Five Lawyers Who Had Just The Worst Luck
To quote one of Shakespeare's sager lines, "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." And we can already hear some of you out there pointing out that this was a “fictional character” who wanted lawyers dead so he could "break the law," but you know who you sound like? A lawyer! So, you'll just have to set that clear bias aside as you read the following cases of lawyers who suffer terrible fates. Some of them (not all) even deserved it.
A Florida Lawyer's Pants Caught Fire During An Arson Case
In 2017, Stephen Gutierrez was representing Claudy Charles, a Miami man whose car had caught fire. Charles set the fire himself, said prosecutors, in hopes of scoring a $100,000 insurance payout out of GEICO, while Gutierrez claimed the car had simply caught fire on its own, through some unseen collision. Gutierrez was saying that as his closing argument, when smoke started erupting from his pants. He ran out of court, to the bathroom, to put the flames out.
The battery in his e-cigarette had burst, he said, on returning to the courtroom. The judge interrogated him, and when asked why he had a battery in his pocket, Gutierrez replied, "Because I'm an idiot." But instead of thinking "huh, goddamn millennial" about the 28-year-old lawyer, or thinking "well, if pants can spontaneously combust, maybe cars can spontaneously combust too," the judge asked him something to the effect of, "Really? A fire? At this time of the trial? With this type of trial? Localized entirely within your trousers?"
The jury first feared even going to their room to discuss the case, since this was a building where fires kept breaking out, but they went through with it, and returned a guilty verdict. It helped that the trial offered video evidence of Charles trying to set fire to the car 80 minutes before it did catch fire, and then leaving to buy gasoline. The judge said he'd consider holding Gutierrez in contempt, for giving the court all that razzle dazzle. In the end, the state declined to press charges because even if the lawyer was a liar liar pants on fire, he had pulled the stunt with "a legitimate purpose, in theory," in trying to defend his client.
But that wasn't the end. Because suddenly a bunch of scrutiny fell on Gutierrez, even as he followed the trial with a civil complaint against GEICO. Gutierrez was suing on behalf of a client who had already been found guilty criminally of insurance fraud. And so for this follow-up move, the state suspended his law license, then revoked it permanently. A couple years later, this past February, he was charged with cocaine possession. Though, him being a Florida lawyer, you might say that last part was inevitable.
A Canadian Lawyer Believed Too Strongly In The Strength Of His Firm
Garry Hoy worked in the 700-foot-tall TD Centre in downtown Toronto. It's one of the tallest buildings in the city and the largest office complex in the country, and he was proud to work out of the 24th floor at the firm Holden Day Wilson. The view through the windows was great, and he also happened to note that the windows themselves were strong, physically. Garry had an engineering degree as well as his degree in law, and he thought so highly of these windows that he'd sometimes fling himself at one, so he could bounce off and demonstrate their strength.
On July 9, 1993, a group of law students came to visit the office. Garry cheerfully took them under his wing, and while they surely had all kinds of intelligent questions to ask about the legal profession, Garry wanted to show off his particular favorite trick. He ran full-speed at the office window. And the glass ... held strong. Garry bounced right off it, just as happened so many times when he'd tried it before.
The students exhaled the breaths they'd been holding. Several probably decided to change their profession anyway, while a few may have been so impressed that they figured Holden Day Wilson really was the firm for them.
Again, the window didn't shatter. But it did pop out of its frame—office windows may be unbreakable, but they aren't built to take that kind of a pounding. Garry Hoy fell to the street below, and he died, of course. Holden Day Wilson shut down a few years later, the largest closure of a law firm in the nation's history. It's safe to say none of the law students were interested in joining, and neither were all that many others.
A Shady Lawyer Thought Pirates Were The Perfect Target
Thanks to streaming, and to new pirating methods we shan't name and indeed know nothing about, you don't hear too much about the evils of peer-to-peer sharing these days. But in the first decade of this century, entertainment companies were insisting that torrents would destroy the whole industry. And so they'd chase down few random pirates, to put the fear of the law into the rest of us. Often, they'd sue for something like 14 quadrillion dollars, enough to scare the pirate into settling for a few thousand.
Perhaps that sounds to you less like upholding the law and more like extortion. Well, Florida lawyer John Steele (this article's second Florida Man) and his firm Prenda Law kicked it up a notch by committing what the courts would later call actual extortion. First, instead of representing a copyright holder, he created his own copyrighted works, and falsely said they were owned by a client. Specifically, he created porn. News sources refer to one video of his as "A Peek Behind the Scenes at the Show " (IMDB lists the same title), but the file Steele uploaded to torrent networks had a less discreet name: "Alexis Texas sucks and f**ks at a porn show."
By sending out letters accusing people of downloading the file, Steele wasn't just threatening to rob them. He was threatening to expose their filthy porn preferences in public filings. Roald Dahl had a short story called "The Bookseller" about something similar, where a blackmailer accuses people of having bought a bunch of sex and BDSM books, and like the victims in that story, many of those who received Prenda letters hadn't actually done anything. Steele just wrote to people who might have downloaded the file, figuring that only those who really did would bother paying up.
But one defendant proved braver than Steele predicted and accepted the challenge to go to court. His lawyer dug in a little and realized Steele was pretending one of his own firm's employees was his client. The judge sanctioned Prenda, and then it became a federal case, with Prenda now the defendants. When it was all done and we knew the truth, not only was Steele disbarred, but he pleaded guilty and accepted five years in prison. And he only kept it to five years by turning on his partner, who got 14 years and had to pay $1.5 million in restitution.
A Foolish Lawyer Reenacted A Crime Too Well
In 1856, Clement Vallandigham ran for Congress. He lost, but he insisted that the reason he'd lost was that his opponent's many Black supports had cast a bunch of illegal votes. In fact, only white men were allowed to vote in Ohio elections back then, but the question of whether someone who was, say, one-quarter African could vote was a matter of dispute following a bunch of different rulings. The Democrats seized on this dispute, made a case of it, and after five months got their man Vallandigham seated in Congress after all.
He was still in Congress as the Civil War started, and though Ohio was a part of the Union, he himself strongly supported slavery. He opposed every military bill, perhaps in an attempt to help the Confederacy. Then once he lost the election of 1862, he continued to support the Confederacy, so he was arrested for treason and exiled. In Canada, he joined a conspiracy of Confederates looking to overthrow Union states from within. Then he returned to Ohio, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, kept trying to restrict the vote to whites post-war, then shifted to a new policy that tried to make everyone forget the Civil War had ever happened.
So, now that you know a bit about Clement Vallandigham, let's tell you how he died.
He'd practiced law before entering politics, and he now became a lawyer again. In 1871, he was defending a man accused of shooting a victim in a barroom brawl. Vallandigham's defense was that the dead man had actually shot himself. Today, ballistics could prove who shot the man with a trivial amount of ease, but Vallandigham figured that so long as he could prove a man might shoot himself in that situation, he'd sow enough doubt for a not guilty verdict.
So he demonstrated in court, with an actual gun. An unloaded gun, so he thought—but he accidentally picked the wrong gun and so pointed a loaded one at himself instead. As the jury looked on, Vallandigham drew his pistol, which did indeed discharge and fire a bullet into his abdomen. In 12 hours, he was dead.
And yet we have here another case of a jury resistant to theatrics. Even with that persuasive display, they were unable to come to a verdict. The judge ordered a new trial, which also fell apart, and then yet another trial finally found the man not guilty—without any lawyer having to kill himself to prove a point. The cleared man, Thomas McGehean, now moved to the town of the brawl and opened his own saloon. Five years after the original brawl, someone there shot him, and he died. The murderer was never found.
A Greedy Lawyer Lost A Bet Against An Aging Widow
Andre-Francois Raffray had a proposition for his elderly client. He would pay her $4,000 a month (in today's dollars—this agreement actually happened in 1969), and in return, she would will her apartment to him. She had no heirs, so she had nothing to lose.
This deal was pretty similar to what we call a reverse mortgage. In France, this is called the en viager system. But let's say you got a lawyer to look it over ... meaning, a lawyer who actually has their client's interest at heart, not a lawyer who's part of the deal. They'd say the woman was getting screwed over. You can get a reverse mortgage when you're 62 years old, and it might pay you the entire value of your home. This client, however, was 94. Raffray expected she'd die any year now, maybe any day now, and he'd get her apartment after paying practically nothing.
But there was one thing Raffray couldn't have predicted. His client, the Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, would go down as the oldest person in recorded history.
She turned 100, and Raffray was still paying her. She turned 110, and Raffray was still paying her. In 1995, Raffray, who was 51 when he'd signed that contract with Calment, died at the age of 77 on Christmas Day. By this time, he had given his client more than $1 million (again, we're giving these values in 2021 dollars), more than twice what the apartment was worth, and based on the agreement, his widow had to keep paying her, even after his death. Jeanne Calment would live a couple years longer. And on the day her lawyer died, she dined on foie gras and chocolate cake.
What was the secret to Calment's longevity? A woman who still rode her bike at 100, who some doctors swore looked 20 years younger than her age? We don't know for sure. But there's a theory that maybe she wasn't that old at all, and in fact she wasn't even Jeanne Calment.
Despite how closely her life and death were publicized, it's now speculated that this client of Raffray's was actually Yvonne Calment, Jeanne's daughter. The real Jeanne may have died all the way back in 1934, and Yvonne took her identity to skip the estate tax. If Raffray knew his client was actually just a spry 72-year-old pretending to be 94 in 1969, he would have thought twice before signing that paper.