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James E. Beasley, Legal Trailblazer, is Dead at 78

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The Legal Intelligencer

September 21, 2004

by Jeff Blumenthal

James E. Beasley, 78, regarded by many as the top plaintiffs lawyer of his generation in Philadelphia, died Saturday of complications from lymphoma at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Beasley’s 48-year legal career included numerous multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements against medical personnel and institutions, manufacturers, newspapers and governmental entities in a wide range of tort cases. But family, friends and colleagues said the very private Mr. Beasley should also be remembered for his quiet generosity to those in need. There was no better example of that generosity than five years ago when he made a confidential donation to his alma mater – Temple University – that in turn renamed its law school in his honor.

“He should be remembered as a trail blazer who set the standard for representing injured people,” said longtime friend Richard A. Sprague, who often called on Mr. Beasley to represent him in libel cases and in turn represented Mr. Beasley in such matters.

“He was a courageous lawyer who took on challenges not withstanding political or economic obstacles. If he thought it was a worthy cause, those things didn’t matter to him. . . . The reason [Sprague hired Mr. Beasley] was that you always knew you were getting someone who would fully advocate for you.”

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Beasley moved to Philadelphia as a young boy. Money was hard to come by for his factory-worker father and waitress mother. His father died when he was in the eighth grade, and Mr. Beasley dropped out of high school two years later and joined the U.S. Navy in an attempt to help his mother support the family, according to his son, James E. Beasley Jr., who practiced law with his father at The Beasley Firm.

But because Mr. Beasley was only 16, he had to fake his birth certificate and was thrust into the thick of World War II, protecting convoys in the North Atlantic Ocean before drawing submarine duty in the Pacific.

When the war ended, Mr. Beasley returned home and worked as a cab, truck and bus driver. While still working full time he earned his high school degree from Benjamin Franklin High School within nine months and his undergraduate degree from Temple University in less than three years. He then went on to Temple Law, where he graduated near the top of his class in 1956.

Upon graduation, he began working for Philadelphia’s pre-eminent trial lawyer of the day, Nathaniel Richter, at Richter Lord & Levy. While learning from the best, he also found time to mentor a young law clerk named Arthur Raynes, now managing partner of Raynes McCarty.

“My first legal assignment as a law clerk at Richter Lord & Levy was for Jim where he, as a young associate, brought home a verdict in excess of the ad damnum clause,” Raynes said. “That was typical Jim Beasley – always exceeding everyone’s expectations. He told me to file a petition to amend the complaint to conform to the verdict. From then on he was like a big brother to me. Always accessible to turn to for advice.”

Described by former colleagues as the “ultimate individualist,” Mr. Beasley did not spend much time under Richter’s wing. He opened his own firm in 1959 and went on to land some of the city’s biggest and most important tort cases of the next four decades.

One such case was Incollingo v. Ewing, in which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1971 rejected a longstanding medical malpractice defense principle. Beasley successfully argued that a doctor should not be allowed to limit his or her responsibility to the standard treatment of the day.

“I don’t think people in 2004 realize how important this case was,” said Kline & Specter’s Shanin Specter, who worked for Mr. Beasley from 1982 to 1995. “It basically established that a doctor could not use ‘That’s the way it’s normally done’ as a standard of care. Back in the 1960s, there was a lot of poor medical care in Philadelphia that was written off with that excuse. Jim Beasley helped improve the standard of care to an objective standard.”

Among the many multimillion-dollar judgments he secured for clients was the $907 million verdict against Ira Einhorn on behalf of the family of Holly Maddux, whom Einhorn was convicted of murdering. In 1990, Beasley won two libel verdicts against The Philadelphia Inquirer, including a $34 million award for Sprague and another for the late Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice James T. McDermott. The McDermott case is scheduled for re-trial.

Four days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Beasley filed suit on behalf of victims’ families against Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and the government of Iraq. He secured a $104 million verdict in May 2003 and had been fighting ever since to ensure that as much of that money as possible be turned over to his clients.

Fox Rothschild’s James Griffith was a frequent adversary over the years. Griffith said he first locked horns with Mr. Beasley in 1967 and was immediately impressed with how his opponent handled courtroom tactics.

“He was the best I ever saw at responding to objections,” Griffith said. “He would respond so fast that it would make your objection look silly and then he would rephrase his question in the exact fashion he wanted. You had to be thinking five questions ahead when you were in the courtroom with him. If he’s not considered the number-one trial lawyer, he should be. He’s certainly the best I ever saw.”

On the rare occasion that Mr. Beasley lost a case, Griffith said, “he was not a happy camper. It was like a shock to his system. He just couldn’t believe that people didn’t reach the conclusion that his client was in the right, probably because he believed so strongly in the causes for which he argued.”

Allan Starr, who recently retired as a partner from White & Williams, locked horns with Mr. Beasley in court several times in medical malpractice cases. Starr said he learned from watching Mr. Beasley in action.

“He knew the medicine, he knew the law, but most importantly, he knew the people,” Starr said. “He knew exactly what argument would be successful for his client and how to make that argument. And he was a true believer in his client’s cause, no matter how big or small it was.”

McEldew & Fullam partner Nancy Fullam, who worked for Mr. Beasley from 1983 to 1995, said she was hired away from her position as an associate at Pepper Hamilton at a time when women were not given many opportunities in the courtroom.

“There weren’t many lawyers back then who were handing over files to women, and Jim Beasley not only hired me, he gave me a chance to handle major cases,” Fullam said. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for the opportunities he gave me. Whatever his detractors might say about him, he gave me a chance and never set limits on what I could achieve.”

Specter said Beasley was his mentor, though not in the traditional sense.

“He was a complicated guy,” Specter said. “He wasn’t the kind of guy who would walk you through a legal issue or factual problem, but you could learn just by watching him in action. You could see his prodigious work ethic, his attention to detail, his phenomenal judgment in the courtroom and his extraordinarily compelling way of speaking to a jury.”

In addition to his trial work, Beasley Firm partner Andrew Stern said Mr. Beasley played a significant role in writing the standard jury instructions now used in Pennsylvania’s civil court cases.

In 1999, Temple Law was renamed Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law after Mr. Beasley made a confidential donation – which Temple officials say is the second-largest gift ever made to any law school. The money has been used to provide full scholarships to 107 financially needy students to date, according to Temple Law Dean Robert Reinstein.

Reinstein, who got to know Mr. Beasley more than 30 years ago when Reinstein was the school’s chief counsel and Mr. Beasley filed suit against Temple University Hospital, said he believes the reason for the gift can most likely be traced back to Mr. Beasley’s childhood.

“He didn’t have a lot when he was young, but he was able to provide educational opportunities to his children,” Reinstein said. “And I just think he wanted to give those opportunities to other young people, who either couldn’t afford to go to law school or would be in tremendous debt afterwards.”

Mr. Beasley also endowed three faculty chairs and served for years as an adjunct professor at Temple Law while also serving on Gerald Litvin’s Academy of Advocacy.

But Mr. Beasley’s colleagues said his generosity was not limited to his alma mater. Fullam also recalled that after a case that involved a fire in which his client was injured, Mr. Beasley donated smoke detectors to the Philadelphia Fire Department so its members could install them in homes.

Raynes said he experienced Beasley’s generosity firsthand.

“When John McCarty and I left the Richter firm in 1969 to form Raynes McCarty, he called me over to his office, which was then at Broad and Locust,” Raynes said. “He was happy that I was starting my own firm and he opened his checkbook and said, “Art, you’re going to need money. How much do you want?” When I told him I was OK for the time being, he said, “Well, whatever you need, I’m always here for you.”

When Mr. Beasley wasn’t trying cases or pursuing his philanthropic interests, he pursued his other passion: flying World War II-era and other vintage fighter planes. Beasley’s son said his father logged more than 10,000 flight hours over the years.

“My father spent his summers as a boy on his grandparents’ farm in Mississippi and he was always fascinated by the crop dusters,” Beasley Jr. said. “So when he had enough money, he started to fly [vintage] fighter planes.”

He soon became a member of an aerobatic flight team called “Six of Diamonds,” in which he flew his two P-51 Mustangs and a Russian MIG. He also taught his son and Stern.

“He was an accomplished pilot and he taught me everything he knew,” Stern said. “He worked hard and he played hard and he allowed us to play hard with him. He made me feel like a son. He took interest in my progress as a trial lawyer and as a person. I think I learned more from him out of the courtroom than in the courtroom.”

Sprague said he will miss the weekly dinners, regular tennis matches, social gatherings and vacations the two men and their families shared.

“[His death] leaves a big void in my life,” Sprague said. “He might have appeared gruff to those who didn’t really know him, but once you got into his inner circle, you could see what kind of a generous and sensitive person he really was.”

Up until a week before his death, Beasley Jr. said his father would wake up every morning at 5 a.m., perform an exercise regimen that included lifting weights, and arrive at work at 7 a.m. Over the summer he tried a six-week-long case while the cancer inside him grew undetected. Beasley Jr. said it wasn’t until his father began to experience shortness of breath earlier this month that he was diagnosed with the disease – when the cancer was at too advanced a stage to be treated effectively.

As for the fate of 16-attorney Beasley Firm, Beasley Jr. said he and his colleagues will carry on his father’s legacy. Just two years ago, Mr. Beasley, who had long been the only partner at the firm, promoted eight lawyers to partnership status.

“My father started this freight train 45 years ago and we’re going to keep it going full-speed ahead with the great team that he assembled,” Beasley Jr. said. “My dad was a giant, but he didn’t have a snobby bone in his body. He was a bright guy and he never [misled] you. That’s why even those who didn’t like him personally always respected him. You always knew where you stood with him.”

Besides his son, Mr. Beasley is survived by his wife, Helen Mary; his daughters Lynn Hayes, Nancy Beasley, Pamela Beasley and Kim Schmucki; and eight grandchildren.

A viewing is scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Chadwick & McKinney Funeral Home, 30 E. Athens Ave., Ardmore. Burial is private.

At 3 p.m. Thursday, a celebration of Mr. Beasley’s life and career is planned at The Beasley Firm’s offices on 1125 Walnut St., Philadelphia

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to “The John H. Glick, M.D. Oncology Research Fund in Memory of James E. Beasley” at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 3400 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.