Walter Umphrey, a legendary trial lawyer who won tens of billions of dollars in court judgments and settlements against corporations, died Tuesday after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 85.
A philanthropist and founding partner of Provost Umphrey, Umphrey scored a couple billion-dollar judgments for asbestos victims in the 1980s 1990s and then led the Texas litigation team that secured a $15.3 billion settlement in 1998 against the cigarette makers. In doing so, Umphrey earned hundreds of millions in legal fees.
“Walter used to say that when he graduated from Baylor Law School, he could fit everything he owned in his car,” said Houston lawyer Harry Potter, who was an assistant Texas Attorney General involved in the tobacco litigation. “By the end of his legal career, he donated so much money to Baylor that they named the law school after him.”
“This is the sad passing of another of the great legendary Texas trial lawyers,” Potter said.
Along with his wife, Sheila, Umphrey spent much of his fortune on charitable donations geared toward education and the environment. Multiple buildings and even a park bear the Umphrey name as proof, including the Walter Umphrey State Park, the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center and Sheila and Walter Umphrey Pedestrian Bridge at Baylor University, and the Provost Umphrey Stadium and Sheila Umphrey Recreational Sports Center at Beaumont’s Lamar University, Umphrey’s alma mater.
“Walter Umphrey was more than just a lawyer,” said Joe Fisher, Provost Umphrey’s managing partner. “He was a force in the community who used his considerable legal talents to help those who had been wronged by others. His passing is a profound loss for out community, the legal profession and the State of Texas.”
According to Umphrey’s obituary, published on Beaumont’s KDFM 6 News site, Umphrey worked as an insurance adjuster to earn tuition money for Baylor Law School. It was through that experience that he vowed to never represent insurance companies, a premonition to his destiny of building one of the most successful plaintiff’s law firms in Texas years later.
After graduating from Baylor in 1965, Umphrey began his legal career as a prosecutor in the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office in Beaumont, where he eventually became the chief felony prosecutor. In 1969, he left the DA’s office to join forces with David Provost and begin their law firm, Provost Umphrey, where he spent the rest of his career until his 2016 retirement.
Potter said the Umphrey was the “de facto leader” of the five lawyers — including John O’Quinn, Wayne Reaud, Harold Nix and John Eddie Williams — hired by then-Texas Attorney General Dan Morales to take on the tobacco industry in an effort to recover state funds that were paid to treat people who were sick from smoking.
“These were people with strong personalities and managing them required someone they all respected. When Walter spoke, people listened,” Potter said. “Walter provided the unvarnished truth and his judgment was impeccable.”
Mark Curriden contributed to this report.