John O'Quinn: Flamboyant trial lawyer who won numerous billion-dollar cases against American companies

In the high-octane city of Houston, indeed in the entire outsized state of Texas, there probably was no more outsized and high-octane character than John Maurice O'Quinn. He was a flamboyant trial lawyer who might have stepped out of a TV soap opera. He was colossally rich and endlessly controversial, a courtroom steam-roller who took on and extracted billion-dollar judgements from some of the country's mightiest companies. But if big business vilified him as symbol of everything wrong with the bloated US tort system, the plaintiffs he represented tended to see O'Quinn as Gary Cooper from High Noon (one of his favourite films, he loved to say) – a lonely sheriff who took on and overcame the dark forces of corporate malfeasance. A strapping 6ft 4in and ruggedly handsome, he was even said to look like the Marlboro Man.

He was a philanthropist and a lavish donor to the Democratic party. A recovered alcoholic, he none the less threw birthday bashes that left Houston's "seen-it-all" society columnists in awe. Then, in his seventh decade, O'Quinn hurled himself with the same implacable energy into buying vintage and historic cars, assembling in short order one of the most impressive collections anywhere.

He never made any bones about his take-no-prisoners legal style. "When the bad guys come," he once said, "who do you want? You don't want some namby-pamby son of a bitch. If companies obeyed the law, I'd be a washing-machine repairman." As it was, he boasted in 2000 to Forbes magazine, house journal of corporate America, "I made Dow Corning go bankrupt."

That remark was apropos of the series of lawsuits in which, with his partner Richard Laminack, O'Quinn wrested more than $1bn from manufacturers of silicone breast implants in the 1990s. But his first major victory came a decade earlier, a $100m judgement (later annulled) against Monsanto for exposing a worker to the carcinogen benzene. Many other class-action victories followed, including a $1bn 2004 settlement for victims of Fen Phen, a dieting drug shown to have caused lung and heart disease.

Fittingly perhaps, the latter-day Marlboro Man's most lucrative role was as one of five lawyers who scooped up a combined fee of $3.3bn for helping the state of Texas reach its $17.3bn settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998. Most unusual, perhaps, was his 1984 success in winning $8.5m for the owner of a prize-winning bull killed by a pesticide. O'Quinn claimed that over the years he had won settlements topping $20bn, while his career earnings were estimated at upward of $3bn.

But a mesmeric courtroom style, combined with a win-at-any-cost mentality, sometimes pushed him to the law's ethical limits and beyond. Once a federal judge accused him of hypnotising jurors, and ordered him to stay at least 12 feet away from them at all times. He was accused of ambulance chasing and of not paying agreed fees to lawyers who worked with him. At least once he was threatened with disbarment.

Inevitably, he accumulated more than his share of enemies. At the time of his death O'Quinn was appealing a judgement ordering him to pay damages of $41m for overcharging a group of breast-implant clients. And who else could so outrage the medical profession that when he gave $25m to a hospital, 100 doctors signed a protest that it should not name one of its tower buildings after him?

For all his professional success, O'Quinn was tormented by personal demons, chief among them alcohol. The giant settlements, too, merely reflected his insecurity. Only big verdicts and the attendant publicity could prove that he was indeed the toughest lawyer in town. He was twice divorced and, by his own admission, he had no time for children: working, and winning, were everything.

But in his later years, an old passion returned to provide a different happiness. O'Quinn's father ran a small car repair shop in Louisiana, and when he took his 10-year-old son to a touring motor show, the boy was hooked. Not until 2003 did he start to indulge that enthusiasm – but in just six years he built up a fabulous collection of 800 vehicles. It includes presidential limousines, a 1910 Rolls Royce custom ordered by the Maharajah of Mysore for the coronation of King George V and a 1925 Silver Ghost owned by another eminent Houstonian named Howard Hughes.

O'Quinn also owned an unmatched array of 1930s Duesenberg Js, among the most opulent and exclusive cars ever constructed, as well as a German-built 1975 Ford Escort owned by Karol Wojtyla before he became Pope John Paul II (for which O'Quinn paid $690,000 in 2005.)

The value of the collection, which O'Quinn intended to house in a brand new museum in Houston, runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. The museum, he liked to say, would be "the greatest car museum in the world." And it might yet be, although his death has put those plans on hold.

The circumstances of that death were both apt and ironic. The car connoisseur died at the wheel of a car – a Chevrolet Suburban that skidded off a rain-soaked highway and crashed into a tree. But the man who had made his fortune suing companies for dangerous products was driving far above the speed limit and was not wearing a seatbelt.

Rupert Cornwell

John Maurice O'Quinn, US tort lawyer and car collector: born Baton Rouge, Louisiana 4 September 1941; married and divorced twice; died Houston, Texas 29 October 2009.

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