For a year that was supposed to be better than 2020, not every trial lawyer was lucky enough to physically return to the courtroom, but some were.
Some clients finally had their day in court after long delays — whether through a trial, summary judgment, walkaway or settlement. Other lawyers had to carry the stress of remotely litigating an already-six-year-old case for yet another year — all while continuing to work, attend PTA meetings, attend board meetings, attempt client development and maintain some semblance of a social life under one roof. No wonder so many are on Lexapro.
In other news, the Texas legal market remained the most watched — and pined after — in the country.
That’s, in part, because of outcomes that Texas lawyers obtained for their clients. Then again, in one virtual hearing a lawyer in West Texas pleaded he was not a cat. Here is a selection of some of 2021’s top commercial cases.
Tennessee-based physician-staffing firm TeamHealth made headlines in 2020 when it took its first of many disputes to trial involving insurers’ reimbursement for emergency-room physicians and won a $9 million verdict against Centene Corp. In 2021, Blackstone Group-owned TeamHealth did it twice more: first in Houston, where TeamHealth won $19 million against Molina in June, then in Las Vegas, where TeamHealth won $60 million against UnitedHealthcare in November. A group of Houston lawyers from AZA led by John Zavitsanos are serving as TeamHealth’s national trial counsel for the litigation.
The Vegas trial, in particular, is notable because it involved the first dispute over employer-sponsored health plans for jurors to decide — health plans that comprise the largest groups of insureds in the U.S. UnitedHealthcare is the largest insurer in the country.
Although the outcome was determined by a Nevada jury in a Vegas courtroom, the case may have larger implications for Texas and nationwide as TeamHealth and UnitedHealthcare continue litigating in courts in the Lone Star State and beyond regarding ER doctor reimbursement from the nation’s largest employer-sponsored healthcare insurer.
Throughout the litigation, UnitedHealthcare has argued that TeamHealth is trying to make an already expensive healthcare system even worse for its customers. Whichever the view, it’s clear the litigation has broad implications for the healthcare industry at a time ER doctors are needed more than ever.
In the world of intellectual property, all eyes were on Waco this year as U.S. District Judge Alan Albright took more patent cases to trial — especially two trials between private equity-backed VLSI and Intel involving semiconductor technology.
That’s because the two trials were high-stakes disputes — billions were at stake — as well as sources for multiple data points that the droves of IP lawyers who have pending cases before Albright sought, including how the judge runs his court and what the Waco jury pool is like. Thanks to the pandemic, Judge Albright, who took the bench in 2018, only presided over one jury trial before VLSI and Intel’s first trial in February.
The first trial resulted in a nearly $2.2 billion verdict in early March in VLSI’s favor, immediately making it one of the largest patent verdicts in U.S. history and resulting in troll haters calling the Western District of Texas a “judicial hellhole.” The second trial resulted in a defense verdict for Intel in late April, leading legal experts to believe that the Western District can be both plaintiff-friendly and defense-friendly. A trial date for the third and final chapter between the parties remains pending.
VLSI’s lead lawyer is Morgan Chu of Irell & Manella, while Intel’s lead lawyer is William Lee of WilmerHale.
Only 1% of False Claims Act cases make it to trial, and in September, lawyers from Dallas law firm Reese Marketos took one before a federal jury in Alabama that involved false claims and false statements made by military-defense contractors with MD Helicopters.
The trial resulted in a $36 million verdict in favor of Reese Marketos’ clients, two former MD employees-turned-whistleblowers, which is expected to grow to at least $108 million if the court enters a final judgment in their favor.
It was Russ’s first trial since he resigned in October 2019 from his position as the head of the Eastern District of Texas’ civil division and filed a whistleblower complaint alleging political interference in a civil case he was prosecuting against Walmart involving the retailer’s role in the opioid crisis. It was also Wirmani’s first trial since leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Texas, where he recently served as the lead criminal prosecutor in the Forest Park Medical Center healthcare fraud trial that resulted in the conviction of multiple doctors.
In November, an Ohio woman who alleged she was sexually assaulted at the Hilton Americas-Houston won a $44 million verdict in Harris County against Hilton and her alleged attacker. The verdict also validated that she was sexually assaulted. The jury found Hilton 90% liable for the sexual assault, and the hotel settled with the woman after the trial for an undisclosed amount.
Although many sexual-assault cases do not have much evidence beyond “he said she said,” lawyers for the plaintiff said this case had a flurry of evidence that proved their client’s case, including surveillance video that showed Hilton staff wheeling the woman into the man’s hotel room (despite having a room in her own name) and a rape kit examination that confirmed 10 separate genital injuries.
The verdict is believed to be the largest of its kind against a major hotel chain and is the product of a winning case brought by the plaintiff’s lawyers, Ed Blizzard and Anna Greenberg of Blizzard Law and Michelle Simpson Tuegel of The Simpson Tuegel Law Firm.
In September a Puerto Rican court cleared Dutch-founded Vitol of nearly $4 billion in liability against the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority over six fuel-oil supply contracts. The ruling was a slam-dunk win for Neal Manne and a team of lawyers from Susman Godfrey.
The ruling, by U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain of San Juan, also ended a 12-year dispute between the parties. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority sought to void six fuel oil-supply contracts that the state electric-power company held with Vitol between 2005 and 2009 and be reimbursed for the $3.89 billion it paid for oil Vitol supplied.
The complex case history spanned not just the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, but also the city’s commonwealth courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. In the end Vitol was awarded $28.4 million for its counterclaim, which represented the unpaid portion of the fuel contracts.
In May a Midland jury awarded $5.9 million to a woman who lost three children in a car crash caused by an oilfield employee while he sped to work during a rainstorm. The verdict is believed to be the largest personal-injury award in Midland County.
The verdict also represented a win for the plaintiff, Neva Rogers, that even her lawyers’ own consultants advised against taking to trial because they predicted she had only a 5% chance of prevailing. Midland County is generally regarded by trial lawyers as one of the state’s most conservative, pro-business jurisdictions.
Cooper & Scully’s Brent Cooper, who represented the oilfield company, DanCar Energy, contended at the time of the verdict that the jury’s award was not supported by the facts and Texas law and that the money would not be paid. Rogers’ lead lawyer, Lyons & Simmons’s Michael Lyons, said the case was about so much more than money. A grieving mother got her day in court, for one thing.
The Lyons & Simmons team also argued that DanCar — along with the individual defendant driver, Luis Rangel Jr. — were responsible for the deaths because a company policy required workers to show up and sign in on bad-weather days in order to be paid — even if their supervisors immediately sent them home because of the weather.
“This case was about a company policy that should never have been in place and needed to end before another parent had to experience the type of unthinkable tragedy Neva has endured,” Lyons told The Texas Lawbook.
Although the $20 billion merger between Dallas-based midstream company Energy Transfer Partners and affiliate Regency Energy Partners occurred in 2015, the legal fallout lingered until 2021, when a Delaware chancery court validated the megadeal and cleared Energy Transfer of $1.6 billion in liability that Regency-investor plaintiffs had sought.
The February ruling by the Delaware chancellor found that Energy Transfer’s lawyers at Vinson & Elkins proved the merger was fair and reasonable and provided “a good blueprint or how to go about a fairness case,” the court laid out a guide for how courts will look at agreements involving master limited partnerships, Energy Transfer’s lead lawyer, Michael Holmes, said at the time the opinion was released.
The case also represented a gamble that is typically against the odds for defendants of litigation challenging transactions. The judge made his decision based on the entire fairness standard, which is the highest level of scrutiny that Delaware courts can use when giving a corporate transaction judicial review — a hurdle that causes most defendants to settle long before trial.
The ruling followed a December 2019 trial in Delaware and a convoluted procedural history that spanned six years, including a dismissal of the lawsuit, an appellate reversal of the dismissal and a summary judgment that put Energy Transfer at a disadvantage.
In March Plano-based property-management software company ResMan proved to an East Texas jury that two Houston-based defendants, ResMan customer Karya Property Management and software developer Expedien, misappropriated ResMan’s trade secrets to develop a rival product.
The spring trial resulted in a $152 million verdict, later reduced to a $62 million final judgment — at the end of the day, still a significant win for Houston lawyer Maria Wyckoff Boyce and a team of colleagues at Hogan Lovells.
But the real story lay in the trial itself, which was a tale of resilience by the parties and their lawyers. The case first went to trial in November 2020, but it was halted mid-trial after a Covid-19 outbreak in the courtroom infected more than a dozen trial participants. U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant was forced to declare a mistrial. The law firms, including Hogan Lovells, Bradley Arant, Beck Redden and Hilliard Martinez, mustered the energy, adrenaline and bravery to start over and re-try the case in March 2021, when Covid vaccines were only just becoming publicly available.
The case also reflected a trend currently underway in trade-secrets litigation. Spoiler alert: it’s picked up a lot. The nine-figure verdict attracted national attention and reminded companies that, despite the pandemic-induced slowdown in trials, trade-secrets trials were still moving, sometimes rendering large verdicts.