Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nationally known attorney gets mixed reaction from his peers



RESERVE – The stories about Danny Becnel Jr. and his high-profile law practice in the River Region are legendary.

Becnel, most known as one of the top class action lawyers in the country, has reportedly settled dozens of top money suits for millions, and even billions of dollars in his career.

But what has made Becnel so different, and ultimately successful, in the courtroom?

Becnel was in New Orleans Federal Court in recent weeks arguing just one of his many class action suits.

This one was the final stage of the Mother’s Day Bus Crash, with Becnel suing the State of Louisiana for allegedly designing and building a guard rail on the interstate, which aided the deaths of 22 people in the crash. The potential settlement in the current liability phase of the case could be as high as $70 million, Becnel said.

As Becnel questioned a witness for the defense, attorneys for the state objected virtually non-stop during the day. Other attorneys on the case were seen to sigh and gasp in frustration as Becnel went through detail after detail with the expert the state had provided.

Defense attorney Ken Fonte used lines to the judge such as:

&#8220Your honor, can I please finish my argument?”

Or directing his comments to Becnel, &#8220If he says that one more time!”

Or perhaps his remark towards Becnel of &#8220He has lost touch with reality” could better sum up the feelings of attorneys who have to go up against the St. John Parish lawyer.

But when the judge called it a day, amazingly Becnel and his team chatted it up with the state team as if they were old friends.

Fonte, an experienced attorney with 26 years in the business, summed up what it was like going against Becnel.

&#8220To me, it’s a great honor to be litigating a case against Danny,” he said. &#8220He’s a tough adversary, and like all attorneys, we enjoy the professional combat during the trial. And when it is finished, there is nothing personal, even though there is criticism on both sides towards the other attorney.”

Becnel has gained a reputation as one of the pre-eminent class action attorneys in the country, having handled virtually every high-profile case heard about on the national news.

He was on the team that settled the first tobacco lawsuit ever, coming in California that was for billions of dollars over a 20 year period. But that was just the start. He was involved in breast implant suits, endless pharmaceutical cases such as Vioxx, Viagra and more, many chemical disaster cases, and of course the most recent cases against Murphy Oil in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and a multitude of suits filed in connection with the levee breaks in New Orleans.

During just one day in New Orleans court, Becnel could be seen with piles of wood from guardrail posts from the accident, huge posters detailing the path of the bus as it had the accident, and much more evidence his team had put together to make its case.

But then he seemed to frustrate the defense team by going over the most minute details of the case, which Fonte later said were not even the key point in the case. Of course that was something Becnel disagreed with.

&#8220He’s very different because he spends so much time on the smallest details,” he said. &#8220Normally a case like this would have been over weeks ago, but he stretches it out so long to attack every piece of evidence. He’s different, that’s for sure, but that’s why he’s so successful, and I would say he is one of the pre-eminent trial lawyers in the United States.”

Becnel says that his style is like a chess match, and he is not shy about his ability.

&#8220I have a natural gift in the courtroom. I’m not a great brief writer, and I’m not great at other things, but my gift is in the courtroom. In anything, some people can be the water boy, and some can be the star running back. In a trial, I’m the star running back,” he said.

Most recently, he had a $330 million settlement in the Murphy Oil case, and he was ready to get on a plane this past week for stops involving five other class action suits.

&#8220Most people never see how hard we work to prepare for these cases, and that’s what helps the success I’ve had,” he said. &#8220In the early years I used to argue in front of a mirror, and now we have mock juries to test our case. We do focus groups to argue the issues, and sometimes we end up changing what we planned to do.

&#8220But in the end, when I get in the courtroom, I’ve been successful because I can get a witness to open up like a can of worms,” he added.

Other attorneys believe Becnel’s success is simply due to his drive to be successful.

&#8220Why is Danny Becnel so successful?” Jimmy Roussel, a veteran New Orleans attorney of 42 years said. &#8220I think it’s because he is so aggressive in what he tries to do, even in obtaining the cases.”

Roussel has argued against Becnel many times, the first of which was many years ago in Edgard when Becnel was actually part of his own defense team in a lawsuit against Untied Gas.

&#8220I remember when we met in the courtroom, you could tell by the things he said to me that he thought very highly of himself,” he said with a laugh. &#8220And everyone knows he has a very high opinion of himself, but I still like him. He’s like a fireman going to the scene of a fire. When something happens, like a class action suit prospect, he is the first one on the scene.”

Becnel says that his drive has come from his desire to help people who face disasters, and he admits he has sacrificed personally for it.

&#8220When the ferry accident happened here 30 years ago, I helped families that have since survived because they won their suits and had money for their families,” he said. &#8220And I know I’ve missed things with my kids over the years because I put my clients first. But I also don’t play golf like other attorneys, and I love to hunt, but just don’t do it since I feel I have to do the work in these suits. That’s where the success has come from.”