A Poet, A Museum Director and A Lawyer Who Refuses To Lose

Frank Branson does just what he wants, and that includes winning cases

Published in 2009 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2009

Frank Branson reckons that the biggest boost to his legal career was getting fired from Steak & Ale more than 40 years ago.

The dismissal occurred during his second year at law school, and Branson still remembers how much it stung.

“I thought I was one of their better waiters,” says the Dallas lawyer who has a reputation for perfectionism. It turned out that the restaurant manager, who disliked law students, thought otherwise. “He told me I had not properly filled the salt and pepper shakers,” Branson says.

Branson was able to land a better-paying job as an insurance adjuster. The new job was eye-opening. “I saw that people who were hit in car crashes were injured twice,” he says, sitting in his elegantly appointed suite of offices, which occupy three top floors of a Highland Park high-rise. “They were injured once by the tort-feasor that hit them and then again by the insurance company, which would starve them out and pay them as little as they could.”

He saw firsthand the difference in treatment accorded to crash victims who hired a lawyer compared with those who did not. Yet even while people with legal representation fared somewhat better, he says, most plaintiff’s attorneys were outgunned. Typically, they were generalists “who handled a variety of cases—drafting a will one day, maybe doing a divorce the next,” Branson says—and were no match for the legal firepower of insurance companies’ defense specialists and the insurance companies’ financial resources. What galled Branson was not just the injustice but that it “was directed at the people I grew up with,” he says alluding to his middle-class, middle-American roots. “The victim was behind the eight-ball from the minute he was hit by a beer truck,” he says.

In the decades since earning his law degree from Southern Methodist University, Branson, who is shaped like a block of granite with a neatly trimmed full beard and a jovial manner that belies his intensity in the courtroom, has spent a lifetime leveling the playing field. Year in, year out, his career has been marked by not only challenging lawyers with insurance carriers but battling legal counsel for such corporate powerhouses as Ford Motor Co., Mitsubishi, Continental Airlines, Burlington Northern, Merck and many of the major trucking companies.

He has won numerous accolades, including a regular place on best lawyer lists. Forbes once named him among the “50 most successful trial lawyers in the U.S.” and he is a past president and co-founder of the Southern Trial Lawyers Association. And, specializing as he has in catastrophic personal injury cases and large commercial litigation, he’s won a plethora of multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

In 1984, Branson won $10 million for the family of a 19-year-old who was killed when a gondola on an amusement ride broke free at the State Fair of Texas and crashed into the midway. In 1990, he negotiated a settlement with Delta Air Lines in five cases for about $11 million in the aftermath of an Aug. 31, 1988, plane crash that had gained national attention: transcripts of conversations by pilots, who had failed to lower the plane’s wing flaps at takeoff, disclosed that they were chatting about the presidential election and dating habits of flight attendants. This past January, he got Swift Transportation Corp. to pay $15 million to settle a suit in a truck-SUV collision that killed three people and left the sole surviving occupant of the SUV—Joanna Sue Williams, then 28 and the wife of the driver—with multiple broken bones and mild brain damage.

The fruits of those victories are evident in the stunning furnishings at Branson’s eight-lawyer firm. The wood-paneled offices house museum-quality collections of paintings and sculpture, antique Winchester rifles and pearl-handled Colt revolvers. Reflecting his love of history, folklore and tradition, handsome cases display Buffalo Bill’s Bowie knife, Bat Masterson’s gold-knobbed cane, Geronimo’s rifle and myriad other weaponry from the Old West amid a cornucopia of memorabilia and collectibles, including a bear rug, busts of Roman emperors, portraits of Ulysses S. Grant and framed documents of the Civil War. (It could easily qualify as Dallas’ least-known museum.)

But it is the state-of-the-art forensics department that is the heart and soul of Branson’s legal practice. With its own wing of offices staffed by a computer engineer and a medical illustrator, both of whom are experts in computer-generated graphics, the laboratory recalls the set of a crime scene investigation television show. Indeed, many of the video techniques and futuristic technologies—such as the use of fire-retardant combustible gels as a replacement for asbestos wraps in depictions of freak accidents that have resulted in people being enveloped by flames—have been borrowed from the film industry.

“What distinguishes Frank is that he was one of the earliest in the profession who approached lawsuits from an entirely scientific point of view,” says Ronnie Krist, partner at the Krist Law Firm in Houston. “His use of very sophisticated human anatomical models, displays of physical evidence and 3-D demonstrations of defective products and their effects on human beings go far beyond what mere words can describe.”

The Swift truck-SUV collision is a case in point. Relying on documents and depositions from the company and its employees, interviews with witnesses, statements from police, photographs and his firm’s own independent investigation, Branson’s team of technicians created a video narrative of the fatal accident.

The re-enactment commences in El Paso. Two truck drivers—portrayed by professional actors who look startlingly like the actual men involved in the accident—are rebuffed by a supervisor when they try to inform mechanics that the front end of their huge truck has alignment problems and a worn-down tire.

Twice more on their journey, the long-haul truckers are denied maintenance at company repair shops. Finally, after midnight on a rainy autumn night, they are traveling on the final leg of their journey. The driver is seen speeding with his low beams on (shots of the speedometer show the needle gyrating over 65 mph) and he’s fighting off sleep. “Hang on!” he shouts to his partner, lying on a cot behind the cab, as he loses control of the truck.

 An animated graphic picks up the action. A model of the truck careens across the superhighway and plows into a mock-up of the oncoming SUV. The video sequence ends with a blow-up of the actual police photograph showing the crumpled wreckage, accompanied by a voice-over and a superimposed transcript of the police dispatcher’s 911 call.

In a subsequent videotaped deposition, Branson asks the truck driver to give himself a grade, on a scale of A to F, for his job performance that night. The trucker gives himself an A-plus and Branson remarks to an interviewer that the trucker has just hurt his credibility with a jury. “Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus,” Branson says, citing a Latin proverb: “False in one thing, false in everything.”

While Branson is comfortable with Latin expressions, his trademark is the use of picturesque, down-home speech. “He’s got his own special brand of analogies that he uses to emphasize a point,” notes his friend, Jim Coleman, a Dallas lawyer. “He’s very persuasive, and if he’s got a really good point, he pushes it to the wall.”

Consider Branson quizzing an expert witness in a case involving a Mitsubishi Montero Sport that had flipped over at 28 mph: Branson elicits the fact that the expert’s annual income has ballooned to more than $45 million since he began making his living “with his hand on the Bible” testifying in courtrooms, a far cry from his $150,000 salary at Ford when he worked as what Branson termed “a real automotive engineer.”

When the expert witness acknowledges that he has never once testified to an instance of an auto manufacturer’s negligence in testing a vehicle, Branson leaves little to a prospective juror’s imagination. “Do you know the saying, ‘You dance with them that brung you?’” For good measure he adds the withering remark that the expert is “riding a wagon with biscuit wheels headed for the gravy pond.”

He plays hardball, but also “by the rules,” says Jeff Ray, a partner at Ray, Valdez, McChristian & Jeans in El Paso, who has frequently defended product manufacturers against lawsuits brought by Branson in Texas and New Mexico. “At times,” Ray says, “I’ve found he knows things about my client that surprised me. Frank will look under every rock and he’s sure to find every violation [of the law] that your client ever had.”

Among Branson’s heroes are Clarence Darrow, whose Esquire essay on jury selection Branson has nearly memorized (“Darrow wrote that if you don’t pick an Irishman ‘it would be malpractice’” because of the Celt’s innate compassionate nature); legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, whose lessons on “What it takes to be No. 1” he has framed in his office; and President Ulysses S. Grant, whose Civil War memoirs, midwifed by Mark Twain and outlining his successful battle campaigns, he has read closely.

The roots of his own success can be found in his upbringing in the close-knit, working-class community of White Settlement, near Fort Worth. Most of the men toiled at the General Dynamics defense plant, building B-58 bombers and fighter aircraft. “There wasn’t much given to you,” says his boyhood friend George Clark, an assistant high school principal at Trinity High School in Euless. “It’s not like today where kids all have cars and computers and iPods. We just had the sandlot, or we’d sneak onto the golf course.”

Branson’s father was the football coach and later principal (“he was strict,” remembers Clark) at Brewer High School, and his mother taught school, too. Solidly built and athletic, Branson was a standout in the backfield. “He was the all-American boy,” says Linda Ballard Davis, a justice of the peace in Arlington, a Dallas suburb, and a one-time cheerleader at Brewer, “one of the football stars and straight as an arrow.”

An aptitude for history and government along with his mother’s guidance, he says, propelled him toward a career in law. But from an early age he also excelled at public speaking and debate. “I took all the speech classes that were available in high school and college,” he recalls.

Success has brought him friendships with prominent politicians. A staunch Democrat, Branson was very close to the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards and he treasures a picture of himself and his wife boating off Cape Cod with Sen. Ted Kennedy. His law office is an obligatory Texas destination for aspiring presidential candidates. “He and his wife, Debbie, are a formidable power couple,” says Lulu Flores, an Austin attorney and president of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

He owns a vacation home in Key West, is a fixture at charity and philanthropic events and has developed close friendships with the rich and famous. Top professional golfers David Frost and Lanny Wadkins are golfing buddies; he counts business leaders like Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines’ high-powered co-founder and former CEO, among his close friends.

Branson has represented the airline in court on its efforts to remain flying out of Love Field (“He knows his way around the Dallas Courthouse,” Kelleher says) and the pair can be found quail and deer hunting at Kelleher’s West Texas ranch. “He’s a great marksman, a real sharpshooter,” says Kelleher, adding, “At 200 or 300 yards, he only needs one shot.”

Kelleher, known for his own brash, colorful personality, hails Branson for the pleasure of his company. “He’s a great raconteur, a fabulous storyteller,” says Kelleher. “And all the stories he tells—mostly about politics and the law—all have some real meaning, some insight into human nature.”

But ask Branson what brings him the most satisfaction in life and it’s clear he takes professional pride in winning some measure of justice for the common man and woman. “Against odds that sometimes seem insurmountable,” says Branson, “I try to right wrongs, level the playing field and convince jurors to make my clients whole again.”

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