Stan Chesley: Beverly Hills Supper Club fire would transform son of immigrants into legal titan
Lucy May, WCPO Digital
5:00 AM, May 28, 2013
5:44 PM, Aug 29, 2013
Editor’s Note: Cincinnati native Stan Chesley, considered the father of the modern-day class action lawsuit, won billions of dollars on behalf of thousands of clients. At his peak he was among the most successful plaintiff’s lawyers in the nation, if not the world. A single case brought it tumbling down. This is the first in a four-part series that examines the man who is loathed by his detractors just as fiercely as he’s defended by his friends.
There is occasional profanity.
CINCINNATI -- Stan Chesley reaches inside his desk drawer, pulls out an old manila envelope and pinches off a pea-sized piece of the foam inside.
Then he lights it on fire. And he watches as a tendril of acrid, cyanide-laced smoke dissipates into the air.
That chunk of chair padding salvaged from the deadly Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, which left 165 people dead 36 years ago Tuesday, remains a physical reminder of the case that would lead to a lifetime of legal victories and seal Chesley’s future as the king of the class-action lawsuit.
And it would be a class-action lawsuit against a diet-drug manufacturer that would bring his illustrious 53-year career to a devastating end: permanent disbarment amid findings of professional unethical conduct.
“The idea that Stan Chesley has had such a distinguished legal career, that it should end this way, I just find appalling,” said Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and Chesley friend who is best known for his work as special master of the federal government’s September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
“It’s a personal tragedy.”
One Client At A Time
Raised by Jewish Ukrainian immigrants in Avondale, Chesley was the son of an owner of a typewriter repair shop in Clifton. He attended Walnut Hills High School, where he was once told he wasn't "college material.''
He didn’t listen.
Instead he paid his way through the University of Cincinnati by selling "budget" shoes at the former Shilito's department store.
The young sales clerk found the name insulting to his customers and suggested the department store change the name of his department to “fashion shoes.”
The suggestion earned him a $25 bonus.
After graduating from the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 1960, he began practice as a personal injury lawyer, making a living for years one client at a time.
“There’s a real misperception of what it was like then,” said Chesley’s son, Rick Chesley, a partner and co-chair of DLA Piper’s restructuring law practice based in Chicago. “We grew up in Bond Hill. He was just a lawyer trying to make a living.”
Chesley worked long hours while his first wife, Suellen, took care of their kids. He went to their son’s Little League games or watched their daughter, Lauren, ice skate when he could.
Chesley and his daughter, Lauren Chesley Cohen
The scrappy Chesley wasn’t one to give lots of advice, but Lauren Chesley Cohen remembers her dad encouraging her to work hard to make things happen, often repeating:
“You never get more than you deserve – unless you ask for it.”
Her brother added: “We had a middle-class upbringing. It was no different than anybody else growing up.”
But all that changed with the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate.
The 1977 fire killed 165 people, leaving children orphaned and the Greater Cincinnati community haunted by images of billowing smoke and rows of sheet-covered bodies at a makeshift morgue.
Next page: All but one settlement
%page_break% Moral Outrage Drove Case
Rick Chesley was a high school senior at the time. He remembers how some of his dad’s former clients reeling from the fire’s aftermath were told there was no money to compensate them for their losses – that there was nothing anyone could do.
The Beverly Hill Supper Club after the fatal fire
So they turned to Chesley.
“Part of what drove him was really the moral outrage of that,” Rick Chesley said. “That no one’s held accountable for that. That really struck a nerve for him.”
Chesley took on the case, representing the victims of what remains one of the deadliest nightclub fires in U.S. history. And to the amazement of many, he won an unprecedented court order to stop demolition of the club’s charred ruins so investigators hired by the victims’ legal team could search for evidence.
And then he did what no other lawyer had ever done: He came up with the idea to sue entire industries, now known as enterprise liability.
It was an innovation that would revolutionize the practice of mass tort, or mass injury, law.
Among the companies he sued were manufacturers of wiring that he argued was faulty and makers of seat cushions and draperies that he blamed for toxic fumes when they burned.
The strategy worked, sealing Chesley’s place as a legal trailblazer.
One after the other, lawyers for the defendants settled with Chesley and the team of plaintiffs’ lawyers, who ultimately won more than $49 million for victims of the fire.
The case was so important to Chesley’s career that for years he kept that chunk of padding from a supper club chair cushion in his desk drawer.
But for all the reminders of Chesley’s success in that first big case, his record with Beverly Hills wasn’t perfect.
'Don't try that tactic with me'
Robert Gettys, a Covington lawyer who represented a heating, ventilation and air conditioning company in the case, didn’t believe his client was at fault in the fire.
He was among a small army of defense lawyers when the case started and watched, stunned, as Chesley picked off the others, convincing them to settle.
“He’s a very strong-willed man,” Gettys said.
Gettys remembers a particular hallway conversation with Chesley and another defense lawyer at the time. Chesley was pointing forcefully at the other, much taller man’s chest telling him that if his client didn’t settle, the plaintiffs’ lawyers would bankrupt the company.
“The guy just withered and settled while I’m standing there watching,” said Gettys, who was just 32 or 33 at the time. “The guy walked away, and Stan said to me: ‘I know I’m full of shit, and I know you know I’m full of shit, but they don’t.’”
Gettys recalled telling Chesley: “’Stan, don’t try that tactic with me because it won’t work.’ And he said, ‘I figured that out early on. You and I will be here until the end.’”
David to Chesley’s Goliath
The trial was so big that rows of tables for hundreds of defense lawyers were placed in the courtroom. A solo practitioner for a small client, Gettys sat at a table in the back during the pre-trial proceedings.
But by the opening day of the trial, the tables were empty.
All the other lawyers had settled.
All but Gettys. He kept his spot.
Not long into the proceedings, though, Chesley leapt up and asked to approach the bench.
“He said: ‘Your Honor, call a recess. I want all those tables removed.’ The judge asked why, and he said, ‘Gettys is trying to pull a David back there,’” Gettys recalled, referring to the Biblical David and Goliath story.
“He’s cognizant of all that,” Gettys said. “Indeed I was.”
Ultimately, the jury agreed with Gettys that his client wasn’t liable, despite Chesley’s impassioned pleas and a scrapbook of gruesome photos of victims, skin charred and bodily fluids bubbling from their noses.
Gettys went down in history as the only lawyer involved in the case to beat Chesley.
Years later Gettys was hired by lawyers in Beverly Hills, Calif., who were facing Chesley in the deadly 1980 fire at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.
“They asked my opinions about how to defend the case with Stan." Gettys said. “They were somewhat dismayed because my instructions were:
“‘Don’t listen to his bullshit.’”
Coming Tomorrow: Brave advocate or brazen bully?Stan Chesley figured out early on how to win by settling. He reaped billions of dollars for thousands of clients, leaving many detractors in his wake.