’s peak, piercing blue eyes, and a chin with a Kirk Douglas dimple. He always chose an expensive Western-cut suit and Justin cowboy boots for trial. The Justin boots had been his choice since he got his first pair as a kid growing up in Fort Worth. He always carried a cane. For trial it was one with a gold knob on the top to match the gold Rolex on his wrist. Among all of his canes, he liked this one the best. It reminded him of the legendary Bat Masterson, gunfighter and poker player. The entire outfit, including the Rolex, was calculated. He had long believed that jurors would be more inclined to award big money if they saw it up close and personal.
Jack would never have admitted it, but he was getting worried. Anyone looking closely at his eyes would see they were bloodshot, a product of tossing and turning the night before as he replayed the trial in his mind and wondered what he might have done differently. They had made their final arguments two days ago and now it was approaching five o’clock. Were they going to hang up? I damn sure don’t want to have to try this son of a bitch again, he thought.
Two loud buzzes echoed through the courtroom. One buzz was for lunch or a cigarette break. Two meant they had a verdict. The bailiff rose, and as he walked by Jack, he whispered, “Good luck, man.”
Jack stepped through the swinging gate at the rail to shake hands with his male clients and hug the women. Then he returned to the counsel table as the judge came from his chambers. Judge Lucius Benton had a mane of white hair that he tied back in a ponytail. His handlebar mustache was so thick that it sounded as if his voice was muffled by a white buffalo hide. “I understand we have a verdict. Please remain standing for the jury.”
The bailiff opened the jury room door, and the six men and six women filed in. Jack thought he detected one woman smiling slightly as she glanced at him before taking her seat. The bailiff handed the verdict to Judge Benton. Silence filled the room as the lawyers and litigants stared at the judge who slowly flipped through the verdict to confirm it was in order and properly signed. Finally, he turned to the jury.
“Mr. Foreman, am I correct that this is a unanimous verdict?”
“Yes, sir,” a longshoreman in the first row replied.
“Then, with approval of counsel, I’ll merely read the answers.”
The first questions dealt with the liability of the refinery. Was the refinery negligent in its maintenance practices? The jury answered, “Yes.” Did that negligence cause the deaths of the three workers? The jury answered, “Yes.” Jack smiled as he looked over to the defense table and saw the dejected looks of the company representative and his cadre of defense lawyers. Now came the important part. The jury awarded each family twenty million dollars in actual damages for losing their loved one. A defense lawyer pitched his pen on the table and leaned back, disgust on his face. The company representative stared at the jury with hatred in his eyes: maybe they would tear down their goddamn refinery in Beaumont and move it to a county where the people would appreciate the economic benefit of fifteen hundred jobs.
Next were questions about gross negligence and punitive damages. The jury found the refinery knew its practices were dangerous and should be punished. It awarded ten million dollars in punitive damages per family. Several adult sons of the workers started whooping and hollering. The widows sobbed uncontrollably. Even Jack had tears in his eyes as he realized the total verdict was ninety million. Seeing he was rapidly losing control, the judge banged his gavel until the handle broke. The bailiff shouted for order. Worried that they might be held in contempt of court, Jack turned and motioned to his clients for silence. Slowly they returned to their seats. Some stared at the judge. Others turned to the jury and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Looking around the courtroom to make sure decorum was restored, Judge Benton announced, “Counsel, I’m sending this case immediately to mediation before retired Judge Simon Jefferson. If he has an opening next week, I expect all of you to be there to see if we can get this case resolved before you spend three or four years on appeal. I commend counsel on both sides for a job well done. You are excused.”
Jack took his clients out into the hallway where he huddled with them about the mediation. In Texas all big plaintiff verdicts went to mediation before appeal. The defendant had two shots at reversing the verdict, one before three justices at the court of appeals and one before nine justices at the supreme court. The bigger the verdict, the greater the likelihood of a reversal. The process would take at least four years, even if they won. He discussed the concept of a bird in the hand and reminded them that reducing the verdict a few million now would put money in their pockets immediately. A few of his clients looked puzzled. Still, they had put their trust in Jack, and he hadn’t let them down yet.
Copyright © 2012 by Larry D. Thompson