After seven years, a legal fight over the disinterment of famed trial lawyer John O’Quinn’s body has been put to rest in Houston’s First Court of Appeals.
In a 50-page opinion issued Tuesday, a three-judge panel declined to support Darla Lexington’s claims that she is a cemetery organization, the cemetery plot owner or the surviving spouse of O’Quinn, which affirmed a Houston probate court’s dismissal of a lawsuit Lexington brought in 2016 after O’Quinn’s body was moved from his 5,000 acre ranch in Wimberley, Texas to a family plot in Louisiana.
Lawyers involved say the opinion brings the effort to administer O’Quinn’s nine-figure estate very close to the finish line — to date, a nearly dozen-year process.
When a car accident ended O’Quinn’s life in 2009, the 68-year-old had amassed a $400 million fortune through lucrative plaintiff’s work, including the tobacco litigation and breast implant litigation. Although he left behind no heirs, O’Quinn was survived by Lexington, his partner of more than a decade.
But Lexington was not included in O’Quinn’s will, even after he updated it in 2008. This led to a hotly-contested legal dispute in Harris County probate court between Lexington and the John M. O’Quinn Foundation, the beneficiary of the O’Quinn estate, and the estate itself in which Lexington sought half of the fortune. The case settled at the eve of trial in January 2012.
Among the many issues the parties were fighting over was Lexington’s legal claim that she was a common-law spouse, since the two had been living together. Lexington contended she was, and argued that she often publicly called O’Quinn her “husband,” while he publicly called her his “wife.” The estate argued that he was not, and that his will said it all: His last will and testament from July 2008 stated he was “unmarried” and he left his entire fortune to his foundation, which would disperse the money to various charities.
After the parties entered a confidential settlement agreement, the probate court signed a take-nothing judgment that dismissed all of the parties’ claims with prejudice, Tuesday’s opinion says.
The litigation currently at issue commenced after Houston-based funeral services company Service Corporation International, at the request of O’Quinn’s aunt, disinterred O’Quinn’s body from a cemetery at the O’Quinn ranch to a family cemetery Pollock, Louisiana.
Lexington’s March 2016 original petition includes a picture of O’Quinn’s mausoleum that depicts a spot next to O’Quinn where Lexington would be buried.
Damages sought included mental anguish, negligent abuse of a corpse, invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress, rescission, breach of contract and tortious interference.
Defendants whom Lexington later added to the legal fight included the late esteemed South Texas College of Law dean Gerald Treece, the executor of O’Quinn’s estate; the John M. O’Quinn Foundation and its president Robert C. Wilson III; O’Quinn’s law firm, John M. O’Quinn & Associates, which constitutes sizable assets owned by the estate; members of South Texas’s LaMantia family, whom the estate sold all but 40 acres of the Wimberley ranch to (the 40 acres not included were where O’Quinn’s body was); and Needmore River Ranch, LLC, the LaMantia-controlled entity that purchased the ranch. She also sued Gibbs & Bruns, the foundation’s former law firm, for allegedly breaching the confidentiality of the settlement agreement in the prior litigation to aid the removal of the body, as well as Gray Reed & McGraw’s Cary Gray, who took over as executor of the estate in 2017.
The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit either for lack of standing or pleas to the jurisdiction, and by the end of 2017, a probate court dismissed every defendant from the suit. This appeal followed.
The First Court panel, which included Chief Justice Sherry Radack and Justices Richard Hightower and Julie Countiss, examined four issues on appeal sans oral arguments: whether the probate court erred in dismissing claims against the executor and O’Quinn’s law firm based on 91a grounds, whether the court erred in awarding those defendants attorneys’ fees, whether the court erred in granting pleas of jurisdiction to the other defendants, and whether the court erred in dismissing her claims for lack of standing.
All of the defendants seemed to band together on appeal to assert the same arguments: that Lexington lacked standing because she was not the owner of the plot of land that O’Quinn was removed from and she is not his surviving spouse.
The appeals court sided with the defendants, and rejected Lexington’s arguments that the parties breached an earlier agreement because they didn’t obtain her written permission as the cemetery organization, the current plot owner or as O’Quinn’s surviving spouse — as laid out in section 711.004 of the Texas Health & Safety Code. Lexington argued she legally filled the shoes of all three roles.
“Even were we to conclude that section 711.004 confers standing to sue, which we do not, Lexington’s petition and jurisdictional facts show that she is not within the classes that the statute is designed to protect,” said the opinion, written by Justice Radack.
The justices ruled Lexington is not a cemetery organization because, despite her arguments that she paid the upkeep, mowing, maintenance, electricity and taxes on the plot of land O’Quinn’s body laid, those met responsibilities still didn’t satisfy the requirements to be classified as a cemetery organization under the statute.
Although a Lexington-owned limited liability company, DSL, owned the plot of land at the time O’Quinn’s body was moved, DSL was not a party to the lawsuit, “thus Lexington’s allegations affirmatively demonstrate an incurable defect in jurisdiction,” the opinion said.
Finally, the First Court rejected Lexington’s argument that there was never a final determination on the merits in the earlier litigation over whether she was O’Quinn’s common-law spouse because she had agreed to the probate court’s final judgment that dismissed all of her claims with prejudice.
“Even if the probate court’s judgment was overboard, she did not appeal,” the opinion said. “The legal effect is that the matter is resolved. She cannot now be heard to assert that the 2012 judgment was incorrect. And, as the probate court noted at the plea hearing, Lexington cannot repeatedly relitigate her status as surviving spouse in these probate proceedings with every new issue.”
The First COA ruled in Lexington’s favor on one issue: The probate court should not have granted attorney’s fees for O’Quinn’s estate and the O’Quinn law firm related to their Rule 91a dismissal motion because the court dismissed those defendants from the litigation based on subject matter jurisdiction, not 91a, which holds that attorney’s fees should be awarded based on evidence.
By phone Tuesday, Gray didn’t seem too bothered by that. He told The Texas Lawbook that the appeals court opinion is “a major step forward in concluding the administration of John’s estate” so it is a “welcomed” ruling.
“The court handled the issues the way we thought they should be handled. To that extent, we thought they got it right,” Gray said. “John’s will directed all assets under the foundation, and the foundation so far has committed over $140 million to various charities in the Houston area … the way he wanted to see it unfold.”
Bracewell’s Chris Dodson, the lead lawyer for the John M. O’Quinn Foundation, expressed a similar reaction to the ruling in a statement issued Wednesday.
“John M. O’Quinn’s will recited that he was an unmarried man and that he desired to leave the entirety of his estate to the John M. O’Quinn Foundation,” the statement said. “The John M. O’Quinn Foundation is gratified that the Court of Appeals affirmed entirely the dismissal of Ms. Lexington’s latest effort to challenge Mr. O’Quinn’s will. The John M. O’Quinn Foundation has already donated over $140 million to deserving causes and looks forward to continuing Mr. O’Quinn’s charitable legacy in the years to come, as was Mr. O’Quinn’s wish.”
In addition to Dodson, the Bracewell team representing the foundation include Warren Harris and Jaclyn Carr, now with Wilson, Robertson & Cornelius in Tyler. Lawyers for Lexington and the remaining defendants either deferred comment to Gray, didn’t respond or declined to comment.
Gray’s lawyer is Gray Reed partner Jeffrey Watters, while Dale Jefferson and Levon Hovnatanian of Martin, Disiere, Jefferson & Wisdom represent the O’Quinn & Associates law firm.
Lexington’s lawyers are Lee Thweatt and Joe Terry of Terry & Thweatt and Lisa Bowlin Hobbs of Kuhn Hobbs.
Lawyers for Needmore and the LaMantias are Charles Murray and Joseph Vale of Atlas Hall and Dana Kirk of the Kirk Law Firm.
Murray Fogler and Jas Brar of Fogler, Brar, O’Neil & Gray represent SCI Texas Funeral Services.