When a Case Cries Out for Justice
Kevin Glasheen takes on Cargill, railroads and the Lone Star State
Published in 2010 Texas Super Lawyers magazine on September 13, 2010
Kevin Glasheen has taken on railroads, multinational corporations, colleges, even the state of Texas. He’s one of the most widely known personal injury attorneys in West Texas, respected (if not always loved) by roughnecks and state senators alike. All of which makes for a pretty impressive résumé, considering he flunked out of college.
Glasheen began undergrad work at the University of Texas with a fierce independent streak and no real goals. In his first semester, he took five classes and failed four, managing only to eke out a D in The History of Rock and Roll. He was asked to leave. He did and enrolled at Texas A&M, where he earned a degree in economics. Not sure what to do next, he was vaguely interested in starting a lawn-mowing business. He only applied for law school at Texas Tech because his mother told him to.
Glasheen’s first day was a revelation. For the first time, he discovered something he intuitively understood and believed in. “I saw the law as an effort to structure a world along natural lines,” he says. “I’d get to completing a case and it would be what I expected it to be. The law tries to reach conclusions that make sense, the natural consequences of the facts. It’s designed to create purpose and intent in the world.”
He found a mentor in civil rights lawyer Tom Griffith and by his senior year was trying cases under Griffith’s eye. He graduated in 1988 with that independent streak intact, leading him to turn down offers from large firms and instead open his own practice focusing on personal injury law. He also worked overflow cases for Griffith.
One morning Griffith asked Glasheen’s opinion of a case he was considering. Glasheen looked it over and told Griffith it had no chance. And even if it did, so what. No money in it. Griffith replied: “Well, this case cries out for justice, so I’m going to take it.”
That response became the philosophy behind Glasheen’s career. “I’ve been successful in large part because I took cases people told me I couldn’t win or was wasting my time and money with,” he says.
One of his first challengers was Cargill, the multinational conglomerate that owns meat-packing plants across West Texas. Glasheen took on clients who had been severely injured on the job, then fired or forced to quit because of their injuries.
“It’s great that a guy like me can rent an office for a hundred bucks a month and do his own typing and take on the largest privately held corporation in the country and kick their butts,” he says. “Which I did. I lost the first five cases I tried against them, but then I started beating them. And then I started beating them pretty bad.” Within the course of a few months in 1999, he won $2.17 million in one case, and nearly $1 million in another.
Glasheen estimates that over the course of a decade, his firm took on more than 300 cases against Cargill and other companies, winning a fair number of them. And it was one of those cases that led Glasheen both to a new challenger—the railroads—and the biggest victory of his career.
One morning in August 1993 Glasheen heard on the radio that Gregorio Gutierrez, along with his wife and son, had been in their car at a crossing in Friona when they were struck and killed by a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train. Glasheen had won a workplace settlement for Gutierrez, an injured meatpacking worker, so recently that he hadn’t had time to pay out the money. Glasheen, who had become close with the Gutierrez family, headed straight for their home. Gutierrez’s brother-in-law told Glasheen to start preserving evidence. Glasheen had a new case.
After four years of effort, Glasheen convinced a jury to award the family $60.5 million—still the largest verdict for railroad accidents in Texas. The jury found that the train had not sounded its whistle, and that the early-morning sun blocked Gutierrez from seeing the train approach.
Glasheen decided to keep going in his exploration of the safety of railroad crossings. He and his firm took on more cases, winning a pair of multimillion-dollar verdicts, including $8 million for a couple who lost their toddler and unborn son to an accident. He became known as one of the state’s most prolific railroad accident attorneys.
And just then, when his career was heating up in this one area, another challenge materialized.
Glasheen had been involved for some years with the Innocence Project of Texas through his close association with the organization’s lead attorney, Jeff Blackburn. The Innocence Project uses DNA and other evidence to advocate for the release of wrongfully convicted criminals, and Glasheen believes in it strongly enough that he shares his office space and materials with the organization. Glasheen had successfully concluded some major accident cases and wanted to work with Blackburn on a systemic change involving how much the state paid the wrongfully convicted for each year behind bars ($50,000, which Glasheen and Blackburn saw as criminally low). There was another issue, too: The state paid the money in one lump sum to men who hadn’t managed a dollar in decades. Some would spend or lose the amount immediately, with at least one ending up homeless.
Glasheen launched civil rights trials for a dozen wrongfully convicted men, knowing each trial could take several years to complete without any strong promise of restitution. In early 2009, he found another tack: He put the civil cases on hold, registered as a lobbyist, and went to Austin to change the law.
“Everybody told me we couldn’t do it,” Glasheen says. “but I knew we could make something happen. I was thinking of Tom Griffith. The cases cried out for justice. And what could be more compelling?”
He was energized in part because it allowed him to once again take on the state of Texas. He had done it once before, winning what he calls “the most thrilling” case of his career: a $36 million verdict for two whistleblowers who exposed corruption at Texas State Technical College. “The ultimate in people power is when a citizen can take the government to court and whup ‘em,” he says.
Glasheen wrote the bill himself and spent countless hours in Austin. He studied legislative procedures and rules, talked up his bill to every politician who would listen, and worked alongside lobbyists, absorbing everything he could. He calls it “the biggest challenge I ever had.”
He won. The Legislature agreed to raise the restitution to $80,000 for each year behind bars, plus annual payments of around $100,000 a year, making Texas the runaway leader in guaranteed compensation for wrongfully convicted criminals. For those who spent decades behind bars, that meant payouts of anywhere from $2 million to $4 million. Glasheen is now working on a bill for this year’s session that will make the money tax-free.
With high-profile work comes high-profile flack. Because Glasheen received a percentage of the state’s payment to the wrongfully convicted men he represented, two of them sued him late last year, claiming he wanted too much of the compensation money.
The cases are still pending and Glasheen says he’s confident they’ll be dismissed. He feels comfortable that the percentage is deserved, given that he spent a year’s work and only charged a 25 percent fee.
In his two decades of practice, which began with a $1 million verdict in his first jury trial, Glasheen has been plenty successful. But he’s the first to point out that he’s lost cases. Glasheen remembers getting some high praise from his law-school classmates, who told him that after five years in the practice, he had won more cases than anyone else from the graduating class. “Yeah,” Glasheen remembers responding, “But I’ve lost a lot more than anyone else, too.”
The 48-year-old Glasheen has done well financially through the years but cautions young lawyers against pursuing paydays. “If you go trying to chase the dollar, you’ll never catch it. You need to just find some kind of work you really care a lot about, that’s important to you. If you’re good at it, then success will follow you.”
“I’ve always felt like the work I do makes the world a better place,” he says. “It helps people who have been injured, but it prevents injury. When we win a case, some changes get made, and things get better.”