Pickup Games

How a giant lawsuit against General Motors could leave lawyers with millions - and Texas truck owners breathing fumes

They filed the suit on behalf of all Texans who owned one of the targeted GM trucks at the time of the suit. The only named plaintiff was Tommy Dollar, a Marshall police officer.

As defendants, Baxter listed both GM and a Marshall car dealership--a maneuver that would help the East Texas lawyer keep the case in his backyard. GM filed papers anyway to move the case to federal court.

After a shift to a federal court in Texas, the suit would likely have ended up in Philadelphia, consolidated with the cases of the truck owners from the 49 other states.

But Baxter successfully argued to keep his lawsuit in Marshall, where he has for years shrewdly exploited an extraordinary home-field advantage.

Baxter is a tall, hefty 49-year old with a receding hairline and a mild, pleasing manner. Along with his wire-rimmed glasses, he usually wears a relaxed smile.

But for all his apparent docility, Baxter is the sort of lawyer who could serve as a poster boy for the cause of tort reform. A former state judge and Harrison County district attorney, Baxter has used decades-old relationships in the East Texas town of 55,000 to build a national practice that rakes in millions. He has helped earn Marshall a reputation as an exceedingly profitable place to sue giant corporations--with the help of state laws, now under legislative scrutiny, that let plaintiffs' lawyers pick their venue.

"I hope people don't use this article as one of the reasons for venue reform," Baxter fretted during an interview. "I certainly wouldn't want it to be for fodder, for people saying all these terrible things happen to corporations in Marshall."

Baxter paused a moment, then added: "GM liked Marshall."
Since leaving the bench in 1988, Baxter's list of victims includes insurance giant Crum & Forster, hit with a $71 million jury verdict; and Xerox, with which he negotiated a $225 million settlement. He is now specializing in highly sophisticated and technical class-action consumer claims. Baxter has multimillion-dollar suits pending in Marshall courts against Microsoft Corp., and McCaw Communications.

Baxter gets a slice of many profitable cases that originate with plaintiff's lawyers in Houston and Dallas. His big-city brethren are eager to take their cases before Marshall's generous juries. So they establish cause to file suit there (it usually requires nothing more than locating a Marshall distributor of the targeted product), offer Baxter a piece of the deal, and watch the millions roll in.

McKool Smith, a high-profile Dallas firm that retained Baxter as co-counsel in the cases against Xerox and Microsoft, has developed such a tight relationship with the East Texas native that the firm last month made him a full-fledged partner--operating out of its new Marshall office.

Baxter had been practicing at Marshall's oldest firm, the five-attorney Jones, Jones & Curry, home to Franklin Jones, Jr., a major contributor to Democratic political campaigns.

Baxter, a native of Carthage, 20 miles south of Marshall, has carefully cultivated the hometown advantage. His ties with the county's only state district judge, Bonnie Leggat, who presided over the GM case, go back 15 years.

Leggat even has a child named Sam. "She denies to the world that the child is named after me," Baxter protests. (The judge did not return calls to her office for this story.)

"I guess it's fair to say we are friends," Baxter says, with characteristic understatement. But she rules against him as often as not, he contends. "She is very friendly and outgoing and friends with lots of lawyers in this town."

In fact, Leggat joined the law firm that Baxter left behind when he joined the Harrison County district attorney's office in 1971. After Baxter won election as DA, he tapped Leggat as his assistant. In 1985, Texas Governor Mark White appointed Baxter as Harrison County district judge--and named Leggat to succeed him as DA. Three years later, after winning the Democratic primary, Baxter decided against running for reelection in November; Leggat replaced him on the ballot.

Baxter also enjoys a familiarity with Marshall jurors, whether in state or federal court.

In addition to his 20 years in public office, he served for a decade as the director of Marshall's Dixie League, the local equivalent of Little League. As a result, Baxter has a connection to almost every prospective juror. He has either prosecuted their cousins, coached their sons, or sat on the bench during their divorce proceedings. Says former Harrison County Judge Don Stokes: "Very few people wouldn't know Sam Baxter."

Several years ago, Baxter stirred small-town chatter when he began dating the woman who ultimately became his third wife while still married to his second wife. But his status in the community limited the damage. "It caused a certain amount of grief," recalls Gail Beil, a reporter at the Marshall News Messenger. "But because he is Sam Baxter, he can do that."

Sam Baxter's successful effort to keep the case of the Texas truck owners separate appears to have benefited only Baxter--and his Houston co-counsel, Crowley.

On the same day GM announced its proposed settlement with Texas truck owners, it also unveiled the exact same deal for those in the 49 other states, represented in the federal court in Philadelphia. Despite all Baxter's hometown influence, he had extracted nothing extra from GM--except a vastly more lucrative fee for the lawyers. Each firm in the Philadelphia case was to pocket an average of $380,000; Baxter's deal would provide him and Crowley with $4.75 million apiece.

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