Hall of Fame: Frank Lamothe on Tenacity and Empathy

Frank Lamothe’s wife tells him he only has two speeds: on and off.

“Off is when I’m asleep,” he half-jokes.

As he tells this story, the titan of the Louisiana plaintiffs’ bar sits at his desk next to a bust of Gandhi. Around the statue’s neck hang multiple medals marking Lamothe’s participation in a host of high-intensity bicycling races. Cycling, a sport he picked up during the pandemic as a quarantine-friendly alternative to his other athletic love, Krav Maga, has never been a simple hobby. “I couldn’t just ride in the park and come home. I had to go the whole way,” he says.

A believer in the idea that hard work requires a degree of suffering, Lamothe says, “I'm willing to suffer in cycling, as well. But that's part of pushing yourself. You have to learn to push boundaries at all times. That’s also true of what we do in law.”

The intensity of an athlete and the empathy of Gandhi – a representation of Lamothe’s nearly 50-year career in service of those who need his help most.

Right out of law school, Lamothe sought ways to benefit the highest number of underrepresented people he could, leading him to the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation. After entering private practice, Lamothe’s wide-ranging career took him from maritime litigation to bringing cases against the nation’s largest oil giants to, more recently, landmark work taking on the clergy on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse.

In his first of those matters, Lamothe represented men who were abused as children – boys ages six to 13 – while at youth homes Madonna Manor and Hope Haven. The men who spoke up had abuse claims dating as far back as the 1940s. After hearing from more than 50 survivors, in 2009 the Archdiocese reached a $5.1M settlement.

On cases like this, Lamothe says, “Our focus is on making people's lives better. I can't make anybody's life perfect, but we can make it better for them.”

The legendary trial lawyer was inducted into the Lawdragon Hall of Fame this year. 

Lawdragon: Tell me about your early work as a personal injury attorney.

Frank Lamothe: After my time at the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation, I wanted to keep finding ways to help people who didn't have the resources to have their problems addressed. So, I went to work in a law firm that did plaintiffs’ personal injury work.

LD: What kinds of cases were you taking on at first?

FL: Back in those days, maritime cases were always popular. We're a port city. We have offshore activity tied to maritime work. Then, you had your full-service tort matters. People who needed help.

LD: Which early cases cemented your love of what you did?

FL: One of my great early cases was an aviation case involving a church in North Louisiana called the Church of Christ, a large evangelical church with a worldwide presence.

They were erecting a radio tower in Martinique to broadcast their message, and they had a single-engine airplane flying around the area looking for a site for the tower. The plane’s wing fell off, the plane crashed and a handful of people were killed. We ended up trying that before a jury in Arizona and received a significant award.

Our focus is on making people's lives better. I can't make anybody's life perfect, but we can make it better for them.

LD: What were some of the challenges of the case?

FL: We sent an aircraft accident investigator to Martinique, and he found parts of the aircraft that were not previously found in the jungle. The French government has secured the wreckage and sent the parts to Paris for destructive testing. They wouldn't release their test results or the parts, but they gave us crash site photos. So, we tried the case off photos, plus what we found in the jungle.

But we had great success, and it went up all way to Arizona Supreme Court.

LD: Wow. Then, tell me about the founding of your firm. What led you to want to hang out your shingle?

FL: To be independent.

I'm not one of these people who likes to be a lawyer in a row and have some other, more centralized authority that I have to answer to. I'm not going to say I don't do well with authority, but I prefer to be the authority. You want to set your values and make your work something you can believe in.

LD: How would you describe your values?

FL: We emphasize quality. We have to be better than the firms we litigate against. We want to outwork them and outthink them and be prepared to try the cases if they need to get tried.

LD: Tell me about what you enjoy about being in court.

FL: Well, you're alive.

It is an intense environment where I feel I do something at my best, which is trying a lawsuit. It's gratifying to feel that you presented your client's cause in the best way it could possibly be presented. That's what we're after.

LD: How did the firm develop? What practice areas started first?

FL: It’s changed over time. We did a lot of maritime work. Now, we do a lot more sex abuse cases than before. In fact, when I started practicing law, I don't think I'd ever heard of a sex abuse case before. Later, our society had more awareness that this was a terrible, unaddressed problem.

LD: What first brought that to your attention?

FL: Obviously, there were a series of clergy scandals around the country bringing things to light. Locally, there was a serious matter involving Madonna Manor, which was a Catholic school and residential environment for young boys.

I had a lawyer reach out to me who said he needed a good trial lawyer, and he asked me to help him with these cases. So, we put together a team, and the cases have kept coming and are still alive today.

We didn't realize, when we started, how many cases there were. Hundreds of people were abused in this environment. We started out with 18 people, but that was just the beginning.

LD: Was that your first sex abuse case?

FL: It was. Now we handle sex abuse cases, not just with clergy, but we’re dealing with schools and we’re dealing with work environments, because, unfortunately, it’s ubiquitous. If I could get put out of business in that area, I'd be happy, but it seems to keep coming.

LD: Tell me about working with your clients in those cases.

FL: We hate to even call them clients, because we speak of these people as survivors.

It's a different type of relationship than working with somebody who got in an automobile wreck or who got hurt at work. These people have a lot of emotional issues, and we have to have a special understanding of them and care for them. We see people show up with drug addiction problems. Some of them have been to jail. They cannot maintain relationships. They have no trust because their trust has been breached.

We've had people call up and tell us they were going to take their lives and we've had to talk them out of it. I've had people sit in an office with me and tell me that they were thinking about doing that. You have to tell them you love them. You care for them. And you would hope that they would not do such a thing. So far, none have. This is not something you learn in law school.

LD: That’s tragic, and emotionally trying for you and your team, as well.

FL: Some people say, "Does it wear on you?" I say, "Well, it does in a certain way," but at the same time, it makes me feel very fulfilled if I help them.

LD: How else do you go about supporting them outside of working on their case?

FL: Well, we do everything we can to support them. It's not just, "Okay, you're our client, we're going to try to get you some money." We try to make them feel that they have human worth and that we believe in them, we believe in their story and that we're there for them.

A lot of times, they want more than money. They want validation. They want acknowledgement of a wrong. So, we help them get that.

LD: Outside of the Madonna Manor cases, what other cases stand out to you in that area?

FL: Right now, we're involved with the Archdiocese of New Orleans. They filed bankruptcy because of the number of cases that were being brought involving clergy abuse.

We represent a large group of survivors – more than any other single law firm in the bankruptcy. We're intimately involved in the process, and working towards, hopefully, some adequate outcome for all the survivors in the case.

They want more than money. They want validation.

LD: You recently visited the Louisiana Supreme Court as they weighed the constitutionality of a suggested lookback window in the state. I know that you've been an advocate for those lookback windows and for removing statutes of limitations.

FL: We have been. Studies show that most survivors don't come forward until they're in their early 50s. It’s a terrible, dark thing that's happened to them, and they have difficulty coming out and saying, "This is what happened."

I had one client who came to our office under a pseudonym. He also created a fake email address. Once he came here and got a little more comfortable, he told me who he was.

So, these lookback windows are to give these people who are lost and forgotten in our society a chance to come forward, if they choose to. This legislation has been passed in a number of states.

Ours was challenged on the grounds of constitutionality and had a hearing on May 1st of this year, but the court decided to not rule on constitutionality and remanded back to the trial court for some additional proceedings. We should have addressed the issue of constitutionality. It’s postponing the inevitable. But obviously, that was the opinion of the court. We had to accept it. But it's disappointing for people that have waited a long time for an answer.

LD: Tell me about going up against the archdiocese and other major organizations in your practice. What are some of the challenges there?

FL: The challenges are always going to be resources, because they're hiring large law firms and paying them a lot of money for representation. So, they’re David versus Goliath battles.

But we are able to go around the corners as quickly as they go around the corners. We have strong commitment, smart people and expertise. So, we can do everything we need to do to produce good outcomes for our clients.

LD: What other cases throughout your career stand out to you, in your sexual abuse practice or in any other practice area?

FL: I did another aviation case as a young lawyer. They threw me into the breach. I didn't carry anybody's briefcase. I carried my own briefcase.

We had an aviation crash that involved a corporate King Air prop aircraft. On takeoff, it hit trees 43 feet high off the end of the runaway. Obviously, it didn't gain any altitude.

There were a number of theories as to why that happened. The defense claimed that the pilot had a condition known as sarcoidosis of the liver, which could impact the nerve bundle in the heart. So, I hired the world's expert on sarcoidosis who debunked that theory. And we successfully resolved the case.

LD: That must have been appreciated – taking that kind of initiative as a young lawyer.

I didn't carry anybody's briefcase. I carried my own briefcase.

FL: Well, young lawyers need to learn to reach for the stars. Don't be timid. Go ahead and get the very best and work with them.

LD: What other advice would you give to early career lawyers?

FL: You have to work hard. Everybody needs to suffer. I know people don't like to hear that they have to suffer, but they do. It's like being an endurance athlete. You have to suffer, because part of your success is the ability to suffer and persevere.

It’s a calling. I don't like lawyers who are just well-rounded. I want someone who's capable of being intense, who's capable of focusing and who has a sense of commitment.

LD: Tell me about some recent memorable cases.

FL: We recently concluded a local case involving the Seacor disaster. They had a special-purpose vessel that was caught in bad weather, and it capsized. A number of people, unfortunately, went down with it and died horrible deaths. Others were able to get out, float with life vests and be rescued.

We had a client who was fortunate enough to be able to get out, but it was extremely harrowing for him. They were trying to break a window with a fire extinguisher in the room he was in – which was still above water, thank goodness – but they couldn't do it for 15 or 20 minutes. Finally, it broke, he got out and he was in violent seas for four hours before he got picked up. He was just lucky to be found by someone. It was getting close to nightfall. If nightfall had come, he would not have survived the night.

LD: How would you describe the attorneys at your firm? What makes the firm unique?

FL: All of us have a commitment to helping people who are disadvantaged. We're not here just to find a way to make money. The fact that clients make it to our office is a huge accomplishment for a lot of these people. It wasn't easy for them to do that. But they made it, and they have an opportunity to tell a story that's been burning inside of them for all these years. We listen to their stories, and then we effectively tell their story to help them.

We’re willing to sacrifice for that goal with some long hours on occasion – to keep persevering when we're tired. But you got to have to keep going. It's that last 10 miles of the marathon. You have to just push through. That's what we do.