No offense to Melvin Belli, but around Houston there’s another guy they call the “King of Torts.” His name is Joseph Jamail, whose legal exploits have already made the Guinness Book of World Records for winning one of the largest individual settlements ever—$6.8 million in a personal-injury suit filed against the Remington Arms Co. over a defective gun. He has won no fewer than 55 settlements of $1 million or more in personal-injury cases. But all that was chicken feed next to the monumental $10.53 billion judgment Joe Jamail just pulled down for Pennzoil. That company had sued Texaco over its “backdoor” deal to buy Getty Oil after Getty had already agreed to merge with Pennzoil. The jury’s award, recently upheld by a judge, is the largest in history. Jamail, 60, isn’t talking, but strong rumors say his fee will be 20 percent or $2.1 billion—easily the world’s record legal fee. Not bad for a guy who flunked torts at the University of Texas law school.
Jamail maintains he won the case on its merits. “Our evidence was as strong as an acre of garlic,” he drawls in the peppery Texas tongue that makes his arguments so appealing to juries (the Texaco case was tried on his home turf). “Pennzoil and Getty had an actual contract, we had lots of evidence to prove it, and Texaco didn’t offer one shred of evidence to refute it. We kicked their ass; that’s all there was to it.” Jamail subpoenaed a heap of notes and memos to show that the Getty company had accepted Pennzoil’s $5.4 billion merger proposal, then reneged on the deal when Texaco dangled a more attractive $10.2 billion offer. Texaco argued it was simply competing with Pennzoil in the American free-enterprise way, but the jury didn’t buy it. Incensed by Texaco’s tactics, Jamail declared, “There are more pompous, arrogant, self-centered, mediocre-type people running corporate America who should be sent out on some postal route delivering mail.” Today, he retracts that statement, explaining, “I apologize for the remark because mail carriers have far more intelligence and better judgment than some of the people running corporate America.”
Jamail frequently pops his opponents with such colorful invective. During the trial he taunted venerable Houston attorney Richard B. Miller, the balding chief counsel for Texaco, with the moniker “the Skull.” Yet Miller concedes, “Joe’s a very able counsel and has exceptional insight into people’s strengths and weaknesses.” Adds famed criminal lawyer and longtime friend Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, “He can manifest that righteous indignation so magnificently that you can’t help but catch it. But the man can be so sensitive and caring that he’s damned near a poet.”
In the Texaco case Jamah’s indignation was incandescent. Pennzoil Chairman J. Hugh Liedtke, 63, a personal friend for 20 years, went straight to Jamail as soon as he discovered that Pennzoil had been deprived of its merger. “He came over to my house and told me all about it, and tried to see it in an objective way,” says Jamail, “and the more he told me about it the less outraged he became and the more outraged and incensed I became.”
Jamail’s decision to go after Texaco was a departure from the series of personal-injury suits that had made his name. Born Joseph Dahr Jamail Jr., he was the second of five children, one of a sprawling Houston clan whose forebears emigrated from Lebanon near the turn of the century. (The family name was spelled “Gemayel” until American immigration officials phoneticized it. Jamail claims Lebanese President Amin Gemayel as a fourth cousin.) His great-uncles started a produce business that thrived, and he grew up financially secure. Two of his cousins still run a pair of well-known luxury grocery stores in Houston, where Jamail sometimes stops by to help bag groceries. After serving as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II, he majored in history at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also earned his law degree.
He won his first personal-injury claim when he and some fellow students sued a beer company after a waitress at one of their favored bars cut her thumb opening one of the brewer’s bottles. “The beer company’s lawyer knew none of us knew what we were doing,” he recalls. “The judge knew we didn’t know what we were doing, so when the beer company offered a settlement of $750, we took it, and ended up drinking it all up at the bar.” Jamail’s clients have included football star Earl Campbell, the family of late Texas tycoon H.R. Cullen, and country star Willie Nelson. But his most famous judgments were won on behalf of “real people, “as Jamail calls more ordinary folks. “He has an incredible ability to judge and relate to people,” says former law classmate Franklin Jones Jr. “He’s got X-ray eyes and can see into their brains. That’s a talent you just can’t develop.”
Now that their children are grown (two sons are lawyers in Dad’s firm and another son is a local investment counselor), Jamail and his wife of 36 years, Lee, his former college sweetheart, live alone in a 10,000-square-foot contemporary house in the exclusive Tanglewood area of Houston. For a multimillionaire, Jamail is still remarkably down to earth. He drives a snazzy Jaguar XJ 12, but cheerfully lugs to work leaky jars of his homemade pickled turnips for his employees. Some like ’em, some say “ugh.” He keeps an expensive brass telescope in his 33rd-floor office for clear-day glimpses of his beloved Galveston, where he likes to drink beer and eat shrimp with the locals in waterfront bars. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve known I could talk to people,” Jamail says, “and people is what this kind of law is all about.” That’s a good word of advice for all the future law students who will be studying the cases of the man who once failed torts.