The Beasley Legacy
Everyone who worked with legendary Philadelphia trial lawyer Jim Beasley has a story or two to tell. Some of the attorneys who knew him best shared their memories with us
Published in 2014 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 23, 2014
Updated on May 29, 2014
James E. Beasley Sr. didn’t seem like the kind of kid who’d grow up to be a fire-breathing legal showman, someone who seduced skeptical juries while steamrolling over defense attorneys and judges. He was a high school dropout in West Philadelphia, then drove trucks, buses and cabs after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. But after graduating from Temple University School of Law, he opened a Philadelphia shop where, over the next few decades, he’d try more than 400 cases—including many personal injury and medical malpractice cases. He represented a kid who’d lost his legs below the knee after hopping a train and falling off. He represented a young man who’d been killed in a plane crash due to a faulty pilot seat. His clients won hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades.
Here is his story, told posthumously by his former colleagues at The Beasley Firm.
Jim Beasley Jr., managing member, The Beasley Firm: He grew up so poor, and he faked his birth certificate [to join the Navy] and dropped out. He finally got his shit together and finished high school in nine months and went to college and did the law school thing while he was working. … I remember him waking us up at 5 in the morning when I was in the third grade. He couldn’t get out of the driveway and made us shovel because there was a snowstorm. And it was a one-third-mile driveway. He was so motivated to catch up.
Shanin Specter, founding partner, Kline & Specter: He was a former bus driver and worked his way through school. He’d been a submariner during the war. He used short words and short sentences and kept things simple. And he was just straightforward and sincere.
After trying his first case in 1957, Beasley opened his firm a year later. He didn’t bother with opulence. Soon he would hire smart, talented attorneys whom he expected to work as hard as he did.
Paul Lauricella, founding shareholder, McLaughlin & Lauricella: Beasley occupied these very nondescript offices in the Stephen Girard Building, not the ornate building they’re currently housed in. I thought he was just some sort of ambulance chaser.
Specter: He assembled a tremendous roster of lawyers who have gone on to do some fantastic things in the bar when you consider the hole we worked in. I had an office that faced an alleyway. I got sunlight about an hour a day for two or three months out of the year.
Tom Kline, founding partner, Kline & Specter: Jim was in the office at 6 in the morning. I used to think that getting into the office at 7:30 or quarter of 8 was an accomplishment. If it were after 8, Jim would look at me and say, “Good afternoon.“
Over time, Beasley became known for his statements to juries and cross-examinations. He was theatrical, forceful and street smart. His victories during that time included a record $29 million verdict in 1984 against Cessna Aircraft Co. on behalf of the family of Joe Guanere, an 18-year-old pilot whose plane crashed due to a faulty seat.
Jim Colleran Sr., founder, The Colleran Firm: The pace started to pick up pretty quickly. In the mid-’70s, million-dollar verdicts were a rarity. In the ‘80s, of course, that changed, and the verdicts really started to boom. Back when I started with Beasley, our practice was primarily auto accident cases. I got a caseload the first day I walked in there of 200 cases, which is incredible, but they were small cases. As the years went by, his practice became much more complex. Medical malpractice started to open up as a very, very active branch of our practice. Product liability cases. The day of the plaintiff’s lawyer was really starting to open up before our eyes.
Lauricella: His greatest skill was in his ability to read people and to know exactly how people thought and how they reacted and how to push people’s buttons. [Defense attorney] Jim Griffith used to say that Beasley hypnotized jurors.
Specter: He wasn’t interested in a quick buck. He was all about righting wrongs, big or small. … He had a guy come to see him who had a small business in Northeast Philadelphia. Beasley filed a lawsuit against Bell Telephone Co. for leaving the guy’s business out of the WhitePages. Bell Pennsylvania said he was entitled to one month [of] free phone service pursuant to a public-utility commission regulation. Beasley challenged the regulation and had it declared unconstitutional, then he tried the case and got awarded $50,000 to compensate the business owner and $100,000 in punitive damages to punish Bell of Pennsylvania.
Lauricella: He had me draft a complaint in a really weird breach-of-contract case brought on behalf of a neurosurgeon here in Philadelphia who was suing for some antique cars that had been the subject of a contract out in Minnesota. He told me that it needed a little more work and a lot more legal imagination; I still have the note he sent me. … He knew the guts of [the case] but he had worked around the edges. But now we’re going to try the case. He’s going to learn it. I remember him on the plane to Minnesota. He’s reading the file. He did an OK opening statement. I remember thinking, “I could have done that.“ He learned the case as he went along. He was hitting his stride, picking it up. Then he called the defendant on cross and started ripping the guy apart. By the time he did the closing, you realized how masterful the guy was.
Scott A. Bennett, attorney, The Beasley Firm: He dominated the courtroom and loved what he was doing. He would take on anybody and everybody, especially the big and powerful. I wouldn’t say he was a screamer—he was calm and collected. Jim was very organized, thorough and well-prepared. He expected no less from his associate.
Specter: He was giving a closing speech and was speaking to the jury very softly. And the defense lawyer spoke up and said, “Your honor, I object. I can’t hear what Mr. Beasley is saying.“ And Beasley said, “I wasn’t talking to you.“
Eventually, as former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano wrote in his 2008 biography Courtroom Cowboy, Beasley the plaintiff’s attorney became “so feared and despised that my editors called him the Antichrist.” One of Beasley’s most renowned cases, which ended in the late ‘80s, began with a 9-year-old, Eddie Scarborough, who jumped onto a freight train, fell onto the tracks and lost both his legs under the knees. The case seemed straightforward—clearly it was the kid’s fault, right? Beasley didn’t see it that way.
Kline: There was a hole in a fence at the end of a residential street in North Philadelphia. Jim’s theory was that hole had been there for years, the little boy climbed through the hole of the fence—he never would have climbed down and jumped on the train impulsively had it not been for the hole in the fence. Jim’s further theory was that the neighborhood would have been patrolled by police officers, and some police officer should have reported that hole in the fence had he been doing his duty. And so he convinced himself. He convinced the former police commissioner and mayor, [Frank] Rizzo, to come in and say that. I could tell you all kinds of logic against him doing that—like, well, there was no police officer to tell that, and there were a whole lot of missing links. But the missing links were less important than the overall argument.
Barbara Axelrod, attorney, The Beasley Firm: The family did collect a substantial amount of money [$1.3 million] from the Reading Railroad. But I had represented the city on appeal and argued in the superior court that an adjacent landowner does not have any responsibility for a dangerous condition on somebody else’s property. The superior court agreed, but granted a new trial. The [state] Supreme Court agreed and entered judgment in the city’s favor. [Beasley] later hired me. A few years later, he was telling me this outrageous story about how the appellate courts had wronged him in the case of this child, and got about a sentence or two into it and stopped in his tracks.
Bennett: He was always looking to expand victims’ rights and protections. These are not whiplash cases. People were getting hurt by defective products.
Beasley’s uncompromising approach to recreation was almost as legendary as his approach to trial prep. He flew World War II fighter planes and delighted in putting his colleagues in the co-pilot seat.
Lauricella: Everybody in that firm, as a rite of passage, would have to fly with him at least once. There were stories. I think he took [attorney] Bill Murphy with him one time and flew upside down over the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just to make him nuts.
Axelrod: I have a very weak stomach. I have thrown up going to see the Statue of Liberty on a boat in New York harbor. There were times I needed to fly with Mr. Beasley because he needed to take on cases in Scranton or Wilkes-Barre. I told him point-blank, “Look, I have a weak stomach, and I want you to know, if you do anything, your suit is toast.“ He did his best to have a fine, even flight.
Beasley Jr.: I started to get my act together my last year of high school, and really started working and started flying. He started teaching me. I took it so far beyond what he was doing with it. I was leading the only [World War II-era bomber] P-51D formation team in the world. We would do three airplanes in formation at night, loops and rolls, using the Philadelphia skyline as a horizon. I took that passion of ours [that] we had together to the extreme, maybe to the point of the way he took work.
Specter: I never flew with him. He never asked me. Which was fine with me. Nothing good could come out of it.
Beasley’s focus on the law could take its toll on his relationships.
Beasley Jr.: There were some casualties. His marriage was a casualty. My parents were able to get back together at the end. They got remarried. He felt bad about some of the stuff that happened; he realized he had put work in front of my mom. He kind of figured it out at the end.
Slade H. McLaughlin, founding shareholder, McLaughlin & Lauricella: If you sat with Mr. Beasley in a room, there might not be any conversation. He wasn’t a chit-chat guy. In the court, he turned into a totally different person. He was this smiling, mannered, friendly gentleman.
Kline: Jim also was generous to a fault. I can remember we had a case involving a smoke detector in a housing project. It was a residential unit that didn’t have a smoke detector, and Jim succeeded in the case. I showed up for work the next day and the hallways were loaded with smoke detectors. He said, ‘We’re giving them away to people so this doesn’t happen again.’
Like his father, Jim Beasley Jr. spent much of his early life in trouble. But he righted himself, went to work at The Beasley Firm, and developed a bond with his father.
Beasley Jr.: I was messing up in school. Mom and Dad got separated. The divorce took nine years. Frankly, he had every right in the world to be disappointed. You take a look at my transcript—here is a successful guy, and his kid’s being a jackass at junior high school. I wasn’t like a bad, hurtful kid—I didn’t torture animals and push kids down the steps. I was a kid who’d fart in class, whoopee cushions, that kind of stuff. … I started to get my act together early my last year of high school.
McLaughlin: At times they would fight like cats and birds, and at other times, they got along very, very well, and they would work together and try cases together.
Beasley Jr.: As I got older, as I got a little more mature, we started to get closer. And towards the end we were as close as possible, even though he would still bitch about the flying. He thought some of the stuff I was doing was a little bit too crazy.
Beasley Sr. became ill in 2004 and died of lymphoma complications on September 18 of that year. Colleagues were shocked—it happened so quickly. Most thought he’d live forever.
Lauricella: We always used to say, “Jim’s going to die with his boots on“—and [he] did. He literally tried a six-week medical malpractice case in the heat of summer with advanced cancer. I’m 55. I just tried a two-week trial up in Lehigh County with my partner Slade. After four days, we were both wiped. Trial is a very grueling thing. Here’s Jim trying a six-week case, 78 years old, with cancer.
Kline: The last time I saw Jim was in 2004. He was trying a case and I ran into him in the elevator. On our fourth-floor elevator ride—I was going to the sixth floor—he complained about some rulings that the judge had made.
Bennett: Shortly after Jim Beasley died, there was a daylong celebration of his life at his law firm. Most of the top trial lawyers in Philadelphia, many of whom had worked at the firm and been mentored by Jim, attended to honor him and pay their respects.
After Beasley died, his son took over the firm. At first, some doubted he could do it.
Beasley Jr.: A lot of people knew me as a screwup. When I started here as an attorney, my dad didn’t give me a secretary or a paralegal. I was on my own. I joke that I’m the best typist here. It’s true. I’m sure there were some thinking, “There’s that punk,“ and there were others thinking, “Hey, he’s working pretty hard.“
McLaughlin: Jim Jr. had awfully big shoes to try to fill and frankly I don’t know that anyone could fill those shoes and it would be in a tough position for anyone to be in. That’s all I’ll say.
Beasley Jr.: It was particularly frightening for me, because I was only 37 at the time. If you think about the time when he passed away, it was when Bush was running for re-election, tort reform was all over the place. My biggest question was, “What am I going to do?“ I knew there’d be a bit of a honeymoon and I knew everybody’s going to take shots at you. I expected it and it happened. We just tried to get this thing focused, efficient and pointed towards playing the long ball game and not the short term. In the end, the formula seemed to work. Ten years later, we’re here. We’re thriving.
It took time for Beasley and some of his protégés who had left his firm to redevelop their friendships. But later in life, he talked about them warmly in the context of his legacy.
Kline: He and I had what he described to me as a father-and-son relationship, and he was disappointed that I left the firm. Shanin and I went on to build a very large and strong personal-injury firm, and years later, in talking about his career, Jim said that one of the things he was proud of was being part of the training of many of the city’s great lawyers—something like that. I took that to mean that he was happy to take credit for contributing to our success.
McLaughlin: A good number of the well-recognized trial lawyers in the city of Philadelphia today came out of the Beasley shop. Most everybody who is anybody was part of that firm at some point. He trained an awful lot of good lawyers.
Lauricella: Here’s how you can tell a Beasley lawyer and somebody else: Beasley lawyers will always refer to the jurors as “folks.“ We’ll never call them “ladies and gentlemen of the jury.“ We’ll always call them “folks.“