John O’Quinn dies at 68; Texas personal-injury lawyer

Associated Press

Flamboyant lawyer John O’Quinn, who won billions in verdicts against makers of breast implants, pharmaceuticals and tobacco products, died Thursday in a traffic wreck. He was 68.

Police said O’Quinn and a passenger were killed when the sport-utility vehicle he was driving skidded across the median of a rain-slicked parkway just outside downtown Houston, went airborne and slammed into a tree.

His law firm said O’Quinn’s passenger, Johnny Cutliff, was the attorney’s personal assistant and had worked there for 26 years.

Police spokesman Kese Smith said neither O’Quinn nor the passenger was wearing a seat belt.

The 6-foot, 4-inch O’Quinn, one of Houston’s best-known trial attorneys, was known as a Texas-sized lawyer with a Texas-sized ego and a wallet to match, lavishly spending on himself, philanthropic causes and Democratic campaigns.

His John M. O’Quinn Foundation donated millions of dollars to the University of Houston, the Baylor College of Medicine and other institutions.

Four years ago, he was the single largest contributor in the Texas governor’s race, giving Democrat Chris Bell $1 million and loaning him an additional $1.7 million. Bell lost.

In September 2006, O’Quinn celebrated his 65th birthday with a party that a local society columnist said ranked among Houston’s most legendary. Ballrooms featured multitiered crystal chandeliers mounted above Monte Carlo-style casino tables, crystal wall sconces, 56 vintage cars and three musical acts -- including Don Henley of the Eagles.

O’Quinn was born in Baton Rouge, La., in 1941 and moved with his family to Houston when he was a child. He earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Houston, where the law library is now named for him.

He made his money and his reputation taking on wealthy corporations. He was one of five lawyers who shared a $3.3-billion fee for helping the state of Texas settle its lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

His first big win came in 1986, when a jury found Monsanto negligently exposed an employee to benzene at a Houston-area plant and ordered the company to pay $100 million. The award was later vacated and the case settled out of court, but O’Quinn’s fame was cemented.

By 1992, he began a long and profitable run of silicone breast-implant lawsuits with a $25-million verdict against Bristol-Myers Squibb. O’Quinn said he took in $3 billion from more than 3,000 breast-implant cases between 1992 and 2000. In 1995, Dow Corning, an implant manufacturer, cited his lawsuits as reasons for its bankruptcy filing.

In 2004, O’Quinn won a $1-billion verdict in a Texas case involving Pondimin, part of the now-banned weight-loss drug combination of fen-phen.

He has no immediate survivors.