Sunday Interview: Trial lawyer Jim Butler talks winning million-dollar verdicts, previous careers

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comApril 12, 2014 

  • BIO

    Jim Butler

    Age: 63

    Job: Partner in Columbus and Atlanta law firm Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer LLP.

    Education: Forsyth County High School, 1968; University of Georgia, B.A., Journalism, 1972; University of Georgia Law School, 1977.

    Family: Children: Jeb, Emily and Catherine.

    Interest in politics: Butler has toyed with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate for decades. That won’t happen now, he said.

    “That cup has passed me by, fortunately.” In 2008, he considered a run against Sen. Saxby Chambliss. “I decided I really don’t want to be in the Senate.

    That is just a mess. Let Saxby keep it. Now Saxby don’t want to be in the Senate anymore. I am never going to run for anything.”

Whether it is in a courtroom or in front of a jury — something he has done more than 170 times in his career — or in an interview with the local newspaper, Jim Butler is going to control the situation.

A trial lawyer who has successfully argued cases against major corporations and won verdicts that topped $100 million, Butler, at 63 and rejuvenated after nearly four decades of practicing law, has a Georgia-boy charm and a killer instinct.

Recently, Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams sat down with Butler in his Columbus law office on 13th Street and asked him a few questions.

It didn’t take long for Butler — a “Double Dawg” with journalism and law degrees from the University of Georgia — to assert control.

“Is this a got-ya interview?” he asked.

“No,” was the response.

“This is a puff piece isn’t it? ... I know with Dan (Amos), you did a puff piece,” he said of his close friend and UGA classmate. “Is this pick-on-a-lawyer day?”

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

What led you to open a law practice in Columbus, Ga.? You didn’t have Columbus ties when you came here?

No. I knew three people when I came to Columbus, Joel Wooten and Jerry Buchanan, who I was in law school with, and Betsy Leebern, who is my fifth cousin. When I came down here to interview for a job, it was my second trip to Columbus. My first was when I was in college, a bunch of us went to Panama City, and for some reason came through Columbus. I swore I would never go back because of all of those red lights and cops. I came back to interview and I had job offers out of law school in Atlanta, Augusta and Cumming. The job offer in Cumming was to be a named law partner making twice what I was going to be making in Columbus. The dean of the law school said I was a born trial lawyer and Columbus had the best trial bar in the state. That is why I came here in 1977.

Why have you kept the office here?

Well, I have had an office in Atlanta since 1982. ... I live in Columbus.

You don’t try a lot of cases in Columbus and never really have, right?

I did in the early years. In 1980, I started 17 jury trials here in one year. But the nature of the practice has changed. Two-thirds of wreck cases have disappeared in the last 30 years.

Do you attribute that to the work you and other trial lawyers have done in class-action suits?

Class-action suits didn’t have anything to do with it. Product liability suits had everything to do with it. I have been doing it so long, you can see it as it was happening. Except for Volvo, no automaker in the early ’80s advertised safety — none of them. As a matter of fact, there was a rule among the Detroit automakers that you never talked about safety in your marketing or advertising. And if you go back in time, they rarely did. Ford in an advertisement for its 1975 or ’76 pickup truck, had a little thing in their brochures saying their fuel tanks were inside the frame rails between the axles and they were safe from side impact. It was a direct barb at GM side-saddle pickups. GM went nuts, and Ford retrieved all those brochures from all those dealers. There was a compact by Detroit automakers not to talk about safety.

What happened was product liability suits were being filed. ... Adverse verdicts started to affect the public perception of whether or not vehicles were safe. The perception of safety became important from a marketing and sales standpoint. That is what matters to automakers, sales and marketing.

In the late ’80s, Lee Iacocca and Chrysler started advertising safety. And he and his executives got banished from the Grosse Pointe Country Club as a result. Their vehicles were not particularly safe, but Iacocca would say anything. Then going into the ’90s, the Moseley verdict had a lot to do with it.

Moseley verdict?

I will get to that in a minute.

In the early ’90s, verdicts started penetrating the public consensuses to an even greater extent. Then the automakers decided it would be smart to use safety as a marketing tool. That begat the automakers having to walk the walk and talk the talk and actually build safer cars. As a result, cars have gotten progressively safer. The death rates have dropped two-thirds in the last 34 years. And here is the killer statistic: Since 1949, the population has increased by, what, two-thirds? I don’t know what the per-capita vehicle miles driven has done, but it has probably tripled or quadrupled. More people. Faster cars. Traveling more. And in 2012 we had the lowest total deaths since 1949. That is astounding.

Do you believe you and people like you played a role in that?

There is no doubt about it. ... It has put us out of the wreck business, but that is a good thing.

Is that going to be the career highlight for you when you look at everything?

I don’t know. In the tort reform fights of the mid-’80s, our position was “You turn the plaintiffs lawyers loose, we will make things safer.” And that is exactly what has happened. It is just logical if you understand human nature. What has happened is what you would have expected to happen.

Talk about the Moseley case. How did you end up getting the case and did you know right away what you had?

Gerald Davidson, who is a good friend of mine in Lawrenceville, knew the Moseleys. They came to see him after Shannon (Moseley, a 17-year-old boy) got killed. He brought in me and Bob Cheeley. This firm was originally started as Butler, Wooten, Overby & Cheeley.

The second question: Yes. You look at the truck and look at that tank on the outside of the frame rail, it is just stupid. As a matter of fact, I asked (a) GM engineer during a video taped deposition: Can you think of a worse place to put a fuel tank than outside the frame rail on the side? And he got this deer-in-the-headlights look. He said, “Well, I guess you could put it on the front bumper.” So, did I know what I had? Sure. It was obvious. It was a stupid place to put a tank.

Did you ever consider settling that case?

Moseley? Yeah. All cases have some problems. And it had some problems. GM wanted to send the head settlement guy down from Detroit. I made Elaine Moseley (Shannon’s mother) let me talk to him. ... She was upstairs in our Atlanta office. The last thing that she said as I closed the office door was, “Don’t you wimp out on me, Butler.” I went downstairs to meet with him. He made an offer, which is confidential. I couldn’t help but break into a big smile. I walked over, shook his hand and said, “I thank you very much for that. You just made my year. I will tell my client about the offer and her response will be no and you can not make a counter offer. We will see you at trial.”

The jury ended up doing what?

$105 (million).

Is Moseley the biggest product liability verdict you have had?

No, the Hardy vs. GM case in Alabama was $150 million.

That was similar to Moseley?

No, that was a defective door latch. GM had a whole bunch of vehicles in the late ’70s through the ’80s that had door latches that were just sorry. They are kind of like these ignition switches. At certain clock points of side impact, the forces on the sides of the vehicles would just cause the latches to swing open. Now here’s the kicker: A lot of these vehicles had passive restraint systems where the lap and shoulder belt is on the door. GM came up with that because GM didn’t want to put in airbags. That was their answer for airbags. Basically, it was a mandatory seat belt. The trouble is, if you had one of those door latches and the door popped open, now you are not belted. In fact, there is a little bit of force pulling you out. ...

They decided to try that one in Alabama against us.

Where in Alabama?

Lowndes County. GM’s lawyer in Atlanta, who did not participate in the trial, told them, “You are insane.” The verdict was $150 million.

You know a great deal about the auto industry?

I know a good bit about it.

What kind of car do you drive?

I have a 2005 Mercedes sedan, diesel. And a 2008 GMC pickup.

You got a GMC pickup?

Yeah. It took me 20 years to get one. In 2008, it was a better truck than the others, and Jay Stelzenmuller is a good friend of mine. He asked me to buy a new truck. So, I bought a new truck.

Does GM know you drive its product?

I don’t know. GM has great products. They have great engineers. The problem is with the culture of their executives. There is a great story from the door-latch case. A fellow named Robert Bryant, who at the time was head of automotive safety engineering at General Motors — they were having so much trouble with these doors popping open in wrecks, that he set up what’s called a show and tell at the tech center outside of Detroit. He filled the whole auditorium with parts of cars that had been in wrecks, the side of the car where doors popped open, door latches that had failed, photographs of wrecks, mockups of a door latch showing why it failed and possible remedies. And he put this together for the executives to come see.

... The last question for Bryant — and I had him on a video taped deposition — “What were you trying to accomplish by putting on this show and tell about the door latches with the GM executives?” And he said, “We were trying to find a design responsible person to affect a change.” “Were you successful?” “No. Unfortunately, we were not.” “Thank you, sir. That is all I got.” They got good people there. You know what was the end of the Type 3 door latch?

No. What?

A guy named Abbatte. He was the hardware engineer at an assembly plant making Berettas and Corsicas in 1988 or ’89. Something happened with already built GM Berettas and Corsicas. Somebody told them about a problem with the doors popping open out in the parking lot. He went out there and started testing. It finally got to the point where he would take a sledgehammer and hit the car — a brand new car — and the door would pop open. He stopped the damn assembly line and refused to ship any of those cars in the parking lot — on his own. “We are not selling these damn cars. We are not making them any more until we fix this door latch.” And you know, it is the guy who stands up. What were they going to do?

Fire him?

That would not be a smart thing to do. So one engineer put a stop to it. He just stood up and said, “I am not going to take this anymore.”

You have been doing this for almost 40 years ...

Don’t get fixated on products liability cases. I set the Georgia verdict records four times. First in medical malpractice, second in trucking, third in products liability and fourth in business tort.

Are you still carrying the same load you used to carry?

I am working as hard as I did back in the mid-’90s. And having a good time.

Have you stayed close to your clients — like the Moseleys — after it was over?

Yes. ... I talk to the Moseleys periodically and exchange Christmas cards with a whole bunch of clients. I see people around town that are former clients. ... In the personal injury and death cases, there is an interesting dynamic that goes on. Once the case is over, the client who is grieving gets closure. And, to a certain extent, having dealings with their lawyer reopens stuff. Depending on who the clients are and how much time has passed, sometimes too much exposure inhibits the closure. People want to forget about it and I am a reminder.

What is the difference in a good journalist and a good trial lawyer?

Most trial lawyers talk better than most journalists. But in terms of the digging, it is the same thing. I write legal briefs in the inverted pyramid style, and insist other young lawyers in the firm do it that way. It is the best way to communicate. I started writing for newspapers when I was 15.

What was the first paper you wrote for?

Forsyth County News.

What did you cover?

Sports.

Did you seriously think about going into journalism?

Oh, yeah. I went to J-school so I would have a trade. So I could get a job. When I got out of college, the AJC offered me a job. Bob Fowler at the Gwinnett Daily News offered me a hell of a job. He wanted to make me publisher in four years. “Get your lawyer and draw it up. I will give you 10 percent of the company in four years.” True story.

You didn’t do that?

No. I went into the building business, planning to go to law school in a few years. ... I built 44 homes.

Successful home builder?

Well, my homes were successful. We had a real estate depression back then. ... I went broke.

What years?

1972-’74 and into ’75. When I went to law school, I had 12 houses unsold, two pieces of property and owed over $250,000 drawing 10 percent interest a year.

How long did it take you to dig out of it?

1983. Paid it all back.

Did building teach you how to run a business?

Yeah, it probably did do that. But you also learn to do the duty that lies nearest thee — do the next task. You can only do things one at a time. You walk one foot, next foot; one foot, next foot. That’s how you build a house. You lay one brick at a time. You build a case the same way, one brick at a time.

People say you are meticulous. Is that part of your DNA?

I guess. I don’t know where else it could come from. Barbara Streisand was born with the ability to sing like an angel. I was born with the ability to work hard. I had a paper route when I was 11. Except for the summer when I was 14, I have been employed ever since.

Where did you grow up?

DeKalb County and then Forsyth County.

What is the top characteristic a good trial lawyer needs?

Objectivity. Abraham Lincoln said that a lawyer’s time is his stock in trade. And that’s true. But a lawyer’s most important stock in trade is objectivity. It’s hard to maintain and sometimes it’s hard to confront. Clients often don’t want objectivity. They want somebody to do what they want them to do and tell them what they want to hear. The lawyer’s job is to be objective.

Do jurors want objectivity?

Yeah. I am a profoundly conservative person. And with cases I am very conservative. The worst thing you can do as a plaintiff’s lawyer in front of a jury is puff your case. You got 12 jurors there usually. Somebody is going to see through that. You don’t want to exaggerate your case. That is deadly.

What else is deadly?

Misleading them. Never mislead the judge or the jury.

Have you ever misled a jury?

I have made mistakes, but I have corrected them. We tried a case in St. Louis against Suzuki in ’95, I think. I wrote something up on my flip chart — I forget what it was now — but I was wrong. It was just a mental lapse. The defense lawyer got up after I did and went all out attacking me about that. I sat there quietly until he got through. I walked up to my flip chart and got a red magic marker and wrote across the flip chart diagonally in big letters “Butler wrong.” I said, “I am sorry, Mr. Witness, I got that dead wrong. Mr. Berne got that entirely correct. I am sorry about that. Let’s do it right.” Flipped over and started over again. That is the way you handle something like that.

How many cases have you tried?

To verdict? About 170.

How many cases have you handled?

I don’t know. I have no idea. A thousand? A couple of thousand?

You are not at the end of your career. but ...

... I am just getting started, man. ... You know Lincoln’s great speech about the rebirth of freedom? We are having a rebirth of law practice. We settled in January this case, a tax-shelter fraud case against KPMG, which is the biggest settlement by far we have ever had. And it was great fun.

Great fun?

Just unravelling what they had done. They had years head start on trying to erect defenses. Years later, you have to come along and figure out what they did. Pierce the defenses.

How do you get cases? Referrals?

Yeah, mostly. Some directly from clients who see our website or hear about us. A lot, referrals from other lawyers.

If you look around everywhere you see lawyers who advertise. You see billboards, TV commercials. I have never seen a Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer ad, right?

We don’t advertise. We have a website. That is good advertisement if anybody wants to look at it.

You don’t partake in billboard or TV advertising?

No. Judges don’t like that. Jurors don’t like that. We take cases to trial. I don’t want to have to strike a jury ... they look down on advertisers. Plus ... it is a different business model. You get a lot of calls, and very few meritorious cases.

It is basically trolling?

I’ll use my words. ... I am not casting any aspersions on people that advertise. Gary Bruce is a good friend of mine, a great guy, and a good lawyer. He’s a real lawyer.

I am talking about Morgan and Morgan.

They are in Florida. There are two basic approaches to being a plaintiffs lawyer — wholesale and retail. And I made up my mind a long time ago I was going to be a retail lawyer. For every client, I am going to get as close to 100 percent of what that case is worth as I can possibly get. I am not taking 10 files to State Farm and settling them all for 50 cents on the dollar. That is a wholesale lawyer.

Is there a place for both of them?

That is a metaphysical question. I think it is more appropriate to be a retail lawyer and treat every client as if that is the only case you got.

Do lawyers make better politicians?

Good lawyers on a daily basis engage in rigorous examination of things and are brutally objective. Those are good attributes for a politician. Good lawyers tend to make better legislators because they have an innate understanding of how you draft legislation and how this sentence will effect something remote, 2 years, 5 years or 10 years from now.

Let’s shift gears a little. Where does your drive come from?

I don’t know. I enjoy what I do.

Fear of failure?

You know, possibly. I spent my whole life feeling the hot breath of the wolf at the back of my neck. He is always there. I just got to keep running. The ancient African proverb — you will like this — (he looks it up on his computer): “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up and knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up and knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle, when the sun comes up you better start running.’

When you were in the building business, did you ever think you would be as successful as you have been today?

I don’t know that I ever thought about it. I have always enjoyed working and I have never had a job I did not like. My goal was simply not to starve.

It looks like you have accomplished that.

I accomplished that. I didn’t set out to make a bunch of money.

But you have?

But I have. That is a byproduct of working hard and enjoying what I do. I am sure you can start out to make a bunch of money if you have that as a purpose. If you simply do what you love doing, the odds that you will succeed are probably better than if you set out for the purpose of making a bunch of money.

You have a picture over here of your law partner Joel Wooten and Aflac Chairman Dan Amos. You and Dan have known each other ...

... Since college. That is a picture that was taken at our law firm’s 25th anniversary in Atlanta last September.

Talk about success. What Dan has done is pretty amazing?

Stunning. You know I was so busy in the early ’90s when he got to be CEO of Aflac. I remember thinking, “OK, pour every dime you got into Aflac stock.” I knew what was going to happen with Dan at the helm. ... I bought a little bit, but I was busy working on cases and raising children. I dropped the ball.

You wish you had bought Aflac stock then?

Oh, yeah. Then I would have some money. Dan is a thinker. That is the key to his success in my opinion. He thinks through things.

How important is Aflac to Columbus?

I don’t keep up with the hard data, but Aflac, Synovus and Total Systems are hugely important to Columbus. Almost as important as the Bradley-Turner family. I will tell you a story. I was in Atlanta — early 2000s — and I went to the judicial building because somebody was getting sworn in as the new chief justice of the Supreme Court. I was sitting with a friend of mine from Macon. We went outside afterward, and he said, “I heard y’all raised $70 million over in Columbus for the RiverCenter.” I said, “That is old news. You hadn’t heard what is going on lately? They are raising $35 million for the vocational school. CSU has a $125 million capital campaign. They raised $15 million for Open Door.” He said, “Hell, I am president of the Cherry Blossom Festival and we can’t get enough money donated to rent portable toilets.” That is the real secret to Columbus, the charitable giving and business leadership. The business leadership has come primarily from Synovus, Aflac and Total Systems.

How is this town different from when you opened your law practice here?

Well, it was the largest town in the U.S. not served by the Interstate highway system when I moved here. Downtown was kind of derelict.

Kind of?

I was trying to be nice. It was a very polarized society. Now, it is a vibrant, progressive community. Look at our mayor. We have Teresa Tomlinson as mayor. ... Whether you like her or not, she is a hell of a mayor.

She is a trial lawyer?

Yeah. Not many towns have someone of that quality as mayor.

You have set up a $1 million scholarship for the UGA law school, right?

We have two. One at the law school and one at the School of Ecology. ... They are scholarship funds. I also set one up at CSU for Servant Leadership.

Is that your way of investing back in the community?

This community has been great for me and my children. The University of Georgia has meant the world to me. I am a Double Dawg. I believe in the mission of the law school and the mission of the school of ecology.

If you could talk to the law school graduating class, the folks that are taking the bar this summer, what do you tell them?

Do good any way. Go into the world and try to do good.

Is that what you have done?

That’s what I have tried to do. If you try and do good for others, good things will happen for you.

BIO

Jim Butler

Age: 63

Job: Partner in Columbus and Atlanta law firm Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer LLP.

Education: Forsyth County High School, 1968; University of Georgia, B.A., Journalism, 1972; University of Georgia Law School, 1977.

Family: Children: Jeb, Emily and Catherine.

Interest in politics: Butler has toyed with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate for decades. That won’t happen now, he said. “That cup has passed me by, fortunately.” In 2008, he considered a run against Sen. Saxby Chambliss. “I decided I really don’t want to be in the Senate.

That is just a mess. Let Saxby keep it. Now Saxby don’t want to be in the Senate anymore. I am never going to run for anything.”

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