Rarely am I presented with a topic that neatly ties in so many legal concepts we’ve advocated here on Slabbed such as ordinary citizens losing their basic constitutional rights under the ruse of Tort Reform and as luck would have it, this area was used as the poster child for the need to strip ordinary citizens across this country of their constitutional rights so my sources on this topic can’t be better placed. The story includes all the finest corrupt trial lawyers from the now incarcerated Dick Scruggs to Calvin Fayard and beyond. It also includes a group of gay men we affectionately call the girls here on Slabbed that were affiliated with Wendell Gauthier. Luckily for me I don’t have to reinvent the wheel as two articles in the conservative publication the Weekly Standard well tells the story of the abuses that lead to a few men becoming obscenely wealthy while everyone else lost basic constitutional rights so lets hop in the wayback machine to 1998 and Matt Labash’s wide cited story Lawyers, Guns and Money:
Wendell Gauthier loves to smile. Sure, the most renowned class-action lawyer in New Orleans possesses many other trademarks. He has full-bodied Atticus Finch hair, and he’s tailored like a mogul from Milan. With a soft Cajun accent, he’s a fount of country-lawyer malapropisms (he says his old friend Edwin Edwards, the frequently indicted former governor of Louisiana, has a “photogenic mind”). But Gauthier’s defining characteristic is the infectious, perpetual, coprophagous grin. Indeed, an opposing lawyer once objected to a judge that Wendell Gauthier smiled too often. With his track record, who wouldn’t?
A veritable Zelig of mass-disaster litigation, Gauthier has twice ranked as one of the National Law Journal’s “100 Most Powerful Lawyers.” From the 1982 Pan Am plane crash to the 1980 MGM Grand hotel fire, from bone screws to breast implants, if it burns, leaks, seeps, or (praise God) explodes, chances are Gauthier is heading up the plaintiff’s committee, siphoning 25 percent to 35 percent contingency fees from the multi-million dollar jackpots relinquished by accident-prone companies waiting to get milked in class action lawsuits.
Matt nailed Gauthier’s career “hittin’ the walls” with every stroke of his jaded poison pen. Not mentioned though except here on Slabbed is that the Pan Am Crash was the launching pad for Gauthier’s subsequent mega legal successes as then Kenner Mayor Aaron Broussard greased the marketing skids for Gauthier giving him sole early access to the families of the victims.
In fairness to Broussard the families could not have had better legal representation than Gauthier, a man whose impact on the Louisiana trial bar continues to this day via certain of his still practicing contemporaries and the younger lawyers he trained. In addition to being a superb student of human nature, the charismatic Gauthier exuded gravitas. When coupled with his ability to boil down complex ideas in civil cases into a few concepts ordinary folks that make up juries could understand meant he was a formidable adversary in the courtroom. His relationship with Broussard literally stretched back to their college days at Southeastern and their associations meant there was a defacto marriage of the political and plaintiff’s bar which in turn had an adverse impact on the local judiciary most recently illustrated by the impeachment of defrocked federal judge Thomas pOrteous, whose spawn in the current political machine and otherwise still inhabit the local legal system to this day.
But I also think it is clear Aaron Broussard had a more private side as the old Gauthier firm hired top shelf talent to litigate plaintiff’s cases and that included the vibrant local gay community via lawyers like Danny Abel. Abel by all accounts was a gifted lawyer back in the early days but the marriage of the political and the legal systems meant those on the inside could take shortcuts and liberties. Through time I’ve been bombarded with cases from the past that have been fixed in one way shape or fashion including advance knowledge of supposedly random appellate panels in places like Louisiana’s Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. I’d submit that shortcuts lead to laziness and when the political magic disappears leads to very erratic behavior such as we saw in the case of Eric Paulsen v State Farm. We’ll be circling back to that case in part 2 but first we need to return to the glory days just before cancer claims Gauthier’s life as we continue with Matt’s story.
As he emerges for an interview in his Metairie office north of New Orleans, Gauthier is suppressing yet another grin. He has just been on the phone with Johnnie Cochran who, he says, “wants in on the action.” Many lawyers do. For “the action” is shaping up as the next big thing in industry-gouging, trial lawyer ransom demands. Gauthier, you see, has declared war on gun manufacturers for-brace yourselves-making guns that kill people.
The gun suit would enrage those that value their second amendment rights unleashing a counter push of rabid right wing nuttery this country has rarely seen and the issue was used successfully by the tort reformist as a selling point to dupe the populace into willingly giving up long-held constitutional rights. It gets worse though because Matt captured the essence of a large part of that old crowd as the gun suit was simply the latest hustle to make themselves a small fortune and I’d bet not one stopped to consider the damage they were causing the judicial system from a public policy perspective and this is where we get to the Abel section of the very effective hit piece:
Those who know Gauthier best say litigation for him is not just about the settlements-or even the beloved children-it’s about the contest. Law partner Danny Abel, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of French Quarter watering holes and off-menu specialties, explains Gauthier’s love of the hunt to me and his young litigation assistant Shane D’Antoni, as we slop oyster po’ boys at the Napoleon House. “Money’s not the major issue. We’re just a bunch of country [boys].. . . Toys are not really us,” Abel says, though Gauthier has owned a piece of the New Orleans Saints, a Rolls R0yce, and an interest in a casino.
Abel knows Gauthier better than most. They were fraternity brothers at Southeastern Louisiana State. While chain-smoking Marlboro mediums, Abel moderates a slurred Sazerac-influenced symposium on the evils of tobacco and firearms. Shane and I are smoking Dominican cigars as thick as babies’ legs, which Shane was kind enough to purchase after lecturing the employees of the tobacco shop on how cigarette companies target children. If the New Orleans handgun lawsuit seems sophomoric, there’s a good reason. Abel says Shane first brought up the idea to Gauthier last year when he was a college sophomore. At the time, “we were doing the other s—, tobacco, which is about children,” explains Abel. So they walked in to Gauthier’s office with the gun idea and said, “This is about children.”
Though the hour is late and the Quarter is infested with loutish tourists, we are secure in the knowledge that Abel has a .32 caliber Beretta in his truck. Never mind that it has neither the loaded-chamber indicator nor the magazine-disconnect-the safety features that Gauthier and the city of New Orleans call for in their “safe guns” suit. It is a minor hypocrisy in a city that passed a law in 1996 encouraging it’s citizenry to shoot carjackers, after Ms. Louisiana had her Ford Taurus boosted from her driveway. What is a major hypocrisy, however, is the behavior of Gauthier’s client, Mayor Marc Morial.
And besides Abel, Matt does us a favor and introduces the world to Shane D’Antoni aka Shane Gates, another of the girls. Now in today’s day and age of scandal involving child molesting catholic priests the irony of 2 gay men being in it for the kids is indeed rich. But the bottom line is Abel was a bit player in the scheme of things as we continue:
If any of these cities wants to file suit, there’s a place it can go to get great legal representation: Vizard’s in the Garden District. It is at this restaurant, a former bordello that is owned by one of Gauthier’s law associates, that I break paneed sweetbreads with Gauthier, Abel, and other Castano lawyers. There’s Calvin Fayard of Denham Springs, nicknamed “Calhoun” after the shyster lawyer from Amos ‘n Andy. And there’s Michael St. Martin from Houma, La., whose friends call him “Alligator Mick.” When he’s not hunting the offshore personal-injury cases that have made him one of the richest men in the state. St Martin hunst alligators with rotting chicken and shark hooks.
They are a garrulous and jovial crew. They strictly prohibit grabbing checks or taking a swallow without their topping off your wine. (“Buy a reporter, get a good story,” Wendell says with a wink.) If fatty foods and alcohol are next on the mass-torts hit list, as some suspect, it is clear that these lawyers will bring into the courtroom an extensive personal knowledge of the products. They are happy to be here with their families, eating calamari stuffed with Gulf shrimp and slurping sherry-laced turtle soup. They are happy to sit next to a neighboring table of full-sweatered southern magnolias (“The one in the blue should open a dairy farm,” Alligator Mick observes). Mostly, however, they are sue-happy.
Fayard promises to send me some of the best strawberries in the state. And if I disparage those strawberries in print, he adds, “I’ll sue the s- out of you.” Of St. Martin, Fayard warns, “He’ll sue anybody but his doctor.” Later, when I break the news to Gauthier that a gunowners group called the Second Amendment Foundation is threatening to sue the cities for violating their civil rights, Gauthier shrugs: “We gonna sue them before they sue us for interfering with our contract. Boy, that’ll be fun!”
And sue they did but the gun suit fell apart as Gauthier was the glue that held Castano together and it unwound with untimely death in late 2001. That in turn cast lawyers like Abel adrift with one commonality being the girls sticking together. Abel was a good lawyer but his heart lay elsewhere in the world of cooking and hospitality and it is there he intersected with Charles Leary and Vaughn Perret as he funded their failed business ventures to his own financial detriment. We’ll be rolling that out in part 2 of this series.
Matt Labash’s work from 1998 still survives the test of time via wingnut think tanks like the Heartland Foundation, which dumb ass politicians like Tom Capella turn to for their talking points and it is there among many places that Labash’s story lives on in internet perpetuity. Folks the whole piece is well worth the read as part of the social network that would eventually lead us to Trout Point Lodge, Charles Leary and Vaughn Perret comes into sharper focus as we’ll also revisit Paulsen v State Farm and the notion of “Buy a reporter, get a good story”.
But in a final ironic twist, Abel and the gang are one trick ponies in so many respects as they only know how to sue, as we were recently visited on one of our older posts by author Peter H. Brown who worked with Abel on a book that flopped about the gun suit “Outgunned”. For his pleasure Mr Brown is now being sued by Abel who is evidently once again out of money and trolling for a cheap shakedown. I would submit Abel is writing checks he is not prepared to cash but what would I know. 😉
Stay tuned for part 2.