MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Jere Beasley was nearly broke and looking for work after getting whipped in a race for governor 30 years ago. Since then, the rural Alabama lawyer has reemerged as a powerhouse plaintiffs’ attorney whose firm counts more than $20 billion in verdicts and settlements.
One of the South’s latest tort kings, Beasley has succeeded against such corporate giants as Merck and Monsanto. This has made him a constant target of business groups, with Karl Rove once putting him in the Republican political cross-hairs.
“Beasley is one of the most successful personal-injury lawyers in the game,” said Darren McKinney, spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association in Washington.
Beasley’s firm helped negotiate a $4.8 billion settlement with Merck & Co. Inc. over Vioxx claims and a $700 million settlement over pollution from an old Monsanto Co. PCB plant. He also helped the State of Alabama win an $11.9 billion verdict against Exxon Mobil Corp. and last month’s $215 million verdict against drugmaker AstraZeneca P.L.C.
Up next month is the trial of a drug-pricing fraud suit against GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C. and Novartis AG, with about 70 similar suits in the wings.
Beasley’s name is now mentioned in the South’s pantheon of plaintiff lawyers along with Florida’s Fred Levin and – until his star crashed with a guilty plea to judicial bribery – Mississippi’s Richard Scruggs.
“He is a trial lawyer’s trial lawyer,” said Jon Haber, chief executive officer for the American Association for Justice, the Washington-based organization for trial lawyers.
For Beasley, 72, it’s a long way from the little law practice he once ran in the south Alabama town of Clayton, population 1,475.
Beasley’s life changed in 1970, when he grabbed the political coattails of another lawyer from Clayton, Gov. George C. Wallace, and got elected lieutenant governor. He won reelection in 1974.
Then in 1978, with Wallace stepping down as governor, Beasley decided to run for the top spot. He finished a distant fifth in the Democratic primary.
Nearly broke and done with politics, Beasley started sending out resumes. The people who had been his political friends for eight years didn’t seem to know him once he was out of office.
“I couldn’t get a job, so I opened a one-person law firm,” Beasley said.
A law practice that once took up a couple of rooms in an old house now fills three historic buildings in downtown Montgomery with 44 lawyers and 225 support workers.
Despite the growth, Beasley drives a pickup truck, just as he did back in Clayton. He still has the demeanor of a small-town lawyer, always exhibiting his best manners to the jury and explaining complicated issues in simple, everyday language.
Skip Tucker, executive director of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse, calls Beasley “pure evil,” but he said Beasley has made millions by getting juries to sympathize with one of their local citizens in a fight against a big faceless corporation.
“If I had to point to one thing that has made Beasley rich beyond the wildest dreams of avarice, it would be this: He has an extraordinary ability to seem and sound sincere to juries and to most media people,” Tucker said.
Beasley laughs off criticism from business interests.
“If it wasn’t for folks like us, the average guy wouldn’t have a chance,” he said.
The largest success for Beasley’s firm came last fall when one of his partners, Andy Birchfield, helped negotiate the $4.85 billion national settlement that Merck, headquartered in Whitehouse Station, N.J., made with thousands who claimed health problems stemming from the painkiller Vioxx.
“Merck recognized the plaintiffs and the plaintiffs’ bar were willing to litigate these cases for years, if that is what it took,” Birchfield said.
When Beasley was building his firm, he became one of Karl Rove’s targets when the former presidential adviser was running Republican campaigns for the Alabama Supreme Court from 1994 to 2000.
Rove worked with business groups to portray Beasley as a leader among greedy trial lawyers who were turning the state into “tort hell” with the help of Democrats on the state’s highest court.
The tactics worked, with the voters changing the state Supreme Court from all Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican.
But times have changed. Republican Gov. Bob Riley brought in Beasley’s firm in 2003 to help represent the state government in the lawsuit against Exxon Mobil over royalties from natural gas wells along the coast. An $11.9 billion verdict – the largest ever in Alabama – was whittled down later to $122 million.
Alabama’s Republican attorney general, Troy King, is using Beasley’s firm and another practice to sue 73 drug companies, accusing them of overcharging the state Medicaid program for prescriptions. The first case went to trial in February and the jury deliberated only 45 minutes before awarding $40 million in actual damages and $175 million in punitive damages. Beasley said the rest allege more than $1 billion in actual damages alone.
The next trial is scheduled for April 7 against GlaxoSmithKline, which has a U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia, and Novartis. Beasley’s firm is also helping with similar suits in Mississippi, South Carolina, Hawaii and Alaska.
Alabama’s Republican governor and attorney general see nothing unusual about teaming up with Beasley’s firm. Riley said Beasley has the staff, financial resources and track record to get the attention of an international corporation such as Exxon Mobil.
But in some respects, Beasley is still like the out-of-work lawyer he was 30 years ago because some successful people still don’t want anything to do with him. It just comes with being a trial lawyer, he said.
“It doesn’t bother me that I’ve never been invited to join the Montgomery Country Club,” said Beasley. “I don’t guess I ever will be.”
This story also appeared in Forbes.