Beasley is the eye of the storm

posted on:
September 21, 1994

author:
David Rynecki

After his hopes of becoming governor were dashed in the 1978 Democratic primary, Jere Beasley decided to fade away from the life of smiles and backslapping he never did like.

The former two-term lieutenant governor opened a small law firm in Montgomery and began taking on cases in which people sued to recover damages to compensate for injuries-physical or monetary-they have sustained. He worked the cases hard to win his clients a few dollars.

But few of his former colleagues inside the Capital in Montgomery saw his new career as anything more than a forced sabbatical. He would be back, they figured. All politicians came back.

“When you are in office, you get to thinking you’re more important than you are, and how in the world is the state going to survive without you?” Beasley said. “I hated the phoniness and fantasy world most politicians live in. but even though I knew that I felt that way, I had to dispel the notion I would ever run again and that indeed I was a trial lawyer.”

In the 16 years since, Beasley, 58, has become one of Alabama’s- and the nations- most successful personal injury lawyers. He sues mainly insurance and financial companies. And for big-time money.

There was the 25.4 million verdicts in Barbour County against Prudential Life Co. earlier this summer. Not long before that, he won a $50 million verdict against Mercury finance Co. in Barbour County. Then there was the $34 million verdict against the finance division of Ford Motor Co. in Lowndes County, a $26 million verdict against Ford Greene County and the $15 million verdict against General Motors in Marengo County.

All told, his firm of 14 lawyers has scored $200 million in verdicts in the past 5 years.

His firm, Beasley, Wilson, Allen, Main & Crow, has won a jury award or settled for $1 million more than 70 times, Beasley said. Even after the accustomed appeals, which often led to reduced damages, his standard one-third fee has made him a wealthy man.

He does particularly well in Barbour County, known among insurance companies as the “Beasley Triangle.” It is the rural area where Beasley was reared, where many of the jurors know who he is.

He has won over 15 and 20 trials in the Barbour County courtrooms of Circuit Judge William Robertson, his former legal partner. The numbers of settlements is even larger.

Beasley and Robertson admit he has a home court advantage. But both deny any collusion in verdicts. Robertson, who has received campaign contributions from Beasley said he has nothing to do with the jury’s verdict. In fairness hearings meant to determine the validity if a verdict, he has at times gone against his former partner’s wishes. “I think it’s a fallacy that any person can go to a place where they lived before and all of a sudden some magic happens,” Beasley said.

Our insurance executive said privately that he believed Beasley has an unfair advantage in Robertson’s court. He contends Robertson does have an impact on verdicts by virtue of giving the jury instructions and ruling on motions. The executive asked for anonymity because he feared Beasley would grow more aggressing toward his firm if his name were mentioned.

“To get $25 million in a case like Prudential in unheard of in the annals of American jurisprudence,” said Yale Law School professor George Priest, an advocate of limits on punitive damages. “I don’t know whether Beasley or someone else found it, but there is a great mistrust of financial services companies that this small group of lawyers has tapped into. Beasley has stumbled across a gold mine.

Some business leaders single handedly accuse dampening the state’s economic climate and forcing insurance and finance companies to blacklist portions of the state where he is most successful. Several companies he has sued said privately that they have stopped doing business in Alabama.

A string of court victories now casts him as a central character in the current debate over torn reform, a struggle between Alabama trial lawyers and business groups over the issue of limiting punitive damage awards. It is a heated issue in the campaign for state Supreme Court.

“In Alabama, we demagogue big companies in courtrooms and that makes businesses in Alabama afraid to go to court,” said Sid McDonald, a former state legislator and current chairman of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse. “This is all an argument about money.

In a state already gaining national attention for having injuries that award surprisingly large punitive damages, Beasley is the current king of the hill. As Birmingham trial lawyer Lanny Vines put it, “This is Jere Beasley’s year.”

During an interview at his office on Commerce Street in Montgomery, Beasley Spoke candidly about this success as a lawyer, He said he does not enjoy celebrity.

For all his money, he looks like a man who remembers the days just after the primary when hew as in debt from campaign spending and had few assets. He will not say how much he is worth today. “I made more money last year that I made as lieutenant governor,” he said.

He often chooses a blue jacket and a red tie instead of the traditional great suit and bland tie.

In the courtroom, he is no Clarence Darrow, lighting up juries with fiery rhetoric. Instead he speaks softly, in a deep voice.

“Jere’s just Jere,” Robertson said. “He’s no different in my courtroom than sitting in my office.

Beasley said he represents the poor, helpless people of Alabama in major cases of fraud committed by multibillion dollar corporations. He and other plaintiffs’ lawyers said they are the guardians of the disadvantage defenders of the faithful.

Juries have agreed with Beasley’s contention that his clients are people who were mistreated by ruthless, calculating insurance agents. A multimillion dollar Verdict in the board rooms, even when, as the prudential case, actual damages amounted to a few thousand dollars.

“Juries don’t like somebody who cheats and steals from somebody who trusts them,” Beasley said. “People have a basic belief that you ought to be able to trust an insurance company who takes your money and promises you something.

Beasley as the anti-establishment populist is a theme that dates long before his income his seven figures per year.

He was born in Tyler, Texas, where his father sold tobacco for R.J. Reynolds. The family moved back to their native Clayton in Barbour County when Beasley was 2 years old. There, his father was a peanut farmer and his mother ran a store in town. She died of a brain tumor when he was 15.

Beasley was a football star at Clayton High School and coached little league when he was not throwing touchdown passes. Among his little leaguers was Robertson, the future judge who now presides over Barbour County cases.

“He was someone everyone in the school looked up to,” Robertson, 50, said.

His harm earned him a football scholarship to the University of Georgia, but a knee injury prevented him from playing.

Never a star student, he left the university to attend a community college in Mississippi. Eventually, he dropped out and returned to his father’s farm.

Two years on the farm persuaded him to give college another try. He enrolled at Auburn University, graduating in 1959. He began to get good grades. From there, he and his new bride, Sarah, moved to Tuscaloosa, where he entered the University of Alabama law school.

In 1962 he graduated first in his class and took a job with a small Tuscaloosa law firm that specializes in defending major corporations left him feeling pretty empty. “I needed a job,” he said. “I never did feel very comfortable doing that.”

He quit after three years and returned to Clayton, where he spent the next years as part trial lawyer and part country lawyer. Wills and deeds helped pay the bills.

By the late 1960s, he and Robertson formed a law firm with offices in Clayton and nearby Eufaula. The third partner was Horace Williams, a friend of Beasley’s from their days in Auburn. Williams now often serves as Beasley’s courtroom nemeses in Barbour County. The firm dissolved in the 1970s.

In 1970, he ran for lieutenant governor as a political unknown. But a Fob James would do in the 1978 governor’s race, he played up the outsider angle, calling himself candidate for change. He won at the age of 34.

“I think Jere was good,” said former Gov. Albert Brewer, a friend of Beasley’s. “I think he was sensitive to the people. I think he had good judgment.”

But the next eight years were bumpy. He was outspoken, often critical of the Wallace administration. There were clashes, times when Wallace took away perks, cut Beasley’s staff, Because of political disagreements.

“I was young, sort of idealistic, had ideas about how I thought government should work,” Beasley said.” I found out my job wasn’t that important.

When Wallace was shot in 1972 while campaigning for president in Maryland, Beasley spent a month as acting governor.

Beasley said his time in government service demonstrated to him that he wasn’t cut out for political games.

And perhaps, some say, politics wasn’t cut out for him.

Years, later, Beasley considers his political career one of the great failures of his life. But the courtroom has made up for any past disappointments.

The courtroom is where he believes he is fighting the great battles facing the state, against the companies that conspire to defraud individuals. It is where he can confront a giant such as Prudential and show a jury that not only were his clients mistreated, but hundreds of other poor families were misled into buying insurance policies.

As to the size of the verdicts, he says they are justified. In the Prudential case, the jury awarded $400,000 compensatory damages and $25 million punitive damages. In an unprecedented decision, Robertson recently relied that 40 percent of the money should go to the state, preferably to the Insurance Department to help police industry. The actual damages were a fraction of the compensatory damages. He said he would have settled for $1 million.

Beasley’s former law partner, Williams, said that enormous verdicts Beasley and lawyers like him have be winning can’t go on forever.

“I think continuation of these large verdicts is going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Williams said.

But Beasley and other lawyers argue that they are not hurting businesses. They cite the arrival of Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa County as one of many examples of a company coming to Alabama.

Considering a question about whether he is profiting at the state’s loss, he paused. Then he turned forward, reflecting that he has never stopped looking out for the people, and said, “If I really, honestly thought I was hurting Alabama, I’d take another look at it.

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