“You're talking about the BP litigation?"
We’ve just settled in to speak with Dallas trial lawyer and Lawdragon Hall of Fame member Don Godwin, and wasted no time asking about “the big one,” his lead litigation defense for Halliburton following the Deepwater Horizon blowout disaster on April 20, 2010.
So we clarify.
As we soon learn, all of Godwin’s cases are important to him. From family law and estate and trust disputes to bet-the-company litigation.
“But that was the most significant case in my career to this point in time,” he says, “in terms of the amount of money involved and the quality of the lawyers on both sides of the docket. Some of the best plaintiff and defense lawyers in the United States were a part of that case, and the ultimate trial.”
Maybe we are putting the cart before the horse here, though, jumping into the big one.
Which, as it happens, is how that period began for him – with an American thoroughbred racehorse, that is. Don and Carmen Godwin were at their first Kentucky Derby on May 1, 2010, and had bet on the winning horse, Super Saver.
“I received a call from the then-head of litigation. Who I know well,” he adds, “and she said, ‘Don, we have an oil spill off the coast of Louisiana. We need you to come take a look. It shouldn’t be too involved.’”
Well. It was the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which became one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history – and a career-defining case for Godwin.
What led up to that moment? How did he arrive at this high-stakes point?
Falling in Love
After receiving a B.S. from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) in 1969, Godwin received an M.S. in Accounting in 1970 from the University of Memphis. He passed the CPA exam along the way.
“I never really thought about being a lawyer, until I got out of graduate school,” he says, explaining he loved taxes and business, and thought he would be a CPA.
Instead, he went on to graduate from SMU Law School in 1973.
“I started out as a tax lawyer, and for about nine months, that's what I did until I was exposed to a courtroom with one of the senior partners in the firm I was in – a federal court case – and I fell in love with litigation.”
And for the last 40-plus years, litigation has been Godwin’s vocation.
“I've had significant cases in many states,” he says.
When Godwin became board certified in civil trial law in 1979, it had been just six years since law school for him.
“You had to have tried 25 jury cases, tried to jury verdict, before your exam," he says. "I had tried 33 cases, from 1973 – remember nine months of that was as a tax lawyer – so really '74 to '79, I tried 33 jury cases.”
The Right Call
“We started our own firm in 1980," he adds, referring to Godwin Bowman. “There were three of us. And we grew it and grew it and grew it, and things went very well.”
You get the sense upon meeting Godwin that starting his own firm would have been inevitable, but we ask him to break it down for us anyway.
“I've always been my own person, if you will.” Godwin says. “I like trying cases and I like trying lots of them. I always wanted to be my own boss, I didn't want to be slowed down with a lot of possible conflicts that you have in the large law firms.”
He had been a partner at another firm in Dallas that had about 50 lawyers: Seay, Gwinn, Crawford, Mebus & Blakeney.
“That was an upper mid-size firm in the late '70s,” he says, “a 100-year-old very prominent law firm in Dallas. And I was there, and I was making really good money and doing well. But I just knew I would strike out on my own at some point.”
Godwin mentions two other then-Seay partners and close friends, Jim Maxwell who's since retired, and George Carlton. The three were aligned in their manifesto.
“We were all trial lawyers and we all wanted to try cases, and we didn't want to get caught up, as it were, and not be allowed to take some cases because of conflicts," he says.
All entrepreneurial, they were not going to be members of a several hundred-person law firm. Being number 198 was not for Godwin.
“We wanted to be kind of our own bosses if you will, and to have a merit-based system that would allow us to do well based upon the results of our efforts," he adds. “We just wanted to be able to try really big cases, with lots of really significant issues. And to do that, you're going to have to be recognized as leading trial lawyers.”
The leading trial lawyers in Dallas by then, Godwin says, were not coming out of the big firms, but breaking up and forming their own litigation boutiques.
Godwin, Carlton and Maxwell invested everything they could in their litigation boutique to make it work.
To Help People to the Best of His Ability
“Nothing has ever been able to just keep me locked down into one area of the law," Godwin explains.
How did he develop such a wide range of clients, from significant Texas divorce matters to complex business and commercial litigation?
“I was doing a lot of work for many companies,” he says, including a large number of new car dealers in the Dallas area.
His practice also included substantial divorces for extremely wealthy clients.
“I’ve tried a large number of divorce cases where there's lots of money involved, and lots of issues," he says. "I'm talking big, big money. In the billions of dollars, when you put it together. And I've always enjoyed it.”
Individuals and their families he’s represented in various matters over the years have included Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Ray Hunt, Ross Perot, Truman Arnold, Hill Feinberg, Jerry Ford, Alan White, plaintiffs' attorney and John O'Quinn.
“For years, I represented Ross Perot in his litigation," Godwin says. "I was his go-to guy. And later, I represented two of his daughters in their divorces.
“I've tried cases to jury verdict involved with divorces, will contests, breach-of-fiduciary-duty cases, banking litigation, energy litigation," he adds. "I've just done a lot of different types of cases”.
He also handled a number of gas-well blowout cases for Halliburton and Dresser before the big one.
From Dresser to Halliburton
Godwin began representing Dresser Industries, a competitor to Halliburton, in 1993, doing oil field litigation all over Texas and Louisiana – gas well blowouts, offshore and onshore, and other oil-business related litigation.
By 1994, Dresser named Godwin as the chief trial lawyer for all its litigation in Texas, which is when he also started handling its asbestos cases.
“Within about a year,” he says, “we'd had a lot of really great results, and tried a number of cases.”
Then, in 1998, Halliburton took over Dresser. At the time, Dick Cheney – who would go on to become vice president in the George W. Bush administration – was Halliburton's chairman, Godwin says.
Bert Cornelison, who had been Dresser's general counsel, became the head of litigation for the combined company.
Halliburton was worldwide. And it was the beginning, Godwin says, of working “major, major cases for Halliburton of all kinds.”
“We had a big case that involved a huge oil field in Kazakhstan,” he says. “A big case where I was up against John O'Quinn – famous trial lawyer in Houston, who was a good friend of mine, and a great lawyer that I tried many cases against.”
Godwin and O’Quinn were on that case for about three years, he tells us. A complicated case, involving confidentiality contracts and a large oil field.
Halliburton’s National Counsel
After only six months, Godwin was named as Halliburton’s national trial counsel, amid a whirlwind of litigation across 30 states over asbestos, a substance once commonly used in fireproofing materials and insulation and later linked to cancer.
Godwin's opponents included Baron & Budd, John O'Quinn, Walter Humphrey, Perry Weitz (NYC), Mike Kelly (Cleveland) and Mark Lanier.
“They were really going after Halliburton over asbestos," he says. "And we were fighting them, and having a lot of success with it.”
There were two verdicts that went against Halliburton – but Godwin was not involved in either one of those.
“One was in Mississippi, and the other one was in Baltimore," around 2001, he says. “When that happened, it started affecting the share price and the bond prices, and what people thought of Halliburton as well.”
Halliburton, he said, had become the target defendant in asbestos.
A Monumental Negotiation in Asbestos Cases
The company was concerned, and retained Godwin to settle its asbestos cases in at least 30 states in early 2002.
"I begin meeting plaintiffs' asbestos attorneys in our efforts to settle cases," he recalls. "It took me 11-and-a-half months. I settled 382,000 cases, nationwide, including 25,000 silica cases. And then, I was able to bring claims against the insurance companies to recover a large part of the settlements. So, Halliburton came out fine.”
“It was a monumental negotiation with me and all these great plaintiff lawyers,” he adds. “I developed a good relationship with many of them. I had no way of knowing at the time that years later, I would see many of these same people again, in the BP litigation."
Then came Dresser’s bankruptcy, in 2003, and a trust was established to handle asbestos claims, insulating Halliburton itself from them.
“And to this day, that still holds,” Godwin says. “We rocked along after 2004, and I'm handling a case in Mobile, Alabama, for them, involving a big environmental spill.”
Then in 2010, he got Halliburton's call at the Kentucky Derby.
His reply: "Of course. Happy to help."
The next day was the Derby. Godwin’s horse won. And he himself was off on what would become the endurance race of his career.
The Macondo Well in the Gulf of Mexico was mainly owned by BP, and a company called Transocean was drilling it.
“They were drilling 18,000 feet below the sea level, which is 13,000 feet below the bottom of the sea,” Godwin explains.
Halliburton had put all of the cement in the casing.
“Over 4 million barrels of oil were released from that monster well, into the Gulf of Mexico,” recalls Godwin. “Four million barrels. Imagine that. Four million barrels.”
It was an unprecedented spill, damaging the U.S. shoreline from Corpus Christi, Texas, all the way to Miami Beach, Florida.
When Godwin arrived at a Louisiana hotel to meet with the head of litigation at Halliburton, “the Coast Guard was there, and lawyers from Anadarko,” a partner in the Macondo Well, he recalls. “There were lawyers from other companies there that had provided services to the well, and several lawyers from BP.”
The Coast Guard and everyone else in the room were working to determine the source of the problem, what caused the explosion.
“Meanwhile, the well was still flowing, pumping oil into the Gulf," Godwin says.
By then, he had begun receiving emails from top-tier plaintiffs' lawyers from his asbestos days, saying they’d been retained to bring suit against all entities with any involvement in the well.
The Coast Guard hearings began about two weeks later, in a motel in Metairie, La. Video of them can be found on C-Span, our kind of reality TV here at Lawdragon.
The sessions show Godwin was polite, patient and thorough.
Not only with people, but with the facts. You feel him truly walking in people's shoes, guiding them through their past actions. He gets into the nitty-gritty while intently following a scent.
“There was a former federal judge who was kind of the presiding officer,” Godwin says, referring to Wayne R. Andersen. “He was from Chicago.
After the Coast Guard hearings, the companies received notice that Congressional hearings would be held in Washington, D.C. Those lasted into 2013.
“They came back and candidly put significant blame towards Halliburton,” says Godwin, “as well as BP and Transocean. Everybody had their fingers pointed at them.”
Multidistrict litigation followed, and U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans was assigned to oversee the mammoth caseload. He appointed Judge Sally Shushan to be his magistrate judge, handling discovery.
For about 20 months, starting in spring 2011, Godwin and his team deposed about 500 people at BP and Transocean, engineers, board members and executives.
With all sides fully loaded, the trial finally began in late 2013, following a rigorous schedule.
“Judge Barbier always started at 8:30 in the morning," recalls Godwin. “He would be there early and work until 5:00 or 5:30, every day, seemingly non-stop, and come in the next day even more prepared. I never saw a judge that worked as hard as he did, and he didn't let up on us, either.”
In the end, the long years of hard work and focus paid off: “Halliburton was found liable for simple negligence, a very small percent. They paid a settlement on some of the claims before the case was over, but otherwise walked away.”
BP, on the other hand, “got the worst of it,” he says: gross negligence.
"I like people,” says Godwin. “I'm a jury trial lawyer. I'm not an appellate lawyer.
Godwin is also known as a master negotiator. What’s his secret?
“My belief has always been that to be successful in a negotiation, you must understand both sides of the issue. It can't all just be about you and your client,” he says. “You need to be familiar with the other side's issue, you need to live it. You need to adapt your mind to that way of thinking, accept their argument as true and valid. Then, poke holes in it.”
His manner is consistently professional, polite and courteous. “Kill them with kindness,” he says with a wink.
While Godwin knows how to be tough when needed, he maintains that “you want to let people know that you're willing to be receptive, and you're willing to listen to them and hear what they have to say. Because they have a point of view, as well. And I think you get far more out of a negotiation when you appear to be receptive and open-minded than if you just come in like a bull in a china closet.”
The philosophy extends to his approach as a leader. “Lead by example, and lead from the front,” he says. He also emphasizes the importance of diversity and inclusion.
“You want to have a diverse firm. Not only with regard to color and sex and national origin, but also diverse in opinions,” he says.
Godwin wants people to disagree with him, to point out the holes in his strategies as they’re being developed. “I want to hear it all, the good, bad and the indifferent. That’s how you make truly informed decisions.”
And while all opinions are counted, he also sees the value of being decisive, and leading with conviction. “People need to be able to rely on their leaders, to depend on them,” he says. “Successful businesses have to be run by strong individuals.”
The Next Generation
We ask Godwin to share some of his wisdom with new lawyers who would like a career path similar to his: Robust, varied and tailored to their interests.
“Well, it's more difficult today,” he says, “for young litigators to sharpen trial skills as they work to become experienced trial lawyers because fewer cases go to trial than in the past."
Still, he said, he urges people coming out of law school to do what they love, whether it's criminal defense, family law or representing big banks and companies, and pour all their energy into it.
"Don't think of it as a job," he says. "If you start thinking, as a lawyer, that where you go every day is to work, you're going to the wrong place. You're going for the wrong reason. You can’t think of it as a place to go get a check. You got to go there because you love it, and you want to help people. That’s where true success comes from."