Jerry McHugh would never refer to himself as such. But others do—and not just his clients
Published in 2005 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 31, 2005
Updated on March 17, 2011
Some people think Jerry McHugh was born and raised in Philadelphia. This is not true. He’s from Philly. There’s a difference.
As a state of mind and a place to live and work, Phil-a-del-phi-a is great — but a little fancy for McHugh, who lives in a modest twin house in a west Philly neighborhood bursting with blue-collar workers, welfare recipients and refugees. McHugh is a guy who enjoys a beer and a game. He drives a minivan with 91,000 miles on it and favors peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. He’s Philly all the way — a churchgoing, community-volunteering, family kind of guy, as regular as it gets.
Except for his mind. And his will. And his faith. And his ability to help his fellow man.
McHugh is one of the best plaintiffs’ lawyers in Philly. No, check that, he’s one of the best in Pennsylvania. You wouldn’t know it unless he has to use it on you, but he has a mind that leaves bright people in awe. He’s brains and hard work and ethics all rolled into one unpretentious and powerful package.
“Jerry McHugh would be the ideal person to sit as a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” says attorney S. Gerald Litvin of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, who hired McHugh for his first law firm job some 25 years ago.
“Through the years I’ve seen Jerry become the intellectual and moral leader of whatever group he is involved with, and this would clearly hold true if he were to become a member of Pennsylvania’s highest court,” Litvin says. “The same could be said if he were to ascend to the Supreme Court of the United States. This would be a better world if people like McHugh were making crucial decisions about how our society should properly operate.”
“He is brilliant,” says friend and fellow attorney Tom Foley, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the 2000 Democratic primary. (McHugh was a principal adviser in the campaign.)
The CEO of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Red Cross, Foley says McHugh is a complete lawyer.
“Great courtroom lawyers aren’t often particularly good book lawyers, but he has both of those things nailed,” says Foley, a Yale graduate and former Secretary of Labor and Industry in Pennsylvania. “And in Harrisburg you can go to Democratic or Republican leaders, and McHugh is the one they want to hear from.”
Getting to the A-Ha Moment
But don’t take Foley’s word for it. Consider, for example, the horse manure case.
It started when a physician implanted an experimental intraocular lens without the patient’s consent, and the patient suffered sight-threatening complications. You go after the physician, right? But the plaintiff’s attorneys felt the potential compensation wasn’t commensurate with the damages. The other strategy would be to hold the hospital responsible for committing a battery. Trouble was, that wasn’t possible under state law. Only a person could commit a battery, not an institution.
McHugh and his team — who were brought in to help with the appeal by colleague Ron Wolf, who won the case in trial court but had it overturned by the judge — focused on trying to show that battery can occur by some means other than direct physical contact. This led McHugh’s team to a case going back to the 1800s in which the defendant spread horse manure on a chair, thinking it would be funny when the plaintiff sat in it. The records don’t indicate whether anyone laughed, but the defendant was indeed charged with battery. The important part is he defended himself by arguing that he only spread it on the chair — since there was no touching there could be no battery.
The court’s response (translated here): “Horse****.” It ruled that the defendant was in possession of the offensive substance and arranged for it to come into contact with the plaintiff. The lack of direct contact didn’t matter. Similarly, in the hospital case, the experimental lens was in the possession and control of the hospital, and it arranged for the lens to be placed in the victim’s body (without his knowledge that it was experimental). That case was a precedent-setter — and classic McHugh. The hospital ended up paying $1.75 million to the plaintiff.
“I am happiest when you get that moment of ‘a-ha,’” he says. “It could be in discovery, it could be on cross, could be when you are going over the engineering blueprints for the fourth time … then you get it, and that’s when the time and energy and sacrifice start making a difference.”
Faith Translated Into Action
If somebody would say something bad about McHugh, this would be the place in the story to put it. But when the subject is McHugh, negative words are tough to come by. For a trial lawyer, that’s saying something.
OK, so people like McHugh. But what has he accomplished?
He wrote and published two books before he got out of law school: Christian Faith & Criminal Justice — Toward a Christian Response to Crime and Punishment and Decision-Making and Self-Awareness Skills — A Curriculum for Residents of Correctional Institutions.
He co-wrote, with Litvin, the book on tort law in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Torts: Law and Advocacy.
He’s a partner at Raynes McCarty.
He has tutored convicts in Holmesburg.
He helped turn a trash-strewn eyesore of a lot on Florence Street in west Philadelphia into a fenced-in community flower garden.
He has drafted or co-drafted six important Pennsylvania laws, most of which were intended to help children and low-income people.
He helped with the founding of a halfway house for ex-cons, Hospitality House, which has taken on a second role as a drug treatment center.
He has handled tort litigation of every kind — product liability, construction accidents, workplace injury, aviation accidents, wrongful death, medical malpractice — securing settlements and verdicts in the seven and eight figures more than 30 times.
He was legal strategist in the wrongful-death case filed against John duPont for the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz in 1996, a case handled by the heavy-hitting trio of Litvin, Art Raynes and McHugh, which reportedly settled for some $35 million, a number McHugh declines to confirm.
He represented the victims of a highly publicized police chase on I-95, a case that settled for seven figures.
He is one of only two lawyers to have won both the Bar Association’s Fidelity Award for service to justice and the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association’s Musmanno Award for protection of the innocent and injured. These two awards are considered the most prestigious a Philadelphia lawyer can win.
And he does it all with his publicity machine running at low volume.
“You won’t see me on the radar a lot in terms of results,” McHugh says. “You have to put ‘victory’ in quotes because of the adversity of the families and the tragedies. That doesn’t sit real comfortably with me.”
What does feel comfortable is the idea that he can achieve some measure of justice. “There is a great emotional satisfaction in feeling you are accomplishing something important and helpful … in being an advocate and dealing with meaningful issues,” he explains.
He also finds great emotional satisfaction in his family. He married his high school sweetheart, Maureen Tate, and they have four children. They met in a class for youth leaders run by the Archdiocese. She was president of the umbrella group for all of the service programs in Catholic high schools known as the Community Service Corps. Even then they shared what McHugh calls “a common belief that faith must be translated into action.”
His grounding in Jesuit education — he graduated from St. Joseph’s Preparatory School before moving on to St. Joseph’s University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School — taught him how to lead without pushing, to guide without preaching. He has the ability to be, as he says, a “professional irritant,” without being off-putting. He describes himself as a product of the “Catholic left.”
“He is just a man of tremendous faith,” says Brother Joe Dudek, who is doing missionary work in rural Mississippi but who came to know McHugh when they worked on community projects in Philly. “His faith drives everything. He really tries to live a good Christian life in the way we all hope to … I don’t even want to tell you how much money he gave to Hospitality House.
“He could be doing drug vigils on the corner or going to Harrisburg to meet with the governor or moving furniture at Hospitality House … he is very comfortable wherever he happens to be, and that comes from knowing who he is,” says Dudek. “He never lost whatever he got growing up on the streets of Philly.”
McHugh has never lived more than three blocks from the apartment above his dad’s old real estate office at 48th and Baltimore, where he spent the first seven years of his life. When he stands on his front porch he can still see it. Why has he never strayed?
“Because this is home,” he says. “Remembering where you come from is one thing. Being a part of where you come from is something else. I wanted my kids to grow up in the real world and not be divorced from how the vast majority of people live.”
Even if McHugh were to accept a position as a judge and move to, say, Harrisburg or Washington, D.C., he would still be Philly where it counts: in his head and his heart.
“I guess what I’m trying to say,” McHugh explains, “is you don’t have to remember where you came from if you never left.”