Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 12, 2021

Campbell, Fleissner legal collaboration lives on

Tennessee auto liability tome had humble beginnings

Attorney Paul Campbell III is the co-author of “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance,” which has been continuously in print since 1986. He wrote it with his friend and colleague, the late Phil Fleissner. - Photos by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Buried between the lines of a prim and proper legal tome titled “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance” is the story of a friendship that formed years before its first chapter was written and ended with the untimely death of one of its authors.

One might not detect the warmth of their bond while referencing the book as part of the research for a case, but it’s there, resting invisibly on the crisp white pages and between the ink black letters.

Attorney Paul Campbell III met Phil Fleissner in Sunday School, long before either of them became lawyers. The two remained friends while growing up and as they traveled the separate paths that brought each of them to the law.

Campbell was mired in insurance defense work at his family firm when his path began to bend toward Fleissner’s.

“The Tennessee Bar Association used to run a program for people fresh out of law school that bridged the gap between academic study and real-world law,” Campbell recalls. “A colleague who was putting the program together asked me if I wanted to teach something. I said yes.”

Campbell, who had flirted with teaching before yielding to the genetic pull that had drawn several generations of men in his family to become attorneys, wound up handling a course on workers’ compensation.

When Campbell told Fleissner about the class, his friend suggested he write a book about workers’ compensation law and submit it to The Harrison Company (which West Group, a Thomson Reuters subsidiary, purchased in 2002).

When Campbell learned Harrison had already tapped someone else to write the book, Fleissner suggested they team up to compose a volume about Tennessee automobile liability insurance.

Having no premonition of what would be involved, Campbell said he’d love to.

Looking back, Campbell shakes his head and says, “My first wife said I should write a book about writing a book with Phil Fleissner.”

It’s not that Fleissner was unversed in the subject. Far from it, says Campbell, who calls his late friend “brilliant.” Rather, Fleissner was a slow starter when it came to his portion of the project.

“We signed a contract in 1981 that obliged us to deliver the book by June of 1982,” Campbell begins. “We then outlined the book and divvied up the chapters.”

Harrison had suggested Campbell and Fleissner use a Georgia book on the same topic as a template. That volume had 20 chapters, which Campbell and Fleissner split down the middle, with Fleissner handling the material on uninsured motorist law – the most complicated part of the book, Campbell says.

Campbell began producing his pages in the spring of 1982. After he completed Chapter 2, he and Fleissner met and discussed the content. They then continued this routine as Campbell wrote more chapters.

Meanwhile, Fleissner had not yet tapped out his first sentence.

“I was doing all the writing,” Campbell laughs. “When I eventually finished all of my chapters, Phil still hadn’t written anything.”

To move the woefully late book closer to publication, Campbell penned two of Fleissner’s chapters as well as the introduction.

And then, Campbell says with a sigh of relief that sounds full of memories, Fleissner began to write.

Campbell also sounds relieved that Harrison was still on board as publisher when the men submitted the finished book in 1985.

Hardbound within a navy blue cover and packed with case law, “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance” focused not on car crashes but on whether or not particular policies covered certain accidents – i.e., the point at which litigants commonly clash, Campbell says.

“We focused on liability because that’s where lawyers typically get involved,” he explains.

Although Campbell and Fleissner were happy to reclaim some of their free time after their treatise took its place in firm libraries from Bristol to Memphis, the law refused to rest. Instead, it shifted and changed, as it tends to do.

To keep the content relevant, Campbell and Fleissner took on the long-suffering task of producing updates. At first, these appeared in the form of supplements called pocket parts that were attached to the inside of the back cover. Then Harrison began publishing a paperback edition in 1995.

Over time, “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance” became what local attorney Hugh Moore calls “the bible for lawyers working in the always busy field of automobile accident torts.”

“It’s a one-of-a-kind, important work,” Moore says.

Attorney Cindy Hall, who practices with Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams in Chattanooga, agrees.

Hall worked with Fleissner as an associate when she began practicing law in 1992 and has used the book consistently since then.

She praises it for its comprehensiveness.

“It’s very thorough. I do more auto liability work than anyone else in my firm, so people are always asking me questions. Even if I think I know the answer, I’ll pull out Paul and Phil’s book to confirm,” she says.

Specifically, Hall says she’s referred to “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance” when she’s had a question about which insurance company is the first in line to apply to an accident – a knotty dilemma she says often crops up when dealing with multiple uninsured or underinsured motorist policies.

“If there are questions about which policy is first, whether more than one policy applies, or which company gets an offset for any liability policy, it can become convoluted, and I find Paul and Phil’s book very helpful with straightening out those issues.”

Since “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance” was first published in 1986, Campbell has written 16 new sections, turning it from a modestly sized work into something comparable to an old Sears Christmas catalog.

“This is what it’s turned into,” he says as he drops the most recent edition about a foot onto a conference room table. It lands with a “thump.”

Campbell has pulled much of the content in recent years from an electronic newsletter titled TBA Today, which contains each day’s opinions from Tennessee’s Court of Appeals.

He’s also inserted a treasure trove of unreported cases.

“When Phil and I first did the book, we wanted it to be academically sound, and we didn’t want it to seem biased toward insurance defense lawyers, so we used only the original cases,” Campbell says. “But when we started to supplement it, we decided to include the unreported cases, too, because those are still pronouncements from an appellate court on a particular question of law.”

One of the additions Campbell feels gives the book “a little pizzazz” is a section titled “Liability for Overzealous Defense.”

“About 15 years ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court found that an insurance company could be so zealous in its defense that there was a new cause of action, which was strange,” he says.

The ruling came out of a Memphis automobile accident case in which attorneys had purportedly steered injured plaintiffs toward a particular group of chiropractors. Campbell says the group was allegedly working with plaintiff lawyers to run up bills for their chiropractic practices.

“So, the defense lawyers – or the company that was calling the shots – said, ‘We’re going to put these chiropractors out of business. We’re going to make this so painful on them that they won’t ever do this to us again.’ But the Supreme Court said, ‘No, that’s too zealous.’”

Despite nearly doubling in size since its original publication, “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance” contains no errors, Campbell claims. The 2016 edition did, however, accidentally contain an expletive.

Apparently, Campbell says, the individual who dictated the book for West Group became sidetracked while recording but failed to turn off his or her equipment. The unscripted words the person spoke wound up nestled within a string of deadpan legal text – including the four-letter obscenity.

When Campbell learned of the error, he says he was as surprised as West Group, which recalled every copy of the book and printed a new batch without the blunder.

Campbell suspects this gaffe might have cut into his royalties that year, but he didn’t complain, as “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance” has hardly been a moneymaker for him.

“I remember thinking if we sold 1,000 copies, it would be the equivalent of a bestseller at the grocery store checkout line,” Campbell recalls. “At that time, there were about 10,000 lawyers in Tennessee. About half of them didn’t read books, and of the half that did, about half of them weren’t in this area of the law.

“Then there were firms like Leitner Williams and Spears Moore, which had maybe 20 insurance defense lawyers but bought one book.”

Rather, when Campbell estimates the hours he’s poured into the book during its 35-year life span and divides it by the money he’s earned, he says he’s earned minimum wage at best.

“It’s been a labor of love,” he says.

Part of what has made “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance” a labor of love was Campbell’s relationship with the man who conceived the book 40 years ago.

Fleissner died of prostate cancer in 2006, ending his 25-year collaboration with Campbell on the book and considerably more years of friendship.

As Campbell sat down to once again toil alone, he composed a preface that acknowledged Fleissner and the contributions he had made to not only their mutual project but also the legal profession at large.

“I wish I had the power to express what Phil meant to me or the ability to describe my appreciation for the privilege of working with him on this and other projects, but I don’t,” he wrote.

“I can, however, say I never encountered Phil without learning from him. His death removed from the state and local bar a devoted practitioner, a tremendous intellect and one of the most courtly but zealous of advocates.

“My world is poorer as a result of his death, but my life has been much richer for having had him as a friend.”

Despite being retired, Campbell continues to produce new editions of “Tennessee Automobile Liability Insurance.” This includes the next version, which he’s delivered to West Group. Although it contains no new sections, it will be a little thicker than its forerunners, as is customary.

Campbell says the book continues to be a labor of love for him, not only because he’s pleased with how it’s assisted attorneys through the years but also because working on it has kept him connected to his late friend.

Fleissner might be gone, but he’s also still there, in the book, resting invisibly on the crisp white pages and between the ink black letters.