HARD AGROUND - Wreck of the Exxon Valdez - March 24, 1989

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DUELISTS IN THE COURTROOM
LEAD LAWYERS WHO ARE SQUARED OFF IN EXXON VALDEZ CASE HAVE A WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE IN ARGUING MAJOR CASES

by NATALIE PHILLIPS
Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 05/31/94
Day: Tuesday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

ANCHORAGE- On the 22nd floor of a Minneapolis skyscraper, copies of a half-dozen million-dollar checks preserved in clear plastic stand on a bookshelf behind the desk of attorney Brian O'Neill. They are trophies from the big lawsuits he has won.

A thousand miles away, on the 20th floor of a tower in downtown Nashville, Tenn., attorney James Neal's walls are plastered with mementos of his work: a letter from the makers of the Ford Pinto and photographs of Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, Jimmy Hoffa, Elvis Presley's doctor, and the Exxon Valdez.

Both lawyers are avid golfers.

Both are former college football players.

Both are ex-Marines.

And both are in Anchorage for the summer, squaring off in what has been labeled the world's largest environmental lawsuit, filed shortly after the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound. The case is being heard by a federal court jury and is entering its fifth week.

The 46-year-old O'Neill a stocky, West Point graduate-turned- environmentalist known for wandering around his stuffy, corporate law office in bare feet, T-shirt and shorts is representing 12,000 Alaska fishermen, Natives and land and business owners who are suing Exxon for more than $15 billion.

The 64-year-old Neal a cigar-chomping, gin-rummy playing Southern gentleman who drives a beat-up Cadillac and fancies racing horses has been hired to defend Exxon, a 112-year-old business that employs 96,000 people in 80 countries. The oil company has said it is willing to pay for the actual damages it caused, but not the multibillions in punitive damages the fishermen and other plaintiffs are seeking.

Neal was originally hired to defend Exxon against criminal charges brought by the federal and state governments. After those charges were settled in a plea bargain that resulted in a $100 million fine for the corporation, he was asked to stay on to help Exxon through the civil trial. He is working with Patrick Lynch, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in anti-trust, trademark and copy right infringement laws.

"I really like the Exxon people very much," Neal said. "They simply asked me to help out in the civil case because of the knowledge I had acquired in the criminal case."

Neal grew up in rural Sumner County, Tenn. His father was a tobacco and strawberry farmer whose idea of entertainment was sitting in court and watching attorneys perform.

Neal played football for the University of Wyoming, even made a trip to the Gator Bowl as 5-foot-8 fullback. After a stint with the Marines, he studied law at Vanderbilt and Georgetown universities.

Soon after law school, Neal went to work as special assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Within two years, he was embroiled in prosecuting Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa.

The union boss had been indicted on charges of taking kickbacks. The case ended in a mistrial, but Neal then 31 years old learned that Hoffa had bribed jury members. Neal got him indicted a second time.

Every morning, when Neal walked into the federal courtroom, he would glance over at Hoffa, who would already be seated. "He would send me this good morning signal under the table," Neal told the ABA Journal, an American Bar Association publication for lawyers. "I can still remember him shooting me the finger. He was a tough old bird."

Hoffa was found guilty, sentenced to eight years in prison and fined $10,000.

In 1973, Neal was summoned to Washington by Archibald Cox to help with the Watergate prosecutions. Neal made the final arguments in the case against President Nixon's aides H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman.

Soon after, he switched to defense work.

"I needed to get out and make some money," said Neal, who walks with a slight swagger.

One of his first big jobs was for Ford Motor Co. The automaker had been charged with homicide after a Pinto exploded and killed three girls. The prosecutors argued that Ford knew the vehicle had a defective gas tank. During the two-month trial, Neal argued that cars could be built safer, but their costs would be prohibitive. The jury returned a not guilty verdict.

With the Pinto case behind him, Neal went to Memphis to defend Elvis Presley's doctor, George Nichopolous, on charges that he caused the singer's death by prescribing too many drugs.

Prosecutors portrayed the doctor as a sleazy physician who fed drugs to Elvis. Neal argued that Elvis had a serious drug problem, but was getting drugs from the street and that Nichopolous actually prolonged the singer's life by replacing his pills with placebos. Nichopolous was acquitted.

In 1986, Neal snagged one of the biggest victories of his legal career when he flew to New Orleans to represent Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards on fraud and racketeering charges. The year-long trial ended in a mistrial. Edwards was acquitted when he was tried a second time, but Neal was not involved in his defense.

From there, Neal flew to Los Angeles and defended John Landis, the movie director charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter after a helicopter crashed during the filming of "Twilight Zone: The Movie." Vic Morrow and two young Vietnamese actors were killed. Neal argued that the public wants movies and sometimes there are risks. Landis was acquitted.

Lea D'Agostino, the Los Angeles prosecutor he went up against, told the ABA Journal that the Tennessee attorney "is able to manipulate people. He plays the country boy who's just simple folk, when we all know he is anything but that."

"He is a fiercely competitive man," said Aubrey Harwell, Neal's law partner and friend of 28 years. "He once told a group of young lawyers in this office that the secret to success is to be better prepared. He said, 'To me, losing is somewhat akin to death. I can't stand to lose. I'm willing to stay up a little bit later, work a little bit harder.' "

Harwell said, "He is the only man I know who can drink a cup of coffee, drive a car, listen to the radio, smoke a cigar and read the newspaper at the same time."

This is why the Cadillac he drives has dents, Harwell said.

In the courtroom in Anchorage, Neal fumbles with the high-tech computer equipment and jokes about teaching "an old dog new tricks." When he questions witnesses, he slides his dark rim glasses onto his noses and peers over them. He is overly polite, often saying, "I'm so very sorry," and "Let me see if I understood you correctly. . ."

His technique is no accident.

"Neal is one of the very few lawyers who combines both a very good jury appeal and courtroom style with a high-level of intelligence and law know- now," said Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and author.

The same has been said of his opponent Brian O'Neill.

O'Neill grew up in a military family that moved around the world. When other high school graduates were joining the ranks of hippies and war protesters in the 1960s, O'Neill he enlisted in the Marines then moved on to West Point.

Straight out of the University of Michigan Law School, O'Neill went to work at the Pentagon. Much of the work he did during those years was for the Army Corps of Engineers, and investigating Vietnam war crimes. When he wasn't working, he played tennis. One of his partners was William Rehnquist, now chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1977, O'Neill signed on with Faegre & Benson, a conservative, corporate law firm with offices across the United States, in London, Germany and Asia. He is now working in the firm's Minneapolis office, where he is considered a maverick who has led the firm into some lawsuits it normally would shun.

O'Neill is a quick study, according to Steve Schroer, a law partner also working on the Exxon case. "He reads incredibly fast. He can digest material very quickly and he prepares intensely."

He made his mark with big wins in patent infringement cases involving breast implants, paint guns, goose decoys and penal implants.

More recently, he has taken an interest in environmental cases, bringing together his interest in the outdoors and his legal work, Schroer said.

O'Neill drives an 8-year-old Subaru. And a couple of years ago, he took a month-long, solo canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness.

Until the start of the Exxon trial four weeks ago, O'Neill's blonde hair curled over his collar and his wire-rimmed glasses. He wandered around his make-shift Anchorage office in a T-shirt, jeans and rubber fishermen's boots. The glasses have been replaced with contact lenses, the T-shirt and jeans with an expensive suit and suspenders.

"I often tease him about going through his hippie years about a decade too late," Schroer said.

In 1990, O'Neill won a precedent-setting case in federal court. Gopher Oil Co. had bought a piece of Minneapolis property from Union Oil Co. and later discovered the land was polluted with hazardous waste. O'Neill represented Gopher and got a $3.2 million judgment against Union Oil Co. It set a new standard for how much a plaintiff could collect in damages in this kind of case, Schroer said.

In 1992, he worked for Defenders of Wildlife as a volunteer and argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that U.S. environmental laws should apply when federal money is being spent on development projects abroad. It was a complicated case, Schroer said, but O'Neill won a partial victory.

O'Neill was arguing a patent case in Minneapolis in 1989 when he heard about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He flew to Alaska in search of clients. Breaking with stodgy legal tradition, he advertised on the radio, television and newspapers.

And he discovered a 2-year-old oil spill lawsuit languishing in federal court. He wrestled for control of the suit and took it on as a warm up for the battle against Exxon, said Tom Kimer, an attorney with O'Neill's firm.

O'Neill organized the case "and made it happen," said Soldotna attorney Pete Ehrhardt, who was one of the original attorneys working on the case.

The Glacier Bay oil tanker, owned by Trident Corp., ran aground in Cook Inlet in 1987, spilling 85,000 gallons of oil. It was the largest in the state until the Exxon Valdez spill.

O'Neill's strategy was to match the corporation's strategy of spending what ever it took to win. Like in the Exxon trial, high-tech graphics, full- color charts and the nation's top experts were used. The firm spent about $8 million.

The case went to trial in the summer of 1991. And a federal court jury ruled in favor of the 800 fishermen. Trident ended up paying more than $51 million in damages.

A part of O'Neill's success is his ability to pull together a strong, focused support team, according to Kimer. "His West Point training comes through. He runs that (Exxon) trial team like a finely tuned army.

"More than anyone else, he inspires tremendous loyalty with the people he works with. He is very specific in what he expects. They perform. Everybody sees how well it works and everybody gets a lot of satisfaction out of it."

In the courtroom, O'Neill deftly works the computer equipment to display documents and evidence. When he asks witnesses questions, he strikes quick with a follow-up question if the answer doesn't please him. He pauses long if he gets the answer he is looking for.

Neal and O'Neill are affable in the courtroom. It's not uncommon for the towering O'Neill to put his arm around Neal as they jest.

O'Neill said that what he likes best about being on the fishermen's side of the Exxon lawsuit is the clients.

"They are ordinary people," O'Neill said. "I used to represent corporations. Winning those cases just meant moving money from coffer to coffer. Winning a case like this can really make a difference."


Story Index:
Main | The Legal Battles
Overall: story 294 of 380 Previous Next
The Legal Battles story 44 of 87 Previous Next

   
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