James E. Beasley was my lawyer before he was my boss.
On Sunday, June 7, 1992, Philadelphia Inquirer writer Steve Lopez focused one of his acerbic columns on my tenure as a young appointee in the Administration of George H.W. Bush, where I ran the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 5 states plus Washington, D.C. My time in that office included a federal takeover of the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) which earned me this in Lopez’s column:
“You just wonder if Mayor Rendell got a big enough piece of cake in return for surrendering PHA without a wimper, going down like a lap dog. And if state Senator Vince Fumo made out OK. And if party bosses Bobby Brady and Billy Meehen scored good deals. And if Specter got the right combination of political control and distance from responsibility. And if Smerconish will ever find honest work.”
I viewed that last line as a factual assertion that I was performing my duties in a dishonest manner. I wanted to sue the writer and the newspaper. And there was only one man for that job.
Jim had already recorded several of the highest defamation verdicts in Pennsylvania, including his epic, twin trial victories for Richard Sprague. He agreed to take my case. I met with Jim several times planning the suit as the 1992 presidential election played out. When Bush lost to Bill Clinton, Jim offered me a job at Beasley Casey Colleran Erbstein Thistle and Kline. Once I was settled at the firm, and after having already drafted the complaint, Jim spoke to me about the case. “You walk down the street assuming everyone is thinking about that column, when in fact you are the only one who remembers,” he told me. We never filed suit.
One footnote: Steve Lopez wondered whether I’d ever find honest work. Well, today, I’m the one who writes a Sunday column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, so maybe he was right!
I spent ten years (1993-2003) working for Jim. Here is a thoroughly INcomplete list of things I learned at his side:
The letter. Jim was a masterful letter writer. His missives were often blistering, exhibited wit, and sometimes included language that you’d have to read several times over to try and ascertain meaning, such as: “You know that I know that you know….” Often before any complaint had been filed, he used such correspondence as a shot across the bow of both defendant and defense counsel. He was serving notice that this was going to be a battle the likes of which they have not previously experienced. Typical was the letter he wrote to the Inquirer seeking a retraction on my behalf for the Lopez column:
“This column can only be the product of a mind that feeds on the destruction of reputations of decent, hard-working, honest public servants. …The Lopez column is a blueprint for teaching journalism students defamation law and its consequences. It is an award winning column of falsity, maliciousness and a reckless disregard for the truth. ….the foundation of this column was grounded in falsity and maliciousness and indeed, that was its sting. If the truth were told there would be no column for there would be no sting.”
The narrative. Jim firmly believed in having potential clients prepare a written summary or narrative of their claim before meeting him for the first time. If you called the office and requested an appointment, he would tell you to write out what had occurred. For libel actions, he wanted the paragraphs of the subject story numbered by the potential plaintiff with a corresponding listing of what was inaccurate in the publication. I came to recognize that Jim’s intention was not only to engage the potential plaintiff and focus their thinking while locking in their recollection, but also to discern if they had the commitment needed for prolonged litigation. Jim was requested to accept more cases than he could personally pursue. Those potential plaintiffs who were unwilling to take the time to recount what had occurred were not the type he wanted to represent for a period of years.
Listening. I sat through countless initial meetings with Jim and potential clients. He had a small circular table inside his large corner office where he would sit with them in close proximity. I don’t recall him taking many notes, after all, by now he had the narrative they had written. Besides, that was my job, or the job of whomever from the firm was joining him. Moreover, he was too busy listening to be writing. He would let the clients tell their full story and get it all off their chest. In the process he was not only assessing the facts and potential liability, but also analyzing the ability of the prospective plaintiff to communicate their story. Everyone knows that Jim was a gifted speaker, but few realize that one of his secrets was that he was also an exceptional listener.
Discovery. I can still hear him say: “file your complaint, issue interrogatories, request for production of documents and request for admissions. Then take some depositions.” Jim believed that litigation commenced in a rather pro-forma fashion. He thought the rules of civil procedure afforded him several tools and he was going to use each to full effect. I don’t know whether others in the firm followed the edict, I suspect not as their careers progressed, but particularly as a young lawyer trying to learn the practice from him, I certainly did. If you were bagging a case for Jim, you did not want him reviewing your discovery and pleadings binders on the eve of trial and seeing that you had not fulfilled what he considered to be the basics.
Voir dire. For Jim, the jury selection process was much more than an opportunity to select the 12 + 2 who would sit in the box. He viewed this as the start of trial and took full advantage of his opportunity to build credibility and rapport the jury, assert domination over defense counsel, and if present, to take control of the court room even from the trial judge. He believed firmly in the adage that you only get one change to make a first impression. And unbeknownst to many an opponent, he was already beginning the process of persuasion.
Jury persuasion. Jim was very intelligent and well read on matters of public interest. But that didn’t give him his edge. Rather, he possessed a gift of street smarts, the type learned not in a classroom but by a humble upbringing and varied life experiences. The design of our legal system wherein 12 neighbors come together and make factual determinations, not professionals or a sovereign, was perfectly suited for Jim. For in this environment, he was much more like them than his opponent or whomever sat on the bench. He could read people. That was a skill set he acquired from having walked in many shoes himself. Born in the depression. Raised in West Philadelphia the son of a factory worker and a waitress. Summers spent working on a farm in the south. WWII Veteran. Motorcycle cop. Truck driver. Cab driver. Greyhound bus driver. Pilot. Husband. Father. His experiences served him well in dealing with a cross section in the jury. And unlike the Jim who wrote defense counsel demand letters with complex sentences, here, he kept it simple. Storytelling. Short sentences. Common speak. Colloquialisms. He was more at ease and exhibited better social graces with the “folks” of the jury than he was apt to reveal with legal contemporaries at a cocktail party.
Work ethic. I don’t know what time Jim arrived for work because he always beat me to the office, and I’m a morning person. I usually arrived by 7:30, and he was already at his desk. He must have arrived between 6-7 a.m. He didn’t stay late into the evening unless he was on trial, at which time he worked 7-days per week. While he had a well-known affinity for flying and did some fishing, he was more engaged in his work as a trial lawyer than any other aspect of his life. His passing came September 14, 2004 just two weeks after being diagnosed with cancer, and right after he’d spent six summer weeks litigating what would be his final trial. That Jim tried that last case while cancer ravaged his body is a testament to his personal strength.
Size mattered. The smaller the aggrieved party, the more apt he was to take the case. Given a choice among litigants Jim always sided with David, never Goliath.
Trial work as an honorable calling. Jim would have preferred the headlines on either his Philadelphia Daily News or Inquirer obituaries, rather than that printed by the New York Times. The latter said: “James Beasley, 78, Lawyer in Big-Judgment Cases,” whereas the Daily News and Inquirer both regarded him as a noted or leading “trial lawyer.” He was proud of those words and his profession. He was not just any lawyer, but a trial lawyer. While he relished the headlines that came from victories in the Sprague case, or for having obtained a judgment for 9/11 families against Iraq, or his representation of the family of Holly Maddux against Ira Einhorn, day- to- day, he gave voice to ordinary people in matters that would never make the news and who would otherwise not have had the ability to take on large insurance companies and major corporations. Jim gave the same high quality of legal representation, dignity and respect, to the powerful political leaders who sought his services as he did the welfare mother from West Philadelphia. And, while he was perhaps best known as a medical malpractice attorney, he did not view himself as narrowly focused. I never heard him tell someone that the firm did not practice a particular type of law. While the reality is that the practice specialized in malpractice, product liability and defamation work, he viewed himself as a trial lawyer in an expansive sense of those words.
Truth is often sadder and stranger than fiction. Practicing plaintiff’s work with Jim could spoil a lawyer. Because of Jim’s reputation and that of the lawyers with whom he surrounded himself, the firm directly received or was referred cases that the typical lawyer could spend an entire life practicing and never see. Wrongful deaths, catastrophic injuries, and high profile clients were the norm not the exception. If a major event occurred in the Philadelphia area resulting in serious injury or death, there was a strong likelihood that the resulting case would make its way to 1125 Walnut Street. During my time practicing law with Jim, I saw plenty of tragedy in the form of routine surgical misadventure cases, but also a number of files that made truth sound stranger than fiction. The breath of subject matter that came through the door was remarkable.
Shortly after my arrival at the firm – having come straight from the government and with no practice experience, Jim handed me a file and told me he wanted me to try the case. The caption was: Friedman v. Homestyle Family Buffet. Poor Mr. Friedman, had choked to death on corned beef at an all you can eat buffet in Northeast Philadelphia. Jim was angered to learn that a restaurant employee who witnessed the incident was not permitted by management to perform the Heimlich maneuver. He accepted the case because he wanted to establish a duty to perform the Heimlich maneuver on restaurants in Pennsylvania akin that that which governed in New York when it came to customers choking. When the case was removed to federal court under diversity of citizenship after it was revealed that the restaurant was owned by a Florida corporation, Jim lost his “appetite” for the file because he knew he could not make new law. That’s why I was assigned the file. Before trial, I needed to procure an exhibit showing how one performs the Heimlich maneuver. My search for such a poster led me to discover that the namesake of the procedure that has saved untold thousands, was still alive: Henry Heimlich, M.D. The resources of the Beasley firm enabled me to retain Dr. Heimlich as a plaintiff’s expert. When I filed his liability report with a pre-trial memo, Court TV took notice and asked to broadcast the trial – my first – but instead the defense lawyer stopped snickering at the case and it settled. (Buoyed by my success, I returned to federal court in my first jury trial to verdict, a wrongful death action on behalf of a woman who took her own life while institutionalized and on suicide watch – which I lost.)
For Jim, I prepared a tragic file on behalf of a North Philadelphia family whose power was shut off by PECO due to non-payment without the requisite notices mandated by the PUC. When two siblings used candles to “illuminate their schoolbooks,” they started a house fire which took one of their young lives and maimed the other for life.
I once represented an eccentric older woman from Elkin’s Park who hired a prominent local mover to transport her priceless antique collection. Some of the items were loaded in one side of the truck, then removed from the other and promptly taken to a pawnshop in North Philadelphia.
The music amphitheater that exists today on the Camden waterfront was once the subject of litigation I commenced. The concert venue was initially conceived by a Philadelphia developer who became my client after the project came to fruition without him being compensated. (We saw that he was.)
A U.S. ambassador in the Reagan Administration engaged our services in a failure to diagnose cancer case, largely predicated on whether the ophthalmologist had met the standard of care by performing a dilated fundus examination. The client, by now missing an eye and then fighting for life, said he had not – the doctor said he had, and pointed to a “DFE” notation in the margin of an office note. Our ink-dating expert who formerly worked for federal law enforcement proved the note had been added to the chart after the fact bringing about the swift resolution of the matter.
Kermit Gosnell is today serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for taking the life of a baby born alive in his house of horrors. In the early 1990’s, he was among the first of my deponents while working for Jim in a rather routine surgical misadventure case.
Jim was understandably proud of his success representing Dick Sprague (and others) in defamation actions against the Inquirer and believed the newspaper was settling a score when it put on its front page the story of a Beasley lawyer who suffered a personal breakdown to the detriment of his clients. Fate then intervened. Ralph Cipriano, an Inquirer writer, was referred to me with his own defamation action – against his employer! I still remember walking into Jim’s office with notes to explain that potential action. I left without the file – that was one case he was keeping all for himself!
Another defamation action I will never forget was on behalf of a very high ranking Philadelphia cop who was identified in a major work of non-fiction as having facilitated the escape of Andrew Cunanan, the man who killed Gianni Versace outside his Miami Beach mansion. The book stated that at a time when Cunanan was on the lamb (having killed several people besides Versace) he drove through Philadelphia, only to have the high- ranking cop reveal on KYW Newsradio that Philadelphia police were then looking for him, tipping off Cunanan who then fled the area. The audio tapes from KYW that day proved the police officer, who had been identified in the book by name, did no such thing.
You may recall when a 911 operator working for the City of Philadelphia was in cahoots with a private ambulance service and began referring emergent calls to that service rather than logging them into the City system. A client of mine died of a heart attack while waiting for an ambulance. His call was not entered into the City system but was instead referred by the dispatcher to the private service that could not find his home and he died as a result.
You can’t make this stuff up. I once represented an elephant keeper at the Philadelphia zoo who was fired for riding an elephant – despite the fact that in prior years, the Zoo had used photographs of the same employee riding its elephants in its own promotional materials.
And in a case some would say was role reversal, when a union organizer was beaten by management he became one of my clients.
Arguably the saddest situation in which I was involved pertained to my representation of a young couple from the Midwest newly arrived in the Lehigh Valley. Within a week of their relocation, the wife properly buckled and placed their infant daughter in the back seat of a minivan while she set out to show her visiting sister the Poconos. Not long into the drive, a leaf spring flew off an oncoming fuel truck, pierced the windshield like a missile, and struck the infant in the head. Mom pulled onto a median strip and could do nothing but watch while her baby daughter’s head swelled beyond recognition as she took her dying breaths. We were able to find the truck. The cause was both improper installation and defective steel. Among my memories was when a few days into trial, I was on a lunch break eating a slice of pizza with my clients adjacent to the Lehigh County Court House when on the jukebox someone played Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” Jim would not have approved my show of emotion.
Far afield from the Beasley bread and butter of product liability and medical malpractice, I once handled a reverse discrimination case under the Civil Rights Act against SEPTA on behalf of a white businessman (who had minority partners) who did not get a contract for which he was both best qualified and the lowest bidder.
Finally, with Jim and Jim Jr., I once represented a professional boxer, a cruiserweight and sometimes heavyweight, named Orlin Norris, the brother of another boxer, middleweight “Terrible Terry Norris.” We claimed Orlin Norris was denied a shot at the title held by Mike Tyson because boxing impresario Don King had manipulated the boxing ratings (which determined the progression of fighters.) King was represented by James J. Binns and the interplay between Binns and Beasley during the litigation was itself book worthy. Judge Norma Shapiro held hearings in connection with the case at which I argued in support of Norris getting a shot at the heavyweight title, by now held by Evander Holyfield. Shapiro ruled that Norris would get a fight with someone higher ranked than he, and if he won that contest he would fight for the title. Hence came the day in December of 1997, that Jim, Jim Jr. and I flew to Ft. Lauderdale to see Orlin Norris fight Henry Akiwande, hoping that soon thereafter, we would be ringside watching Norris fight for the heavyweight title. Unfortunately for us, Akiwande towered over Norris and won a 12-round unanimous decision. (Two years later, Norris would be stopped by Mike Tyson in just one round.) That night, after the fight, we walked into our hotel only to see Don King standing in the lobby. He greeted Jim by saying, “Beasley, you are one fightin’ motherfucker.” Jim flashed his trademark, very quick smile. Don King was right.
Law as entrepreneurship. Under the Beasley roof during the decade in which I worked for him, there were really 20 or so attorneys running their own individual practices, like spokes on a wheel connected to one another only thru the central access, which Jim supplied. You might work in support of his cases, but mostly, you ran your own shop, similar in structure to a residential real estate sales business that employs multiple salespeople. There was no such thing as a firm meeting. There were no firm memos circulated. We gathered in a formal sense once a year at the firm holiday party. The arrangement provided great latitude to the practitioners but in one notable case, brought embarrassment to the firm. We were paid in bonuses based on our productivity at the end of the year after the Cat Fund distributed, and to a certain extent, according to the way in which he perceived our stature within the firm. The distribution was entirely at Jim’s discretion. The business model worked for each attorney – until it didn’t – at which time the City would gain yet another new plaintiff’s practice spawned by James E. Beasley, and Jim would say, as he once told the Legal Intelligencer after the departure of Messrs. Kline and Specter, “it happens every January.” Perhaps his greatest legacy is the remarkable list of some of the most noted trial attorneys who can all trace their professional lineage to Jim.
The original libertarian. Before there was Ron (much less Rand) Paul, there was Jim. He had a live and let live mentality. He was a firm believer that if people stayed in their respective lanes, they should be free to pursue their passion in life.
Pursue your passion. Jim lived life. He loved trying cases. He flew airplanes and fished. He believed in pursuing your dreams. At the end of a decade at his elbow, I was offered the opportunity to chase my dream to be a radio host who happened to be a lawyer, instead of a lawyer who happened to have a radio show. He didn’t hesitate – he told me it was something I had to do.
Friendship. Outside the court room, Jim could be prickly. He maintained a very small social circle but for those allowed to enter, he was a good friend and better dinner companion. He enjoyed a glass of wine. Loved to tell stories. Relished a dinner debate. When our wives joined us, he would view my spouse’s presence as an opportunity to sound her out on potential cases. Christmas seemed to matter to him – he never missed that gift exchange. He also acknowledged with a note the birth of each of our children. I recall when my kids were young we surprised him at his remote Villanova home on Halloween, and sans candy, he responded by going into his pocket for a $20. And I will always remember him making an unsolicited call to the delivery room at Lankenau during the birth of our first son – making it clear to the nursing station that “Jim Beasley was calling to make sure everything is all right.” I was both touched, and concerned the OB would drop my son upon hearing who had inquired.