Casey at Mission Bay campaigning for mayor, 1963
Avid Casey wakes up suddenly He points his finger at his son.“I’m going to sue you. I’m being held here against my will. Call 911. I want my son!”
David Casey, Jr., brings out his driver’s license. He shows him the picture ID. “It’s me, Dad...”
David, Jr., had thought he was losing him this time. His dad, David Casey, Sr. The guy who’d inspired him to become a lawyer; this hero of the underrepresented — victims of accidents and corporate carelessness. The guy who’d started it all and went on to become president of the California Bar was lying in a San Diego hospital in a state of delirium.
And just when the firm he created was having its most stunning success. Earlier this year, Casey Gerry Casey & Westbrook won an incredible $5 billion from Exxon on behalf of a thousand Alaskan fishermen affected by the ’89 Exxon Valdez oil spill, part of the largest payout ever in a lawsuit. On July 28, David, Jr., was just back from New York, where he learned he’d won $3 million in a personal injury case and $18.5 million in an asbestos suit — a career record — only to find his old man and mentor at death’s door.
“I’ve got good news, Dad,” he says finally, as recognition slips into Casey, Sr.’s eyes.
The news makes his father smile. It’s a helluva lot more than he ever won in court. When he was starting out, he’d have been happy to win 50 bucks. But on the other hand, the whole notion of personal injury, sticking up for the little guy, was Casey, Sr.’s idea. It’s what he’d fought for all these years in San Diego, all the result of a decision he made back in 1944, pawing in the water one night, clinging to a life raft in the Pacific...
“I was going to die. I knew that. The Japanese had left for the night, but tomorrow they were coming back.” It’s a couple of weeks before Casey, Sr.’s medical crisis. He’s talking to me in the summerhouse of his lush La Jolla garden, which looks over a valley to Joan Kroc’s estate. There’s still a flash of those Errol Flynn good looks that wowed juries 50 years ago: the pencil-thin mustache, the piercing eyes.
“We were right outside Okinawa. We were hit by the kamikazes, then we were surrounded by the whole Japanese fleet. We had seven little carriers, converted oil tankers, and I think 11 small destroyer escorts. The Japs came in with their big guns and their big battleships and their big cruisers, and the aircraft carriers surrounded us, and when night came, none of our ships had any firepower left. And we figured they’d be back in the morning. Our ship, the Santee, a light carrier, was hit by a kamikaze and two torpedoes. I was knocked over into the water. Out of 3000 people aboard ship, we lost half of them.
“I remember holding on to the side of the raft and thinking,‘If I ever get home, the first thing I’m going to do is leave St. Louis — where I’d grown up — and come out to La Jolla.’ If I had kids, I wanted them to live a good life.”
The Santee was disabled, but it didn’t sink. Casey was eventually hauled back aboard to await the return of the Japanese fleet. “But next morning when we woke up — and we never thought we’d wake up — they’d all gone on to meet [U.S. Admiral] Halsey at Surabaya Straits. We went off for repairs. I survived the war. I went back to St. Louis, and I realized for sure this was not the place where I wanted to live.”
David Casey had a law degree from before the war. He could have joined his brother as partner in his St. Louis law firm.
But that night in the water was fresh in his mind. He was going to make it “out west,” on his own.
“I came with the $100 mustering-out pay they gave you. That was it. I found a house in Pacific Beach to rent for $28 a month. I shared an office with a retired police- man, and I paid $15 a month for that. I was the only lawyer in Pacific Beach. And this retired cop, his friends would come by, and I got to know a lot of policemen and did some work for them, and finally I was made attorney for the San Diego Police Officers Association.
“I began trying cases right after I came to San Diego. And I really didn’t know how to try cases. But by the time a year was up, I found out how to try cases.”
Still, things were tough, until one of the policemen Casey got to know wanted to retire and go into business as a bail bondsman.
"So I did the work for him to get him in as a bail bondsman, Doyle Bail Bonds — it’s still in business. I would go by there in the morning, and he would have maybe four or five sailors who’d been arrested for driving while drunk. And they left $100 with him for bail and to pay the fine. These guys were just about to leave San Diego. So I would take over their cases and go down in the morning and appear for them before Judge Brennon — Judge John Bren- non — at the old police station on Harbor Drive. And I would appear on behalf of these fellows and plead them to maybe drunk driving or something else. He’d reduce it. The fine would usually be $50 that Brennon would give, and I would have their other $50 as my fee. That really got me started on getting some criminal cases. And I ended up getting a lot of criminal cases. I was in trial all the time. I learned to think on my feet, quick.
“When I came into San Diego, there were between 250 and 300 lawyers — now there are 6000! They weren’t busy, but as the sailors came back, there were divorce actions and things like that. They got a little busier. But there were no big firms and nobody who really tried cases. Those who did used the old- fashioned manner. I remember this one guy, Charlie Crouch. He’d stand up in court in a frock coat, striped pants, and one of these ascot ties that you wear with tacks.”
But the farther out of town you got, the more tacked together justice became — paradise for a fiery Irish think-on-your-feet attorney like Casey.
“I want a jury, judge,” Casey said one day in 1949 up in Ramona.
The judge — a justice of the peace — wasn’t even a lawyer. Casey was defending a guy accused of shooting a deer out of season.
The judge looked across at the bailiff. “Bailiff, I want you to go out and find 12 people to sit down here as jurors. Right now.”
“And he did,” says Casey. “Plucked them right off the sidewalk. And we tried the case. I was able to prove that nobody actually saw my man shoot the deer. Sure, they found him near the deer, they found the deer dead, but they weren’t able to prove that he’d shot the deer. Trial took one day. ’Course, you couldn’t do that now. There’d be months of depositions, litigation over discovery, what’s admissible, a fortune in lawyers’ fees...”
He thinks for a moment. He grins. “My guy probably did shoot the deer, but I didn’t have to put him on the stand. Sort of like O.J. Simpson.”
But Casey’s main business was as a plaintiff ’s attorney, fighting for victims of accidents. Not a popular nor prestigious beat for San Diego lawyers — or with San Diego jurors.
“San Diego was known as a place where you could not get a very good verdict,” Casey says. “It was a place where people came to retire. And usually they didn’t have very much money, and they lived on a static income. And I’m talking mostly about admirals and generals and people like that. Those were the kind of people you got on your jury. And they were cheap!
“I would have to stand up and try to figure out different ways to get a jury to respond in damages. Because as a rule they did not. The death of a child four years of age, they figured $1000 for each year of his short life: $4000. So I would get up on a death case, and I’d put a little passion in it: ‘Your honor! They pay $50,000 or $100,000 a year for a baseball player. They pay $200,000 for a painting by Michelangelo. They have no hesitation putting a value of $100,000 on a Stradivarius violin. Now my client is broken. He’s not a Stradivarius violin, but he’s a real live person who’s entitled to proper damages. At least as much as a piece of wood with a couple of strings on it.’
“Well, that was a start on how to try cases in a dramatic way. They were not being tried in a dramatic way before me. There were no good trial lawyers in San Diego. But they became competitive as I became com- petitive. I got them going Because they would have to come back with comments. If I expressed a comment about a violin, they’d have to come back with something.”
“Dad had a fervor about him,” says David Casey, Jr. The younger Casey is in many ways the direct opposite of his father — he’s slim, sandy- haired, compact, distinctly yuppie. Tolerant rather than fiery. “Emotion would well up in his voice, and he would speak with a great deal of feeling. Real caring. He was extremely aggressive. If it meant that tears would flow from his eyes, tears would flow from his eyes.”
“He was a lawyer’s John Wayne,” says Ed Butler, a retired Court of Appeal’s judge.“If Casey pulled a [verbal] gun on you in court, you were dead. He always did his homework. He pounded the pavement. He’d go see accident sites. It takes a person who can take risks to work on a contingency-fee basis. You have to put up the up-front cost. That can be substantial. A lot of people don’t have the stomach for it. When you hit big, it’s very good, but when you strike out, it hurts.
“David is a little hard of hearing, more so now than then, but he had a way of leaning toward a witness. The witness would utter something that was quite devastating, and David would cup his hand behind his ear and lean forward at the witness stand and say, ‘What was that, sir?’ And the guy would repeat it in a louder voice, so the jury heard it twice.
“And he would ask a question, and he would seem to be fumbling for a word. And the word would be a fairly common word, but he couldn’t quite get it out. And by the time he was [into] a trial, the jury had such empa- thy with him, they would frequently blurt out the word that he was groping for from the jury box.
“He’s from St. Louis, which doesn’t make him Southern, but he had a nice gentle way. He’d put out the dumb country-boy thing, wisps of hay sticking out of his hair, bit of mud on his boots, put his hands in his pockets, and if he had calluses he would snap them. He came across that way. He had a great ability to simplify what seemed to be a complex issue and bring it right down to where we all live. That was his technique and modus operandi in court, and it worked very well. He was gentle like a fox — in sheep’s clothing.”
Legend says Judge Bre non called the ginger-haired Casey the “Red Fox.” Perhaps that name came after Casey’s “Shaky Courthouse” victory.
One day 25 years ago, he was walking to the old court- house on Broadway with a young client accused of driving drunk. The building was due for earthquake retro- proofing. Halfway across the lawn in front of the main entrance, they were confronted by a new sign stuck in the turf: “Condemned Building.”
“So my client says,‘What does that mean?’ ” Casey senses an opportunity. “I said, ‘Well they’ve got a penal code underneath. Let me go read it.’ I bend down. I read the penal code. The penal code said that any- one who entered a con- demned building was guilty of an infraction of this par- ticular penal code.
“So I read it over, and I told my client,‘Stay outside.’ And I went in to Judge Toothacre’s court, where the case was to be tried. And the judge said, ‘Mr. Casey, are you ready to try this case before a jury?’
“I said,‘Yes, your honor, I am.’“
‘Well, where’s your client?’“
‘Well, my client’s out-side, your honor, on the front lawn.’
“He said, ‘Why isn’t he here with you?’ “I said,‘Look, judge, let me read this to you.“Anyone who enters into a condemned building is guilty of a misdemeanor.”’ ”
“And he said,‘Well, what does this have to do with this case?’ And I said, ‘My client is accused of driving while drunk. A misdemeanor. And I don’t want him to be accused of another crime. So he doesn’t have to come into this building.’
“The judge said,‘Let me read that.’
“And he read it.
He said, ‘I guess you’re right. I’ll send you down to Judge Brennon. His building is not condemned.’
“So we went down to Judge Brennon in his small court in the old Spanish police station. Told him that Judge Toothacre had sent me down there. I said, ‘I’m ready to try the case, but I want a jury.’ And Brennon said,‘We have no provisions for a jury down here. So you can’t try him with a jury. You go back and tell Toothacre that I can’t try it down here.’
“So I went back and told Toothacre. And he said,‘What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s not my problem, judge. I’m ready to try this case on the front lawn if you want to.’"
Casey was starting to make his way. “He was handsome and dynamic,” says his first wife, Alberta, “and intelligent. He was a brilliant man. He had a lot of ambition and get up and go. That’s what attracted me to him. He was excellent at personal injury. I’d always wanted to sneak into court and hear him perform because I’d heard how good he was. But the one time I did, the whole court stopped, and David introduced me to the judge, the court — in those days it was different. I never went back! I was embarrassed.
“It was a wonderful time because people were so glad to get the war over with,” Mrs. Casey continues. “We were so happy about that, and it was all uphill. We didn’t mind that; we’d already been through the poverty and putting up with the things we’d had to endure over those hard years. This was all bonus. Everything was turning out on the positive side.
“We started off in a dump of an apartment in Mission Beach but then moved up to La Jolla. It was a quiet village then. The air was clean. You could hear the coyotes howl in the hills.... Then suddenly I had no husband at home. I found out he was playing the lead in a play, The Man Who Came to Dinner [at the La Jolla Community Players], and I think he did that because he wanted to become part of the community, wanted to make a name for himself. He was a very good actor. That’s when he met Neil Morgan.”
It was a friendship made in heaven for Casey — at least partly because Morgan meant access to the press.
“Casey became known among defendants’ lawyers as an ‘ambulance chaser’ — before that craft had been honed to such a fine polish as it was later by Melvin Belli and others,” says the Union-Tribune's Morgan. “He was a very charming, handsome, aggressive young rogue with all the Irish attributes — and clearly intending to make an impact in the conservative San Diego legal world as a plaintiff ’s attorney. That was a phenomenon then. And yes, he was constantly feeding items to me. He was a pioneer in that too.”
Item, Neil Morgan’s column, 4/17/50: “Attorney Dave Casey fired his wife’s maid outright the night she cooked asparagus and threw away the wrong ends...” Item (date illegible): “Alberta Casey plopped her baby son on the scales when she visited her La Jolla butcher, and the needle showed 28 pounds. Next day at the doctor’s office, the kid weighed only 26 pounds. Thereupon she changed butchers...”
“David Casey, whose name is still carried through a law firm in the St. Louis telephone directory...saw a divorce client who was greatly disturbed.‘My husband is back in St. Louis and says he’s got a lawyer who tells him he can really give us trouble. Funny coincidence, his name is the same as yours!’ Casey figures the husband picked a name from a phone book to try to bluff his wife...”
“Yes, I used Casey a lot,” says Morgan.“He made him- self a very good friend of newspaper people and radio people — this was pre-television — and he always anticipated things that would be interesting to us and made sure to make them interesting to us, and therefore he got more publicity at a time lawyers didn’t believe it was ethical to use the media in that way. He very quickly became the best-known plaintiff ’s attorney and therefore became a target of the attorneys who represented the insurance industry. The ‘ambulance-chaser’ tag stuck pretty well, and I think they were responsible for that phrase.”
“He certainly pounded the pavements,” confirms Judge Butler.“And he worked and he marketed. Got his name out. Talked to the clerks of the court, talked to ambulance drivers. The Defense Bar of San Diego had some...disapproval. And they tried to get him in difficulty with the state bar. They tried to get him for ‘running and capping’ — the old English practice of paying people to bring cases to you. Like, if you’re standing on a corner and you see a pedestrian hit, you’d rush right over and hand him my card, and I’d reimburse you for that. That’s what the bar charged him with, but they didn’t get anyplace. I don’t think he was ever charged.”
Casey is especially bitter about this episode.“This was a lawyer — James Archer. He was with Gray Cary Ames. I tried a couple of cases against this lawyer, and I beat him. One particular case was a crossing case, where a car had been hit at a railroad crossing. And Archer said, ‘I’ve never lost one of these cases in my life.’ But I beat him on that case. Next thing I know, I begin getting calls from some of the people that I had represented. The state bar was investigating me because this attorney indicated that I had been soliciting cases! They came up with nothing. But I did receive a call from an attorney, John Holt. Holt told me that Archer was trying to get me disbarred. From that moment on, I never settled a case with James Archer. I tried every single case. I refused to settle cases with him.
“David Casey survived,” says Judge Butler. “He per- severed through all of that. He had the feeling then, which has been proven since, that [ordinary] people needed lawyers, and the only way to let them know he was a lawyer was to let them know he was a lawyer. And when people were injured, the word would go around that David Casey was the person to see. The Defense Bar thought that he was out ‘ambulance-chasing.’
“They also were enormously unhappy with him because he had a marvelous way with juries. He consistently got good verdicts against the insurance carriers. So David was not very popular with the Defense Bar at that time, the late ’50s.”
“I think that’s one reason why David was so pleased later to become president of the California Bar [in 1973],” says Morgan. “It was a nice opportunity to say,‘Stick it.’”
Casey confirms the feeling.“I was for the little guy,” he says.“Insurance attorneys had a free ride in San Diego till I came along.”
Despite all this, Casey can’t help comparing being a lawyer now to being a lawyer then.
“Then,” he says, “it was fun. You had to think on your feet. This happened often — one day I went before a judge with the defense lawyer to work out a timetable.
“So the judge says,‘How much time do you need?’
“I said, ‘Four days.’
"The other side said, ‘Four days.’
“And the judge said, ‘We’ll give you one day. Mr. Casey, you start right now, we’ll stay here till tonight, till the case is over with.’ And we got the case tried in one day. Tell that to O.J.’s lawyers!
“That O.J. Simpson case — back in my time, if that were being tried, at the very longest it would go one week — at the very longest!”
On the other hand, things were a lot more casual back then. Judge Brennon, for instance, was known to shoot from the hip and get through a prodigious number of cases each day. At least up to lunchtime.
“Usually,” says Eugene Horton, a San Diego attorney since 1941 who knew Casey and Brennon, “Judge Brennon would have a couple of belts at lunch as well as his lunch. And in the afternoon session he’d be kind of sleepy. And here would be the prosecutor, and they’d put these guys on for traffic violations or drunk driving. Well, one day the judge had dozed off, and then he came to, and he said, ‘I’ve heard enough. Find you guilty. Ten days in jail!’
“And the prosecutor said,‘But Judge Brennon — this man is only a witness.’
“He said, ‘I don’t care. Send him to jail!’
“Brennon did epitomize that time. First of all, he was a good Democrat and a good politician. And somewhere along the line he got on the bench, and I’ve forgotten just how. But he had a good relationship with all the union fellows in town. They respected him and he respected them. And a lot of these union agents would go down there with a fistful of tickets their drivers got, particularly the longshoremen, and they’d go into Judge Brennon’s chambers, and they’d work things out. Minor traffic violations: the worst ones would be 502s, DUI — not so serious an offense in those days. The union guy would say,‘Here are the facts on the back of this case,’ and he and the judge would confer, and the judge would say, ‘I think he ought to pay a fine of so much.’ He was a gregarious, outgoing sort of guy. He’d put bad guys on the train out of town. A regular Judge Bean, he was.
“That was probably the most casual court in town. It was a lot smaller town than it is now. That was the flavor of the times David Casey grew up in. Each judge was a personality. They’d usually know counsel on both sides; maybe they’d practiced [with them]. Just the way things were handled by all parties, the counsel and the judge — there was this back- ground of friendliness and courtesy and respect. We don’t have so much of that anymore.
“I think there was a lot more fun in practicing law in the olden days. Things were handled on a kind of small-town basis, including the practice of law. It was pretty informal. You tried the lawsuits, and there was not so much in-depth pursuance of victory. I think there was more of an effort to just get at the truth and enjoy the presentation of the lawsuit in the case and let the chips fall where they may. The adversarial aspect of it wasn’t so highly pursued.”
You also did your own research. “Even before we were married,” says Alberta Casey, “we’d be going along a road, David would be looking for skid marks. That was part of his life. It didn’t seem to bother him like it bothered me. He was always doing his own investigations of crashes.”
Or boning up on blood types in a day when scientific evidence was much less sophisticated...
It’s 1950. A woman goes into the hospital for a minor operation and dies there.
“I learned all about blood in that case,” says Casey, sitting back at his desk, stacked high with memorabilia. Outside in the garden, a water- fall gurgle-feeds the pool he swims in daily.“I represented [the victim’s] relatives. The other side brought in doctors. As a matter of fact, [one was] the head of Mercy Hospital — a hematologist. And he testified that it didn’t make any difference what kind of transfusion of blood this lady had received. That if she did receive a different type of blood, it wouldn’t have made any difference.
“So I had been doing a lot of reading on blood. And I took this book that I had been reading — it was written by a Mayo Clinic guy — and I said,‘Doctor, you studied where? At Mayo Clinic?’
"‘Yes, I did.’
“‘And that’s where you got your hematology degree?’
"‘Yes, it was.’
“‘And what doctor did you study under?’ And he gave me the name. And I said, ‘Well, I have his book here. Have you read this book — from cover to cover?’
“‘Is there anything about it that you disagree with?’
“So I opened the book at a particular page. I said, ‘Doctor, read to the jury what it says here.’
“The doctor started reading and his face got red because it said,‘Care must be taken to see that the patient receives the right type blood. If the wrong type blood is given, it can cause the death of the patient.’
“I said, ‘Well, doctor, does this make any difference to your...’
“‘Well, even if he said it, I don’t agree with it.’
“Then I said to him, ‘Doctor, I have here what they call a dog tag. This is what I wore during the war. And will you read to the jury what it says on there?’
“And he read my name and my number. Then I said, ‘What does it say under there?’ He says, ‘There’s a letter C .’ I said, ‘What does that refer to?’ He said, ‘That is a kind of blood that you should be given if something happens to you.’
“I said,‘And they do this with all the soldiers and all the sailors and all the Marines?’
“He said, ‘Yes.’
“I said, ‘Tell the jury why .’
“Well, again his face got very red. I got the biggest verdict ever secured in San Diego on a woman’s death: $25,000. At the time, that was something.”
The session has become too much for Casey, Sr. He excuses himself to go to the bathroom — a result of the medication he was taking. Casey, Jr., and I shuffle through old photos — Dad aboard the Santee, Dad in a play, a letter to Casey from Adlai Stevenson soliciting his support against Ike in 1956 (too late: Casey had already started a “Democrats for Ike” campaign). Casey, Sr., returns. He doesn’t want to give up the conversation. It’s typical of him, says his son. From the start of his career, Casey, Sr., always worked nonstop, days and nights. Both father and his son admit that Dad became a stranger to his children.
“I had to make an effort always to keep my name before the public,” Casey, Sr., says. “Every way I could. I was probably at one time in 20 different organizations; I was secretary of most of them. Every time I got an opportunity to try a case that would get me some publicity, I would do it, because lawyers were not allowed to advertise at that time. You had to keep your name before the public and let them know that you’re a lawyer.”
It turns out there was more than just a work ethic at play.
“I had a childhood where my dad, although he was a lawyer, he was hard of hearing — the Casey Curse — so that he could not try lawsuits after he was about 35, and at the time we were in the midst of this terrible Depression. Our home in St. Louis was mortgaged, we were thrown out of our house. We had to get another place to live. We would walk — Dad, with eight kids — to church over a mile in the morning, rather than spend a dime or a nickel to ride on the street- car, which went near our house.
“Dad might have an occasional case where he got a good verdict, and he would buy a fur coat for my mother, he’d buy velvet suits for all the boys, he’d buy little fur coats for the girls, and he’d buy an automobile if he could. Three months after he got this big verdict, we’d be broke, and we couldn’t pay for coal for our furnace. So we had buckets, and my brothers, Jack, Brew, and I, we’d walk along the railroad tracks, pick up the coal that fell off the trains, and fill up the buckets, bring it back, and fill up the coal bin.
“We’d buy six loaves of bread for 25 cents at the A&P stores. I know, because I used to work there. My brother and I, when we got out of school at three o’clock, we would run home and go to a Kroger’s store — it was part of the chain — and work there till nine o’clock. From four till nine every day, and on Saturday we’d get there at six o’clock in the morning and work till midnight — for $5 a week. And we were lucky! We were lucky to be able to have a job that paid that kind of money. It was a different kind of a world. When Mother’s Day came along, we’d go into the forest and pick flowers for Mother, pick up nuts — walnuts, things like that — that we’d take home.
“And in those circumstances my mother made sure we all eight made it to college. When I was in law school, it was a very depressing time. All these young guys that were in my class were despondent about what the future held for them. This was a time when you had the Hoovertowns in St. Louis, where people lived in cardboard containers, where you could not get a job for any- thing. Of the people that got out of law school with me, I was the first one to get a job remotely connected with the law, and that was when I came out to San Diego and got a job as an investigator, because nobody would give the young lawyers a job in St. Louis. Matter of fact, if you wanted to join some of the firms in St. Louis, you’d have to pay them $100 a month.
“The future looked so terribly bleak, so terribly dark for us at that time. And that’s when Hitler was coming into power. I had come out of the 1918 First World War old enough to know how bad it was. Then you had Prohibition and gangsterism with Al Capone. It wasn’t a pretty picture that I was looking at. I hated to live in that type of dirty world — and it was a dirty world. Then the Second World War came on, and I thought, ‘What are we doing?’
“I made up my mind that I was not going to live in fear of being poor, that I was going to work and not buy anything that I could not afford. When I started in San Diego, I’d go down to the office not just six days a week, but seven days a week. I’d go down on Sunday after church — and I used to go to two churches! — and take up collections at both of them so people would see me. Keeping before the public, having my office open...
“When I finally was able to buy a house in La Jolla, I did not buy furniture, and we sat on boxes for a while, till we were able to get enough money to pay cash. I didn’t want to buy any thing that I didn’t pay cash for. Cars too. Absolutely never bought an automobile on time in my life! Nor furniture.
“I decided to become a lawyer because my father was a lawyer, and I had great admi- ration for my father. But I wanted to be a lawyer who wouldn’t have to try cases after I was 40 years old because I had an idea that I would have bad hearing by the time I was 40, and I wanted to be financially independent by that time. So I had to work fast.
“I never wanted to want like they wanted. I wanted security, and I wanted every- body around me to be secure.”
I ask him what was the most important case he worked on. Casey excuses himself again for the bathroom, then returns. “It was a criminal case. I worked hard on it, as always. I figured that if I could work harder than the other guy, I’d have more chance of success. I was appointed to represent a guy who was accused of murder. Which means a judge would say to the guy when he’s arrested, ‘Do you have a lawyer?’
“‘No. I don’t have a lawyer.’
“‘Can you afford a lawyer?’
"‘No, I can’t.’
“‘Okay, Mr. Casey, you handle this case.’ Was I paid anything for it? No.
“The guy worked for Rohr. He was accused of murdering his wife. And they were very serious about it. No doubt that he knocked her down the stairs. No doubt that he hit her a couple of times before she went down the stairs. And no doubt that she died as a result of going down the stairs...but I got him off.
“And the reason I got him off was that I was able to develop the type of wife that she was and the type of man that he was.
“He would work at Rohr aircraft, hard. Come home and he’d give his check to his wife. And his wife would go out over the weekend and come home very late at night. So one weekend he gave her the money, and she left. She said she was going to the store to buy some things, and she left — this was Friday after- noon — and didn’t come back until Monday. And she came home and she was half drunk. And he says, ‘Where have you been?’ She says,‘I’ve been shacked up with a fine young sailor. The one that I’ve been going with all these weekends that you missed me.’
“‘Where’s our money?’
"‘I spent it all on him. We got a cabin and we drank...’
“And with that he began to hit her and finally knocked her down the stairs. She died.
“I got that guy off because he deserved freedom,” Casey says, quite sure.“He just lost his ability to control himself. I think I felt better about that case than I did about others.”
If honors are the measure, David Casey, Sr., has more than earned his right to respectability. He’s been president of just about every legal group you can put an acronym to. The State Bar (the first lawyer representing victims to be elected president), the American Trial Lawyers’ Association, the San Diego Trial Lawyers’ Association. He’s been “Trial Lawyer of the Year” and recipient of the Award of Honor by the San Diego Bar Association. He led such movements as Proposition C, which brought in the (very profitable) hotel room taxes, and he came in third in San Diego’s 1963 mayoral campaign.
Over 30 years,“Red Fox” Casey has fought 200 civil cases and 500 criminal cases. In these days of heavy paperwork and “discovery,” nine out of ten lawyers never even see the inside of a courtroom. Of the rest, a criminal trial lawyer will be lucky to do three or four trials a year — say 90 in a career. A medical malpractice attorney, who tries as many cases as anyone in San Diego, may max out at five to ten trials a year. So Casey’s 700 is a kind of record.
The end for crusading Casey came during a trial in the mid-’70s. “I was working with Dad on that trial,” says David, Jr.“I can remember the moment. Someone was giving testimony. Dad heard the testimony wrong. He said, ‘Aha!’ and restated what he thought he’d heard. But it wasn’t the right thing. He knew then it was time for him to step down.”
Now, at the age of 82, Casey, Sr., is very deaf. But deafness aside, according to Casey, Jr., it was time for Red Fox’s style of lawyering to end anyway. The shift had started during the ’60s. Discovery — where each side is told everything the other side knows ahead of trial — cut all surprises. Everything turned to pretrial interviewing. Litigation. Mountains of pretrial paper. Trials needed gray suits, not gunslingers.
“Dad’s firm had already gone into more complex product liability,” says David, Jr.,“environmental litigation, business fraud litigation. We — the next generation of lawyers — decided to expand into those areas. We were more suited to it, and it was where law was going.”
David, Sr., is the first to admit that rehearsed-to-death trials, orchestrated ad nauseam months before the court date, are not his cup of tea.
“The biggest shift,” says his son,“was moving from a time when Dad would go down every Monday
ready for trial, to now, where we may try 10 to 15 cases a year in our firm among all the attorneys involved.
“It’s not like in Dad’s day, when each Sunday night he would give me an opening statement for dinner. I never knew what it was when I was a little kid. He’d say, ‘I want to tell you a story. There was this little old lady. She was knocked down...’ And years later I went downtown and listened to him give an opening statement for trial. And I suddenly realized — that’s the story! That’s what he was telling me!
“It was the cases that stopped, not Dad.”
David, Jr., will tell you he’s the negotiator, not the warrior his dad was. But one thing he has inherited from Casey, Sr., is that legacy of the Depression: the work habit. “I have to say I’m a workaholic. I work extremely hard. My father always instilled in me the drive for independence and the drive to be secure. He would always remind me that his father was thrown out of his home when he was a child, that they picked coal from the tracks to keep warm. That always made its point with me.
“When I came to work as an attorney with his firm, he walked into my office at the end of the very first day and he said,‘Well, what new business did you bring in today?’
“And I said, ‘Dad, I didn’t bring any new business in today.’
“And he said, ‘Well, how are you going to support yourself?’
”It was New Year’s Eve 1993 that David, Sr., was rushed to the hospital with septicemia (blood poisoning) following a heart-valve operation. He fought his way back, until his most recent crisis, when his gall bladder erupted and he was hospi- talized again. But the doc- tors are confident. “He’ll be back home soon,” they tell his son.“The man’s a fighter. He’s still got some living to do.” David, Jr., looks relieved. But not surprised.
David Casey, Sr., died in 2003