In 1990, a Chrysler employee contacted the Waukesha, Wis., law firm of Jastroch & LaBarge. The man’s new Chrysler, fitted with a lift to accommodate his disabled daughter, wasn’t working properly: The transmission leaked and slipped, and after five trips to the dealer it still wasn’t fixed.
The personal injury attorney who took the call knew nothing about lemon laws. Neither did 46-year-old Vince Megna, now 62, who’d joined the firm two years before and had practiced only intermittently since graduating from law school in 1973. But Megna had a strong interest in finding out more about lemon laws, and the P.I. lawyer, who didn’t have such an interest, told him, “See what you can do.”
Soon Megna was reading the lemon law statute, and making copies of car complaints. He spent several days buried in what would become his calling. His feeling that he was finally on the right career track solidified when he contacted Chrysler’s big-firm attorneys.
“Are you aware that your client is an employee of Chrysler?” the lawyer asked. Megna became angry at the implied threat.
“I said, ‘Don’t ever think that because he works for Chrysler that he’s not entitled to relief!’” Megna recalls. “‘And if you ever do this again, you’ll have bigger problems than paying double damages.’”
Chrysler settled six months later.
“That case set the tone for the whole practice,” says Megna.
It’s easy to have preconceived notions about a successful plaintiff ’s attorney, particularly one who has written two books: Bring on Goliath, about taking on the automotive industry, and Lap Dancers Don’t Take Checks, whose cover features the author behind a desk that holds the scales of justice on one side and a naked blonde on her stomach on the other. You expect brash from an attorney who almost never loses. You expect flashy, larger-than-life and bombastic from someone with a Web site full of press clippings. You don’t expect Vince Megna.
“He’s just an unassuming guy,” says Johnny Dark, a veteran character actor (currently portraying “The Oldest CBS Page” on The Late Show with David Letterman) who has known Megna for more than 40 years. “He’s very laid back and levelheaded. [People] get inundated with the Johnnie Cochrans of the world. Vince isn’t like that.”
The only evidence of Megna’s success you’ll find is parked across the street from the modest, split-level building that houses the attorneys at Jastroch & LaBarge: a 2006 yellow Corvette with LEMN LAW plates. When Megna’s 2004 model didn’t perform properly, General Motors, which has lost innumerable cases to Megna, provided a replacement free of charge.
The only child of a furniture finisher and his wife, Megna grew up in Milwaukee, where, in 1962, his high school guidance counselor suggested he was best suited to assemblyline work.
“I had bad grades. College wasn’t even a consideration,” Megna says. “All I ever wanted to be was a guitar player. I practiced all day long.”
After graduating, Megna taught guitar in Milwaukee for two years and then headed to Los Angeles, where he quickly found work playing guitar with Boyce and Hart, the Walker Brothers and singer/songwriter Teddy Randazzo, who headlined at the Thunderbird in Las Vegas. It was there that he met and hung out with drummer Johnny Dark between late-night sets.
“Vince could play rock ’n’ roll, jazz and standards. He was a wonderful guitar player,” Dark says. “Here’s what he wasn’t: a drugged-out hippie, a drinker or a womanizer. He was and is one of the nicest, most sensible guys in my life.”
Frustrated with the instability of a musician’s life, Megna returned to Milwaukee in 1967 and met with a counselor at Milwaukee Institute of Technology, who told him, “We’re letting you in because we have to. You’ll never make it here.”
Knowing he was smarter than his transcripts indicated, Megna thought, “If I can’t make it here I’m done.” He received mostly A’s before transferring to Marquette University where, without an undergraduate degree, he graduated from law school in 1973.
Now married, Megna stayed in Milwaukee and did general litigation work until 1977, when he moved back to Los Angeles and resumed his music career, joining the Bobby Hart band. During the next five years, as a duo with Peter Lewis of Moby Grape, he played at a French restaurant owned by John Wayne’s widow; started a newwave band named Vince and the Attorneys; and rejoined John Walker of the Walker Brothers, with whom he cut an album produced by legendary Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham.
“I thought, ‘This is it!’” Megna says of working with Oldham. “This guy is an icon. I’m finally going to make it.”
The big break never came. In 1982 Connie Megna gave birth to their only child, a son named Christopher, and they returned to Wisconsin once again. Megna worked as an attorney for Ralph Hanzel Music, a well-known guitar store in West Allis. When Hanzel died two years later, a judge appointed Megna to oversee the business. In 1988, while still running the music store, he joined Jastroch & LaBarge part time.
“I loved music, but I didn’t want to sell guitars,” Megna says. Yet he hadn’t found anything that inspired him the way music had. “I never liked law very much until I found the lemon law.”
After the Chrysler case, Megna’s firm took out a newspaper ad trumpeting its lemon practice. Four calls came in. Two were legitimate. Megna took them. Then came the referrals. He found that, unlike most plaintiffs, lemon litigants told everyone about their cases. Megna (who has been thrown out of a fair number of dealerships) was soon meeting clients referred by Milwaukee car retailers and eventually represented the brother of a local Cadillac dealer. Having done personal injury, divorce and other plaintiff ’s work without any consuming passion, Megna now found himself completely engaged.
“It gave me a cause to fight for, aside from ‘My client’s got whiplash.’ That didn’t do it for me,” Megna says.
Dark agrees. “[The lemon law] was a calling. It’s what we all look for in life: something we’d do for nothing and we make a living at it.”
What most appealed to Megna was the David vs. Goliath nature of the cases. This was only compounded by what he learned in dealing with automotive giants and their attorneys.
“Here I was taking on big companies that are flagrantly screwing people,” he says. “Their attitude is ‘If we can get away with anything, we will.’”
Megna has often used the auto company’s attitude against itself. When no one from GM testified in a case against Cadillac, Megna produced a life-sized cardboard cutout of a Cadillac executive to illustrate that the company didn’t care enough to send an employee to the trial.
“That’s how much they care,” Megna told the court. “They sent three attorneys from Minneapolis, but no witnesses. And they ask you to dismiss this case?”
Then he moved to a 1912 Cadillac ad inserted in its 2002 warranty, bragging that the company’s cars are “the standard of the world” and claiming, “If it isn’t perfect, it doesn’t come off our line.”
“The statements of the industry are so powerful. They make so many promises they don’t live up to,” Megna says.
In 1995, Megna was featured on the television show 48 Hours, which gave him national exposure and a reputation to match. He followed the advice of legendary litigator Gerry Spence and put in 10 times as much work as his opponents, often staying at the office until 3 a.m. during trial.
Over the span of 16 years, Megna has filed more than 650 lemon law cases and settled most of them. Of the 24 he brought to trial, he has lost twice. One, he realized at trial, was a bad case, involving clients who were incapable of using a seat belt properly. The other case he won’t soon forget. A Ford semi-truck had steering problems — the shaft was worked on or replaced eight times — but the client had managed to put 500,000 miles on the truck anyway. Members of the jury probably thought, “How bad can it be?” and voted for the defendant.
“I was devastated,” Megna says. “When the verdict came in, I nearly fell through my chair. I thought, ‘This can’t happen.’”
Megna wound up calling C. Paul Carver of Minneapolis’s Bowman and Brooke, a frequent adversary who represents several automakers, to talk through the loss.
“That tells me something about Vince,” Carver says. “You don’t do that often — call your adversaries. He’s a personable individual. Juries like him. That’s a big key for a trial lawyer. Just like a jury has to believe your client, they have to not hate you. And it doesn’t hurt when they like you.”
“I think that’s where his power comes from,” Dark agrees. “The juries see him as themselves.”
The connection between Megna and the jury is so strong, in fact, that on two occasions he made jurors cry over a malfunctioning automobile. This also gets to the heart of the lemon law, according to Carver. “Aside from your house,” Carver says, “your car is the second-most expensive purchase you’ll ever make in your life. And Americans have an identity issue. Our cars aren’t just our transportation, they’re our identity. Lemon cases are emotional experiences.”
Minneapolis lemon lawyer Todd Gadtke believes there’s more to Megna’s success than advocacy skills. “He’s not looking to start a lawsuit and settle it. He’s willing to go all the way,” says Gadtke, who opposed Megna while serving as counsel for GM. “There are a lot of able attorneys who don’t assert themselves all the way to trial. Vince will rise to the challenge as opposed to being laid back. He’ll go for the jugular.” This willingness has paid off well for clients, particularly those with claims against GM.
“With General Motors, I rarely negotiate,” Megna says. “I tell them what we want and we get it. They don’t even come back for counteroffers.”
Others have yet to learn. This March, Megna won $385,000 for the owners of a Dodge Viper, in what is generally considered the nation’s largest lemon law verdict. The $80,000, high-performance Viper, which reaches 190 mph and goes 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds, was repaired several times after the differential failed while the driver was shifting from first to second gear at high speeds. Eventually, the dealership refused to make repairs — contending that the owners abused the car by driving at excessive speeds.
“‘It’s breaking, so you must be abusing it,’” Megna says DaimlerChrysler attorneys argued at trial. “But there was no proof. The plaintiffs drove it the way it was intended to be driven.”
Megna is equally motivated by cases where dealers take advantage of unsophisticated consumers. In one case, dealer mechanics, after numerous attempts to fix a transmission problem that led to other problems, simply advised a 60-year-old woman to use a screwdriver to get her Mazda out of reverse. When she filed a written claim in accordance with the Wisconsin lemon statute, the dealership refused to provide a new car because the woman hadn’t used the proper legal language (i.e., “offering to transfer title”).
“That mentality bothers me,” Megna says. “It’s unconscionable.”
Megna wound up taking the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled 7-0 in his client’s favor, calling Mazda’s argument “absurd.”
Though quiet and unassuming, Megna is a man with plenty to say and an uncanny knack for promotion. Published in 2002, his book Bring on Goliath: Lemon Law Justice in America reviewed the lemon laws in all 50 states and was hailed by The Washington Post’s long-time automobile reporter Warren Brown as the best book he’d ever read on consumer justice. It also received an endorsement from filmmaker Michael Moore. The same year, Megna’s band Vince and the Attorneys released the CD Truth Is Irrelevant.
Published this May, Megna’s Lap Dancers Don’t Take Checks offers a sometimes sarcastic, generally humorous and semi-legal look at everything from getting out of jury duty (“move to Saudi Arabia,” Megna recommends) to the presumption of guilt he sees in America’s criminal courts. Doing bookstore signings and appearing on radio shows from Billings, Mont., to Jacksonville, Fla., at an almost dizzying pace (20 appearances in June alone), Megna views his writing and book publicity as a way to express the creative side he once found solely in music.
“It satisfies the same type of urge I’ve always had,” Megna says. “I’m not restricted. I get to speak and say what I want. There are no rules, unlike court.”
But for Megna, the real excitement still comes from the most unlikely of sources — companies that make bad cars and won’t take them back — which engaged his inner David 16 years ago and seems unlikely to release its grasp anytime soon.
“If the [automobile companies] were nice, I wouldn’t want to put the dagger through them,” he says softly. “But they just keep giving it to you.”