Source: JENNIFER PUCCI STARR for Elite Attorney SA / Sept-Oct 2015
Bob Hilliard is not a man to mince words, quite the opposite in fact. If you are within the audience of one of Hilliard's trials, chances are you'll be on the edge of your seat. Chances are you will hear a story of injustice. A story of a person who was unable to make their own voice heard under the booming threats of big business lawyers, that is, until Hilliard joined the fight and shaped an undeniable story out of an injustice.
Although a licensed Texas attorney, Hilliard is more accurately known as an American trial lawyer. Quite a fitting description, as many of his larger cases have been tried outside of his native state. For 35 years, he has made waves across the country challenging not only those intimidating corporations, but also institutions and government entities, including the one under which he holds his license, the Texas Supreme Court.
In a well-publicized 1997 motion involving a now landmark and historic case (Havner vs. Merrill Dow) that changed Texas law, Hilliard wrote to the Texas Supreme Court, no holds barred, insisting the Court rehear a case he tried and won, but five years later was reversed when the Supreme Court changed the law. In the affidavit, Hilliard grabs attention from the very first words written: Outlined against a hazy July sky, the four horsemen rode again last Wednesday, July 9, 1997. You know them: Pestilence, Death, Famine, and this Texas Supreme Court.
This case, that Hilliard was ready to put his career on the line for, was on behalf of a young girl named Kelly Havner. Havner was born with a birth defect that caused a limb deformity after her mother took a morning sickness drug she was made to believe was completely safe. During the trial against the drug company, Hilliard and his team presented substantial medical evidence. The jury ruled in Havner's favor. However, soon after the verdict, the procedures for presenting expert evidence changed and the Texas Supreme Court reversed the decision, and refused to allow the case to be retried under this new standard, which had not been the law during the original trial. The case was strong and Hilliard knew that if he were allowed to try the case again, even under the new standard, he would still win, yet a rehearing was denied.
The motivation behind this denial could not be ignored“ Merrell Dow, and the legal team representing them, were linked to supporting the election of at least one of the judges behind this new decision. In a 60 Minutes TV special, the question arose: â€œIs Justice for Sale in Texas? Hilliard was interviewed and quite emphatically gave ample evidence in support of that. What followed was a new battle that could have potentially cost him his career, but Hilliard had made a promise to the Havner family to do everything in his power to bring them justice.
The Texas Supreme Court decided to go after Hilliard. He was ordered to appear before the Grievance Committee to defend his actions. She is my client and she was wronged, and they were part of the reason she could not have her day in Court, says Hilliard. During the Grievance proceedings, a lawyer representing Hilliard told him to recant or he would quit. Hilliard let him go. When Hilliard met with the Grievance Committee, they pulled his letter to the Court from a big stack of filed documents and asked Hilliard if he stood behind these words in his affidavit:
I had a choice to make. Either stop trying cases with every ounce of feeling, talent and love I could manage to muster or stand up for Kelly, for myself and for my sense of justice. I made the decision based on a true need to give my client what she deserved; a person who happened to be a lawyer and who cared deeply and completely about her and her parents…the Court believes I did not have the right to protect justice for my client in this manner, nor does it believe I have a duty to my client to question who is guarding the guards. This Court is wrong. Hilliard told the members of the grievance committee he stood by his words. They dismissed the case on the spot, Hilliard said.
In speaking with Hilliard it is clear…this is no act. He does care just this much. His passion was so clear, that the question begged to be asked, Is he a vigilante of justice, the virtual masked man of law? No, of course not, Hilliard laughs. There's plenty of injustice in the World, all you have to do is understand we each have a human responsibility to fight against it. This is what I invite my juries to help me do.â€
In yet another headline grabbing case, Hilliard found himself defending the freedom of Koua Fong Lee, a Hmong immigrant wrongfully convicted of vehicular homicide and serving time in a Minnesota prison. Lee's Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated, causing the death and injury of five people. Lee was tried and sentenced before Hilliard became involved.
After this initial trial, Hilliard was contacted by one of the victim's attorneys, hoping Hilliard would join a sequential case, this time to sue Toyota for the malfunctioning car part blaming Toyota for the accident. Hilliard read the files, looked at the inviting attorney and said, So, what about the guy that's been in jail for almost 3 years, we need to get him out? Not ready to take that route, the attorney tried redirecting Hilliard, but it was too late, justice needed to be the first priority and as Hilliard says, If I could help do something about it, Koua would not spend another day in jail.
Hilliard then spent his own time and money to help Lee, ultimately winning back his freedom...and then some. Hilliard then sued Toyota on behalf of Mr. Lee and his family and obtained a $14 million jury verdict, the largest of its kind against Toyota. A bully is a bully, even if it is the largest car company in the world, with an army of lawyers defending them, says Hilliard.
Putting his talent for speaking aside, what Hilliard does in the courtroom comes from something deeper an ability to share with and draw empathy from members of the jury, telling the real story of the victims he represents. To Hilliard, it is something he believes all lawyers have in them, if only they would take the time to find it. The hardest thing to do as a lawyer, who fights for a living, is to take a step back and know yourself, to be vulnerable and understand how you feel about your case while telling your client's story, says Hilliard. The jury has more collective intelligence and understanding of the world than anyone else in the Courtroom. All they want is the truth told simply.â€ Hilliard says he tries to give them touchstones and a sense of power, and the rest is up to them. No tricks. No slight of hand.
Not found in most books, Hilliard notes the good work of one Wyoming institute that is taking this matter seriously - The Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College. Hilliard has been a visiting professor at the college that boasts a mission of training and education of lawyers and judges who are committed to...protecting the rights of such people from corporate and government oppression. In all of its activities, the Trial Lawyers College will foster and nourish an open atmosphere of caring for people regardless of their race, age, creed, religion, national origin, physical abilities, gender or sexual orientation.
It seems as though Hilliard was born to fight these battles for justice. The son of Delmar Shelley Hilliard, the young Hilliard learned early on to stand up for fairness. Hilliard senior, a Vietnam fighter pilot who flew 172 missions, was honorably discharged from the Air Force upon learning he had Muscular Dystrophy. Attending law school and then becoming the county attorney of Newton County, Texas, Hilliard's father challenged his own courthouse to a legal dispute when they refused to put an elevator in the building, deterring him from fully practicing within the building. He won the battle and the elevator was installed and became affectionately knows as Shelley's Shaft.
Not sure he had the desire to follow in his father's legal footsteps, Hilliard took his time deciding. With a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from St. Edward's University in Austin, Hilliard's first love was tennis, attending the college on a tennis scholarship. He excelled at the sport and considered making a career of it. Still not ready to choose, Hilliard entered law school with the initial idea of just buying himself more time. However, with that competitive spirit, Hilliard thrived in the new educational environment and graduated with honors from St. Mary's University School of Law in 1983.
The firm Hilliard Munoz Gonzalez, LLP opened in Corpus Christi in 1986. Still thriving today, the practice centers on mass torts, personal injury, products liability, commercial disputes, business litigation, wrongful death, and civil rights matters. More recently, Hilliard opened another practice, Hilliard & Shadowen, LLP, located in Austin. The firm engages in antitrust and civil rights litigation, to pursue economic and social justice on behalf of individuals and businesses that have been hurt by corporate and institutional wrongdoing.
Nationally, Hilliard continues to make waves, frequently appearing as a media pundit on news outlets such as CNN, Fox, CBS and ABC News, lending his legal expertise to headline cases. In the courtroom, Hilliard has yet again taken on a behemoth of a fight. After his successful representation of victims of accidents caused by General Motors, Hilliard was appointed Co-Lead Counsel in the National GM Ignition Switch Litigation, where he has primary responsibility for all death and injury cases. The lawsuit is the single largest product liability litigation in U.S. history.
Although his work with GM now takes the majority of his time, Hilliard still finds himself donating his time for cases of the heart. Following an old friend's online documentation of his battle with cancer, the situation caught Hilliard's eye when it hit a standstill. He was being treated by MD Anderson, a world leader in cancer treatment, yet his insurance did not want to cover the medical expenses. The treatment had proven results and should have been covered, so Hilliard contacted his friend and said he wanted to help and today is working towards getting his friend that much needed treatment.
Beyond the headlines, Hilliard has received numerous recognitions for his work on behalf of victims of corporate and institutional wrong-doing. He has been named a Texas Super Lawyer numerous times throughout his tenure and has received the Martindale-Hubbell AV Preeminent Rating, the highest honor a lawyer can receive based on peer reviews. The first ever recipient of the â€œNever Forgotten Award was bestowed upon Hilliard by the Innocence Project of Minnesota for his tireless work to free Lee, and he was a finalist for National Lawyer of the Year by Public Justice.
His service to his field also continues as Hilliard has been recognized as an Advocate on the American Board of Trial Advocates, which requires a minimum of 50 trials as lead counsel. He is also a past National Co-Chair of the Ethics Committee of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.
Outside of the courtroom, Hilliard takes on the verdict of fatherhood proudly. Welcoming his 7th child this coming Fall, Hilliard is a strong family man and a proud one at that. With his oldest daughter practicing law in Houston and a son in his third year at Hilliard's alma mater St. Mary's Law School, it is evident that the Hilliard name may continue to stand for justice for many decades to come.
Though a well-known American attorney, Hilliard is a true Texan. As he proudly dons the state flag on his signature cowboy boots, he aims to send a message to the rest of the country. Texas raised me. It instilled in me one rule: We stand up to bullies and we protect those who can't protect themselves, says Hilliard. That is completely evident in the god work this strong-willed Texan has done. In the words of Kelly Havner, I only hope that someday I will be able to remember your example and stand up for my beliefs so strongly.