Sue ‘em, his daddy did say
BY now, most everybody knows that young Jack Denton is back in this wreck of a town to do his late father’s work.
They know they can find him sleeping upstairs in his father’s old law office, which, after Hurricane Katrina, doubles as his apartment. They know they can find him with clients and colleagues down at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House Restaurant -- his dad’s old haunt, flooded badly, but open again for business. The green-jacketed waiters there call him “Mr. Denton.”
That was what they called Will Denton too. He was a small, red-faced man with a big, bruising ego: Friends likened him to a bantam rooster. John Grisham, the novelist, called him “the greatest of Mississippi trial lawyers.”
He died on a Houston operating table, nine months before the storm. That spared him from witnessing the destruction of the white-columned home by the beach in which he had raised his children.
And yet Jack Denton knows that if his daddy were still alive, he would wake up eager to greet each morning. Because Will Denton would have enjoyed suing the hell out of the insurance companies that have not fully paid the claims on hundreds of storm-battered Mississippi homes -- including his own.
Today, that job has fallen to his son, a 33-year-old with a boyish face and only a smattering of experience with insurance litigation. Earlier this year, he won what was arguably the most important post-Katrina lawsuit in Mississippi to date.
The case, which was decided in January, resulted in an award of $2.5 million in punitive damages to coastal homeowners Norman and Genevieve Broussard. A jury decided that State Farm insurance had acted in bad faith in declining to pay the claim on their flattened house.
The award was later reduced to $1 million by a federal judge, and lawyers for the company have appealed. But it put insurance companies on notice that they could face unsympathetic juries in hundreds of similar suits that have yet to go to trial.
Critics of Mississippi’s legal morass see the worst kind of opportunism in trial lawyers like Jack Denton.
“I’m not say they’re inherently evil ... and I’m not suggesting they’re reveling in human suffering,” said Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the American Tort Reform Assn. “But I think if you could put sodium pentothal in someone’s arm down there, I think they’d admit they are relishing the aftermath of this storm.”
For Jack Denton, the verdict, like the broader battle with the insurance industry, is a vindication of his father’s calling. After Katrina, he said, lawyers are the only force down here that can hold the insurance companies accountable.
“We’re the only ones with any kind of do-right stick,” he said. “There’s nothing to keep the insurance industry in check.... Doing the right thing. It’s just not in them.”
IN his truck, Jack carries a statuette of an English barrister that his dad used to keep in the bathroom. Its base reads: “SUE THE BASTARDS.”
It’s common for trial lawyers to consider themselves righteous defenders of the little guy. This most charitable view of their controversial calling is often amplified in the poor, insular state of Mississippi. Oxford attorney Bill Walker thinks it has something to do with the state’s “inferiority complex.”
“Southern lawyers have always been great storytellers ... and there’s no better story than the David and Goliath kind of story,” said Walker, a former co-counsel to Will Denton who is working with Jack. “How some poor person from the backwoods triumphs over some pasty-faced, buttoned-down fellow from Boston. We like those stories.”
It was Grisham who did more than anyone to burnish that myth, thanks in large part to Will Denton. Years ago, Denton visited a law class Grisham was taking at the University of Mississippi, and the older man’s passion for the law had a profound effect on the future author.
Grisham later wrote that when he worked as a trial lawyer, “I wanted to be like Will Denton.” The two became friends, with Denton serving as a legal advisor and inspiration for a number of Grisham’s novels.
When Denton died after a failed heart transplant at age 62, Grisham delivered the eulogy. He humorously compared his hero to Robin Hood:
“Take from the rich, give to the poor, pocket 35% along the way,” he said, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald.
Today, the Denton law office -- a restored, elegant Victorian home about a quarter mile from the coast -- is full of Hollywood mementos from Grisham and signed pictures of the author with Will.
On a recent afternoon, Jack met a potential client at the office door. The mood was decidedly mellow: Will Denton was famously intense but also prone to anger. The son has deliberately tried to temper those attributes. The two cats that had evacuated Biloxi with him were lazing on the foyer furniture. Jack wore running shoes with a crisp button-down and khakis.
The client, June Fallo, 54, was Jack’s former neighbor and baby-sitter. In many ways, she was a typical post-Katrina client. She had a huge black binder stuffed with photos of her damaged property and letters from her insurance company. She suspected she had been ripped off.
Her story was harried, disjointed and full of extraneous details: a Saints-Giants game she attended in 2001; some furniture she had bought from a hotel chain; and, of course, the hardship she suffered after the storm.
Jack listened calmly for 90 minutes, with hardly an interjection. In the end he agreed to look at her binder and review the facts. She walked to the door, smiling.
“Oh, he’s a good guy,” she said. “He’s going to be just as good as his dad.”
When she had left, Jack said he wasn’t sure whether Fallo had a case. But he figured it helped her to unburden herself of the details.
“We’re psychologists, we’re sociologists, and occasionally we get to practice law,” he said, smiling.
JACK’S father made a name for himself after the state’s last great devastating hurricane, Camille. It slammed into the coast on Aug. 17, 1969, and like Katrina, it left residents unhappy with their insurance companies. Many of them had turned to Will Denton.
The young lawyer had just hung his shingle in Biloxi, after a stint as a judge advocate in the Air Force. He was a newcomer to the Gulf Coast, a country boy from the pinebelt town of Brooklyn, Miss., with a fondness for representing everyday clients against what he called “the big guys.” He could charm a jury with sugar-sweet Southern storytelling, and he could shake up witnesses with his withering, incandescent anger.
“Being an underdog and winning -- he just absolutely loved that,” Jack recalled. “He loved the pure, raw competition.”
Suing insurance carriers evolved into a Will Denton specialty, and a lucrative one. In the 1970s, Mississippi courts began allowing plaintiffs to sue not just for the full amount of their policy but also for punitive damages, so long as they showed that an insurance company had denied a claim for spurious reasons.
Denton became an expert in this field, known as “bad faith” litigation, the kind that is currently dominating Mississippians’ battles with their insurance companies. He bought his big house by the beach in 1980. After a while, everybody knew Will Denton.
He served a term as president of the state trial lawyers’ association, where he fought off attempts to instigate tort reform -- but only temporarily.
Toward the end of his life, Mississippi had become notorious for generous multimillion dollar decisions against big corporations, and national media were scrutinizing a legal climate that critics called “jackpot justice.”
Eventually, in 2002 and 2004, state lawmakers, worried about businesses fleeing Mississippi, passed legislation that significantly curbed civil trial attorneys’ power.
Denton’s work, however, was slowed only by his weak heart. As his condition worsened, he worried about his legacy. Of his four children, only Jack had gone to law school, at Michigan State University. The father lobbied hard for the son to return to Biloxi and work with him, and Jack acquiesced in 2000. But the arrangement lasted only a few months.
“Some fathers and sons can work together and some cannot, and it was really putting a strain on the family,” Jack said. “He and I were at odds about everything.”
Jack opened his own firm, focusing on criminal law. But on the day of the wake, he was back in his father’s office, trying to figure out how to keep the old Denton law firm running. Jack immediately reached out to Walker, a former Ole Miss law professor. Together they took over Will’s cases, and took them to trial. They won a few, and they lost a few. It was a difficult time.
“But we made the point that we try lawsuits,” Jack said. “That’s how my dad made his bones.”
Nine months later, Jack had fled to Walker’s place in Oxford in advance of the storm. After seeing the TV images of his world in splinters, he found himself in the Ole Miss law library, researching insurance cases and thinking about his dad.
“The only thing I knew with any certainty,” he said, “was that the insurance companies were going to be putting the screws to people.”
WITHIN days, Jack was back on the coast. His parents’ house was gone. So was his own house, a modest Creole cottage a few blocks away. He went to his father’s office, laid an inflatable mattress on the floor and let his dogs and cats make themselves at home. He had taken one good gray suit with him to Oxford. He didn’t have much else.
He spent the next two months driving around the rubble, signing up people who were getting nowhere with their insurance companies.
Among them were the Broussards. Norman, the husband, was in his 70s, a retired insurance agent and son of a Cajun bar owner. A friend had recommended Jack to the Broussards’ daughter, Monica Fulmer. She remembered his parents’ stately Colonial Revival house -- a favorite subject of painters trying to capture the grandeur of old Biloxi. The Dentons, Fulmer said, were “a well-respected family.”
“We also knew that Jack was extremely young and didn’t have many cases,” she added. But the family liked his zeal: When they first told Jack their story and asked whether they had a case, he replied, “I could write this up tomorrow.”
The Broussards’ 1960s-era house was a block from the beach, but it was outside the flood zone -- the area where the federal government required homeowners to have flood insurance if they have a mortgage. The Broussards did not buy flood insurance, and their homeowners policy did not cover water damage.
Their argument to State Farm was one many Mississippi homeowners would eventually make: They said their house must have been damaged by a combination of water and wind. Wind damage was covered by their policy.
The insurance company asserted that the damage came only from flooding. Therefore, its lawyers asserted, the company owed nothing.
A number of similar cases had been filed in federal court, but Jack and Walker pushed hard to bring the case to trial quickly.
“Jack’s the one who said, ‘You don’t get paid until you drag ‘em to court,’ ” Walker said. “But once we realized we were first up, we knew we’d either be the heroes or the goats. There was a hell of a lot of pressure on that Broussard case.”
It was Jack’s dad who taught Walker, the former professor, how to try a case in court. Now Walker found himself imparting that knowledge to Jack. “He was getting trained by his old daddy, even though his old daddy’s not here anymore,” Walker said.
Four days after the case opened, the judge, L.T. Senter Jr., declared that State Farm must pay the Broussards $211,222 -- the full amount of their policy.
He noted that one of the company’s own experts admitted that at least some of the damage was probably caused by wind. It was up to the company, he said, to determine how much of that damage was caused by wind and how much by water. But the company’s lawyers -- who were locals, not pastyfaced Bostonians -- had not done so.
The large award came from the jury, which determined the company had acted in bad faith. Jack thinks the decisive moment came when he and Walker called Norman Broussard to the stand as a rebuttal witness to State Farm’s experts.
In his folksy Cajun accent, Broussard described how one day he had run a cheap plumb line from a watermark up the street to the slab where his house had been. “It hit me right about my chest ... right here,” he said, according to court transcripts. “That was it.”
After days of testimony from engineers, the son of a bar owner had made a pretty good case that the water was only chest high.
“That’s the John Grisham ending to this case,” Broussard’s daughter said recently. “I swear to God.”
Phil Supple, a State Farm spokesman, said the company was disappointed. State Farm was “very proud” of its response to Katrina, he said, noting that it had paid more than $1.2 billion in hurricane-related claims in Mississippi.
McKinney, of the tort reform group, said homeowners like the Broussards had the option of buying flood insurance all along but failed to do so. He feared that in post-Katrina Mississippi, the tide was turning against tort reform.
“There seems to be a giddy and gleeful enthusiasm in returning to the good ol’ days, at least in terms of the plaintiffs bar,” he said. “They had their greedy day in the sun.”
The Broussard decision has been good for Jack Denton. He has since settled five cases with State Farm, and he and Walker are optimistic about the outcomes of about 50 similar cases they have taken on.
But many of Jack’s good ol’ days are buried in the rubble that litters the lot where the family home once stood. His mother would like to rebuild, he said, but her insurance company has refused to fully pay her claim.
Jack sued her insurance company, USAA, in May 2006. A court date has not yet been set.