Wendell Gauthier, 58; Lawyer in Landmark Cases
Wendell Gauthier, an attorney who won billions of dollars for victims in court battles over silicone breast implants and hotel fires before taking on the tobacco industry, died Tuesday. He was 58.
Gauthier died of liver cancer at his home in Metairie, said Julie Calzone, spokeswoman for Gauthier’s law firm.
Gauthier had a striking record of legal victories, winning huge judgments for victims of the 1982 crash of Pan Am Flight 759 in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, hotel fires in 1980 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and in 1986 at the DuPont Plaza in Puerto Rico, and for women claiming injuries from silicone implants.
But it may be a lawsuit that he lost that made Gauthier’s legal mark. Gauthier decided to take on the tobacco industry after the death of his best friend, Peter Castano, a criminal defense attorney who died of lung cancer at the age of 47.
Secret tobacco company documents unearthed by Gauthier’s legal team provided ammunition to force cigarette makers into a historic $246-billion settlement with states.
“He never found a fight that he was afraid to fight,” said Mississippi Atty. Gen. Mike Moore, lead counsel for the states. “He was someone who was always willing to represent the underdog, to try unbroken ground.”
Although there had been previous suits focusing on smoking as a cause of illness or death, Gauthier took a new direction. His suit targeted manufacturers for consumer fraud, claiming the industry had hidden its knowledge of the health hazards of smoking for years and had manipulated the nicotine level to keep smokers hooked.
Gauthier’s suit was dismissed. However, others based on the same legal claim were later filed in the name of all 50 states, leading to the 1998 settlement.
“‘I’m not a good Samaritan,” Gauthier said in a 1993 interview. “I’m in it to make money. But you like to think that you can cure some social ills. And tobacco is a deadly ill, a social ill.”
Gauthier’s conviction that he was right was one of his great strengths, said John Cummings, who met Gauthier as a legal opponent and later joined with him on class actions.
The son of a contractor, Gauthier was born in Iota, La., and grew up in Acadia Parish, the heart of Cajun country. He graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana and worked his way through night law school at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Gauthier and Cummings represented families of the 87 people killed in the fire at the MGM Grand, settling for $208 million. Another $140 million in settlements and judgments came out of the 1981 collapse of a walkway at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, which killed 114 people.
After the 1982 crash near the New Orleans airport, Gauthier won $10.1 million for the family of an 11-year-old girl killed on the ground. He also worked on a plaintiffs’ committee that worked out a $4.25-billion settlement in 1998 with women claiming injury from breast implants.
Phil Whittmann, a veteran civil defense attorney, called Gauthier “one of the best I’ve ever faced.”
“He had a way with juries that was absolutely remarkable,” Whittmann said. “At the same time, he got along with his adversaries and conducted himself in an ethical and trustworthy manner.”
Gauthier is survived by his wife, Anne, and three daughters.