In one corner is John O’Quinn, 66, of Houston, bloodied and bowed after convictions for drunk driving and practicing without a license, and after not one but two ethics probes by the State Bar, one of which resulted in a public reprimand by the Texas Bar in 1989.

In the other corner is Joseph Jamail, also of Houston, crowned the “King of Torts” by Newsweek. Speaking with the confidence that only a long string of wins can produce, Jamail, 82, claims to be above the fray. “I don’t have any animosity toward O’Quinn,” he says. Maybe that’s what $1.5 billion (Jamail’s net worth, according to Forbes magazine) will do for a man.

The final combatant is Ronald Krist, 70, who essentially is acting as Jamail’s corner man. A veteran Houston litigator, Krist says he doesn’t go looking for cases that involve O’Quinn, but clients “present them and we take them.”

These three men have been fighting for years. The latest round involves legal fees won by O’Quinn in a $2 billion settlement in a breast implant class action. O’Quinn collected $263 million of that money as legal fees, according to arbitrators.

O’Quinn’s clients sued him, claiming that he kept too much of the award as legal fees. Their lawyers: Jamail and Krist, among others. The case was sent to arbitration, and the arbitrators found that O’Quinn had overbilled his clients. In September the arbitrators told O’Quinn to return $41.5 million. (The original award was $35.7 million, but as of September, interest continued to accrue.)

There’s of course more at the link, including multiple allegations of malpractice and the like.

There is a key element missing from this story: Texas, which was never friendly to plaintiffs, recently went through a new round of “tort reform.” Much to the chagrin of corporate interests, anti-plaintiff litigation reform does not kill off all of the trial lawyers. Rather, it kills off the middle-class of trial lawyers, strengthening the wealthier ones.

That is exactly what happened after the securities litigation “reform” (on the federal level) in 1996. The PSLRA made it much harder for plaintiffs to bring and to win securities lawsuits. That, in turn, killed off many of the mid-sized securities firms, leaving only a handful of big fish who then had their pick of the litter among potential cases. Take a look at the “SCAS 50” for 2006: only two firms had more than 20 cases settle, one firm had 12 cases, nine firms had 5 or more cases, and everyone else had fewer than five, with a large number of firms that had only a single case settle. The settlement amounts were similar: #5 on the list settled $1.1 billion in claims, while #15 settled only $119 million, #25 settled $56 million, and #50 settled just $8.5 million. When you consider that a typical plaintiff securities fee is about 10-20% (usually closer to 10%), even after spending literally millions on cases, you realize the top few are far more profitable than everyone else.

Short story is: if you’re going to bring a big securities lawsuit, there’s only a handful of places to go. The same goes for Texas: if you need a top tier plaintiff’s lawyer, there’s only a handful to go to. It only makes sense that if you’re suing one of the top plaintiff’s lawyers for malpractice you’ll end up going to one of the handful of other top plaintiff’s lawyers, and that the situation would arise more than once.

So there might be some “bad blood” there, but, frankly, it doesn’t surprise me that they’d cross paths multiple times. Texas ain’t that big.

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