Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 14, 2018

A lawyer walks into a bar ...

Chance NYC encounter alters Chandler’s life, career, address

Attorney John Chandler was sitting at a bar at the Copacabana in New York City when he turned and saw a beautiful woman standing next to him.

Although he was there for business, not pleasure, he introduced himself anyway. “I’m John Chandler,” he said.

“I’m Pamela O’Dwyer,” the woman replied. When Chandler asked her where she lived, she said Chattanooga.

Unaware he had just taken a hard right turn in life, Chandler remained casual and asked the woman about her work. She said she was a lawyer who sued railroads.

It was Chandler’s lucky day. A Memphis lawyer who had spent nearly 20 years suing railroads himself, he was in the Big Apple to attend an American Trial Lawyers conference in the hopes of “hustling some business.”

The railroads his firm had represented for years were being purchased by bigger railroads with their own attorneys, and Chandler was hoping to establish ties that would enable him to continue doing the same work, which he enjoyed.

The next day, Chandler turned his random encounter with O’Dwyer into a potential business opportunity when he suggested she call him if she was offered any cases in his area. “I’d like to work with you,” he said.

A few months later, O’Dwyer called Chandler and said she had a case coming up in Jackson and that he might want to be there. “This is my lucky day,” he thought.

It was – in more ways than one.

One could say, with great accuracy, that practicing law is in Chandler’s blood. His grandfather, Walter Chandler, earned his license to practice law in 1908. He went on to serve three terms as mayor of Memphis, became a Congressman and practiced law until he died at the age of 82, a law book resting on his chest.

Chandler’s father, Wyeth Chandler, was an attorney as well. He also served three terms as mayor of Memphis, became a circuit court judge in Shelby County, and then worked as a mediator until his death at the age of 78.

Although one could say, which equal accuracy, that being the mayor of Memphis was in Chandler’s blood, by the time he was 10, he wanted to become a lawyer. More specifically, he wanted to be a litigator.

“I wanted to be Perry Mason,” he said. “I never thought about doing anything else. It seemed interesting.”

Unlike his father and grandfather, Chandler has never done anything else. There have been no detours into politics, and he’s never given up his practice to serve as a judge.

But there have been major turning points in his life and career, including the one he took after meeting O’Dwyer, daughter of legendary Chattanooga attorney Selma Cash Paty.

The case on which O’Dwyer invited Chandler to join him was Norfolk Southern Railway Company v. Shanklin, which involved federal spending on railroad signals. Chandler knew the lawyer on the other side of the case and proved himself useful by passing the occasional note to O’Dwyer.

O’Dwyer secured a $400,000 jury verdict in the case, which Norfolk Southern appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. After the high court reversed the jury verdict on technical grounds, O’Dwyer was able to try the case a second time. Chandler stood beside O’Dwyer instead of passing notes from the sidelines, and together, they obtained a $1.4 million jury verdict.

Although separated by over 300 miles, Chandler and O’Dwyer formed an informal partnership and began working on railroad cases together. They also began dating.

“I would travel from Memphis to Chattanooga about twice a month to see her,” he says. “It was partly professional, partly romantic.”

After a few years of spanning the gap between them, Chandler was growing exhausted and suggested O’Dwyer move to Memphis. After O’Dwyer suggested he move instead, Chandler did the gentlemanly thing and left his practice in Memphis to join O’Dwyer in Chattanooga. But he said no to O’Dwyer’s next suggestion.

“Pam wanted me to move into her law office, but I had met her mother, who was nice in some ways, but I didn’t want to be law partners with Selma Paty,” he says.

Instead, Chandler opened an office of his own, and for the next decade he and O’Dwyer traveled the country and sued railroads together.

Chandler says he and O’Dwyer tried many of these cases because the railroads stubbornly refused to settle. Their success rate varied. Sometimes, they would actually settle a case for more than a million dollars, and other times, they fared poorly, he says. Then they lost two big cases in a row, and Chandler decided he was done.

The last railroad case Chandler and O’Dwyer tried provided him with a bitter lesson in human nature.

In the case, Jones v. Illinois Central Railroad Company, the wife of a man who was severely injured in a collision with a train sued Illinois Central for negligence. Chandler takes on an air of incredulity as he lays out the facts in the case and the egregiously unethical behavior of the defense’s lawyer.

“A train hit a man driving a fertilizer spreader at a railroad crossing. The area tended to flood so the railroad had built a levee for the tracks,” Chandler begins.

“The only other witness to the wreck besides the railroad’s employees was a man driving a tractor trailer the other way. He said in a deposition three years before the trial that he and the [plaintiff’s husband] ... almost hit bumpers because the road is so narrow.

“Making matters worse, there was a wall of vegetation along the tracks that kept our man from seeing the approaching train. When the tractor trailer clipped the rear end of his equipment, it distracted him, and he collided with the train.”

The plaintiff’s husband was ejected from the spreader and landed on the pavement, where he parted ways with his frontal cortex. “It was a horrendous injury,” Chandler continues. “His wife became his mother and his daughter became his sister.”

As Chandler and O’Dwyer were preparing the case for trial, they were unable to locate the tractor trailer driver. This was not an issue because they had the man’s deposition, in which he said he was about 20 feet past the levee when his tractor trailer clipped the fertilizer spreader. Chandler and O’Dwyer planned to argue that this distracted the plaintiff’s husband, who never saw the train coming.

“About 30 days before the trial, the railroad’s lawyer told us they had located the witness,” Chandler recalls. “When we contacted him, he told us he’d hit hard times and couldn’t find a job.”

Chandler laughs at the memory of the man’s roundabout way of asking for money in exchange for his testimony. “We told him we could pay him the witness fee, but that was it,” he says.

The witness assured Chandler and O’Dwyer that he would say the same thing he’d said in his deposition and agreed to wait until the attorneys notified him that he was needed at the trial.

But when that time came, the man’s father answered the phone and said the railroad had put his son up in a hotel in Memphis, where the trial was taking place.

This wasn’t just a red flag; it was a blaring alarm telling Chandler and O’Dwyer that something was wrong. When they showed up at court the next day, the witness was there. When they pressed him about where he’d stayed, he said he’d spent the night at a friend’s place.

“We went over what he had said in his deposition, and he agreed to say the same thing,” Chandler says. “Then we get into the trial, and when Pam calls him to testify, he flips.”

Instead of saying he was 20 feet past the levee, the man said he was 300 feet beyond the levee, which meant his scrape with the fertilizer spreader could not have distracted the plaintiff’s husband as he approached the levee.

Stunned, O’Dwyer started to cross-examine the witness. But she didn’t get far.

“There was an obscure rule in the Federal Rules of Evidence that prevented a party from calling a witness and then cross-examining him,” Chandler says, his voice fresh with disbelief, as though the trial was still happening. “I’d never heard of it, and I knew the rules.”

Chandler and O’Dwyer approached the bench, upon which they told the judge they had learned that the railroad had paid for the witness’ hotel room. When the judge asked the railroad’s attorney if that was true, she said no.

The trial lasted three exhausting weeks. When the truth about where the witness has stayed finally came out, Chandler and O’Dwyer went to the hotel, found the guest registry and saw that the railroad had paid for the man’s room.

“Most of the federal judges I know would have put the defense lawyer in jail for lying,” Chandler says. “This judge put the witness on the stand, asked him why he’d lied about the hotel, and he said because the railroad had told him not to talk about it.”

Despite this revelation, the judge decided to continue with the trial. Chandler says he and O’Dwyer could have asked for a mistrial, but they were past the point of no return.

“A mistrial allows you to try a case again, but it doesn’t refund your expenses back from the first trial,” he says. “We’d already spent ten of thousands of dollars on expert witnesses and other expenses, and the judge allowed us to read the witness’ deposition, so we decided to go for it.”

Chandler and O’Dwyer’s gamble didn’t pay off. Instead of finding the railroad liable, the jury split fault down the middle. When Chandler and O’Dwyer appealed the case, they were denied a new trial because they hadn’t asked for a mistrial. In the end, their client received nothing.

“I learned ... that some attorneys will act unethically to win a lawsuit,” Chandler says. “I also learned that some trial judges and appellate court judges will allow them to get away with such behavior on technical grounds.”

About what he would do differently if he could go back in time and try the Jones case again, Chandler is silent. Instead, his last word on the topic is that he decided there had to be an easier way to make a living.

Jones v. Illinois Central Railroad Company was indeed Chandler’s last railroad case. From there, he joined the Law Offices of Morgan Adams and focused almost exclusively on tractor-trailer litigation. He says it was easier than railroad litigation and a relatively lucrative area of practice.

“Tractor-trailer companies have to have at least $750,000 of insurance coverage,” he says. “So, when you have a serious case, there’s the possibility of recovering significant damages.”

Tractor-trailer litigation served as a palate cleanser for Chandler and restored his enthusiasm for the law. Over the course of the next 10 years, he acquired several success stories, including one in which he secured a $1.5 million settlement for a young mother who suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident involving a tractor-trailer.

“She stopped in a line of traffic behind a tractor-trailer. Another tractor-trailer going 65 mph hit her car and pushed her into the tractor trailer in front of her. Her car looked like an accordion, but she survived,” Chandler explains.

“Although she could walk and talk, she couldn’t manage her own affairs anymore, so her mom took over her care and caring for her young children. The money we secured provides for their care today and should care for her for the rest of her life.”

The latest turning point in Chandler’s life came this year, after nearly a decade with Morgan Adams. Ready for a new view, Chandler took up residence at The Hamilton Firm, a Chattanooga practice that provides legal representation to accident victims. Although he has a slightly varied practice – he has some automobile and premises liability cases – he’s focusing mostly on tractor trailer cases.

It’s a good place to be as Chandler celebrates 40 years of practicing law. Born and raised in Memphis, he attended undergraduate and law school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

After earning his Juris Doctor in 1978, he went to work for the Memphis firm of Burch, Porter & Johnson.

“My father and grandfather were conservative, but I was kind of a liberal guy,” he says. “Perhaps it was some sort of rebellion, but I became a hippie type when I was in college.

“I was attracted to Burch, Porter & Johnson because Lucius Burch had been involved in the civil rights movement and was a big environmentalist.”

At Burch, Porter & Johnson, Chandler was assigned to the partner who represented railroads like Illinois Central, Southern Pacific and more.

A few years later, the partner left the firm and Chandler took over the practice, doing both defense and plaintiff’s work. He also handled federal employers liability cases and civil rights work.

“I was happy,” he says. “I got to be Perry Mason.”

After two decades of representing plaintiffs, Chandler says he doesn’t believe he could return to doing defense work. While he acknowledges the need for effective representation on both sides of a case, he prefers to be the one helping someone to recover money.

“I feel good, too, when I represent someone who’s fair and reasonable, as opposed to fighting tooth and nail to keep them from recovering any money at all,” he says. “Nothing can beat that. It keeps me going.

“When I was doing defense work, I could do a good job and get a good result, but I didn’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling from the insurance adjustor or the railroad’s general counsel.”

Chandler did more than date O’Dwyer and try cases with her; he married her. The two live on a farm in McDonald, where they care for three horses, three mules, 45 goats, a dozen chickens, a cat and a dog.

It’s an experience Chandler, who grew up in midtown Memphis, never expected to have, but he’s enjoying it. “The grandkids especially love it,” he says. “We do a lot of horseback riding. We have miles of trails starting right outside our barn.”

Chandler is also a “voracious reader” who consumes a steady diet of books and magazines, including fiction and nonfiction.

Lately, he’s delved into the realm of pop science, which has proven to be elusive. “I recently read a book about quantum physics,” he says, wrinkling his forehead. “I can’t explain it because I didn’t understand it.”

At 66, Chandler isn’t ready to retire, although he’s fairly certain he doesn’t want to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps by working all the way to the grave.

When that day does come, Chandler will have well over 100 jury trials to look back on, the gratitude of the clients he’s helped and the esteem of this colleagues. (He’s poised to earn an AV rating through Martindale-Hubbell for the 25th consecutive year.)

In the meantime, he’s going to stay the course. “I like what I do,” he says. “I still get excited about writing a brief.”

Even better, Chandler still smiles when he looks up from his book, or across the barn or living room, and sees the woman he met at the Copacabana standing nearby. “She’s a beautiful woman and I love her,” he says. “That certainly was my lucky day.”