Stan Chesley the Litigator Champion for little guy
In an instant, Stan Chesley’s face flushes red, his tone turns angry.
“Pardon me, sir,” Chesley barks over the phone, standing in his 15th-floor office, downtown, overlooking the riverfront.
“Do you know who I am? Go to my Web site. Hello, sir?”
The conversation ends abruptly, as the man, Brian in Tucson – who obviously doesn’t know who Stan Chesley is – hangs up.
Brian may regret that.
At 70, Chesley is still one of the most respected, if not feared, lawyers in America, a bulldog in a fine Brioni suit. He has won more than $350 billion for clients and untold millions in fees for himself.
The fame began 29 years ago today, when a horrific fire killed 165 people at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky. Then a relatively unknown personal-injury lawyer, Chesley filed suits on behalf of fire victims and their families against the club owners, a utility company and manufacturers of aluminum wiring, carpets and other products.
It was a novel approach for disaster litigation: Merging almost 300 cases into one class-action suit. But it worked. Chesley and other lawyers shared $50 million in litigation and settlements with clients.
Today, Chesley is still making news using the Beverly Hills formula. Early this year, he won $85 million for nearly 400 sexual-abuse victims from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington.
After 46 years in practice, Chesley still wins much more frequently than he loses. His success and aggressive style have earned him many friends, and more than a few enemies.
“When someone asks me if I’m related to Stan Chesley,” quips his son, Rick, 45, a lawyer in Chicago, “I say it depends. What was your experience with him?”
Chesley is married to U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott (his second wife) and lives in a $12 million Indian Hill home. He is a philanthropist, connoisseur of cars, world traveler and doting grandfather.
He defies easy definition, though, representing Hamilton County in its antitrust case against the Bengals (since dismissed), and also suing the county on behalf of families who say they suffered because the morgue allowed photos to be taken of their relatives’ bodies.
Chesley is a liberal Democrat who hosted three fundraisers for former President Clinton, yet stunned many by filing a suit on behalf of Republican 2nd District Congresswoman Jean Schmidt against her opponent in the May primary.
“He likes the notoriety,” says close friend and client Jerry Carroll, owner of Kentucky Speedway.
Chesley has filed a $400 million antitrust case on behalf of the Speedway against NASCAR.
“People who say they don’t like the notoriety are phonies,” Carroll says. “Stan Chesley is no phony.”
Much of what goes on in Chesley’s head – under that carefully coiffed white hair – is a mystery, but one thing’s certain: He is not ready to slow down. And he still claims to be the champion of the underdog – the reason for that fierce over-the-phone argument with Brian in Tucson.
Chesley explains how Brian represents a collection agency harassing the father of a man who works on his cars. They claim the father owes $3,600. Chesley doesn’t believe it. He fired off a letter demanding the agency cease and desist.
“I’ll always be a little guy at heart,” Chesley says, while staring at the gold-leaf ceiling in his office, appointed with antique furniture.
Brian in Tucson hasn’t been heard from since.
UNDERDOG AND OUTSIDER
Even though his wealth contradicts it, Chesley’s underdog credentials are impeccable. The son of Jewish Russian immigrants, he grew up in a rented apartment in Avondale. His father, Frank, who died in a traffic accident in 1977, owned a typewriter-repair shop in Clifton.
Undistinguished academically, Chesley worked his way through undergraduate and law school at the University of Cincinnati by selling shoes at Shillito’s department store, downtown. He loved the job, and tells how he once leveraged a 1 percent increase in commissions – from 7 percent to 8 percent – for the sales staff.
It was Chesley’s first victory at the negotiation table.
“It felt good,” he says.
Chesley’s humble beginnings have no doubt driven him. His ex-wife, Suellen Chesley, says her parents opposed their marriage because they didn’t think he would make enough money.
There is another chip on Chesley’s shoulder: He considers himself not only an underdog, but an outsider.
“This is a tough town,” he says. “Very conservative. And I’m not part of that.”
Although he says it’s never worth the time or effort to “dedicate an enemy,” Chesley often doesn’t hesitate to antagonize others. Even friends.
An example is the zoning fight over the former Crest Hills Country Club in Amberley Village. Two years ago, the village denied a rezoning request to allow residential development on the property. The club owner sued the village, asking a judge to grant the request and make the village pay nearly $8 million in damages. Chesley – who lived in Amberley more than 30 years – agreed to defend the village at no charge.
So on this Tuesday morning, Chesley sits at the defense table in Judge Melba Moore’s Hamilton County courtroom, thrashing about in his squeaky wooden chair, looking impatient and uncomfortable, glancing back at the clock on the wall.
His wife says he has an attention span of about “two minutes.” Yet he is able to juggle as many as “20 different” things in his head.
In the rear of the courtroom, a klatch of spectators listens intently to the testimony. They support the club’s rezoning request, and they despise Chesley, their former neighbor and friend, for representing the other side.
“A lot of people in the Jewish community, a lot of people in Amberley, really don’t like me for doing this,” Chesley says later.
He entered the fray, he says, because the club owners tacked on the request for $8 million and because he considers Amberley Village the underdog.
But some on the club’s side claim Chesley’s motives are vindictive, that he jumped into the case only because he was once denied membership into the country club. Chesley confirms he was denied membership, but says he “doesn’t have time to be vindictive.”
Judge Moore is expected to rule in July.
‘YOU HAVE TO WORK HARD’
Chesley was steeled for such criticism while working on the Beverly Hills suit, when he was called a “glorified ambulance chaser.” But what still bothers him is that some think he was just lucky with that career-making case.
“It was preparation,” Chesley says. “You don’t win cases, you don’t win settlements, with smoke and mirrors.”
Chesley jumps up in his office to fetch a chunk of charred timber, a board recovered from the Beverly Hills ruins, where it rests like a battle relic in a glass case. Chesley used it as evidence in his case against the aluminum-wiring industry, which eventually settled for more than $15 million.
“I keep (the board) there to remind me that you have to work hard to win these things,” he says.
Cincinnati lawyer Bruce Allman remembers how hard Chesley worked in the Beverly Hills case. Allman represented six defendants who eventually settled out of court.
“Stanley is very smart,” he says. “He knows how to manipulate the system, and he knows how to make a defendant’s life miserable, economically and figuratively.”
Bob Gettys recalls another Chesley tactic from the Beverly Hills case. Gettys, a lawyer in Covington, represented a Cincinnati air-conditioning firm, Rash-Saville-Crawford – the only defendant in the fire suit that refused to settle and eventually won in court.
Chesley used to come to settlement meetings, Gettys says, and wave a book with gruesome photos of people who died in the fire.
Gettys persuaded his client not to settle because he thought Chesley’s case was weak. Now, he thinks other defendants could have won as well. But they preferred settling for $1 million or $2 million, he says, instead of risking the loss of many more millions in court to Chesley.
Many say Chesley is a better out-of-court negotiator than litigator. But he will point out that he must spend hours of research and reading depositions before proposing a settlement.
BIG PAY, BUT A BIG DONOR, TOO
Skilled attorney that he is, Chesley is ready to defend how much money he makes, such as his $20 million share of the $200 million award in Kentucky’s Fen-Phen settlement, in which 400 people claim the diet drug caused serious health problems.
“The bottom line is,” he argues, as if standing before a jury, “when somebody has talent, nobody criticizes the paycheck. It’s fascinating what I get attacked about is my skill and that I get remuneration for it.”
Insurance companies and corporations may not like it, but large fees, he says, enable him to take on risky, important cases that may require years of work and net few fees. In the 1984 Bhopal, India, gas-leak case, for instance, Chesley lost as much as $2 million because he was cut out of the settlement.
“No one wants to know what it costs to run this shop,” Chesley says. “My God, we have two floors, 90 associates.”
In most settlements, he says, the court sets the amount shared by attorneys, which can number in the dozens.
When it comes to his money, Chesley has been generous, donating to the Jewish Community Center, the arts and other causes. He also gives spontaneously, picking up the dinner tab at a restaurant for a dozen high schoolers celebrating prom night, or standing in a toy store parking lot on Christmas Eve handing money to needy parents.
But Chesley is known mostly for giving – and persuading others to give – to Democratic candidates. He is amused when others are shocked that he sometimes lends a hand to Republicans, as he did by filing that federal suit for Congresswoman Schmidt before the May primary. Chesley eventually withdrew the suit, which claimed Schmidt’s opponent, Bob McEwen, was not an Ohio resident.
Chesley says he has always supported Republicans such as Rob Portman, Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters and U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine.
“Stan knows to be with a winner,” Carroll says.
Other than his work and dabbling in power politics, Chesley claims few interests except for collecting expensive cars. It’s rumored he owns a fleet, but he admits only to having “more than two” cars.
His six grandchildren, ages 9-16, are a serious avocation. His daughter, Lauren Cohen, 43, of Indian Hill, has three girls and a boy; son Rick in Chicago has two boys. Photos of the children outnumber chummy shots of Chesley with the Clintons and other dignitaries in his law office.
Chesley often cheers his grandchildren on at soccer games and never cross-examines referees, Lauren says. In June, Chesley is taking all of his grandchildren, who call him “Baba” and Papa,” to Israel for a week.
He admits his involvement with his grandchildren is an attempt to make up for time lost with his two children when he was busy building his career.
“I never carried pictures of my children,” Chesley says. “Now, I never leave the house without pictures of my grandchildren.”
When Lauren calls on a Saturday morning, telling him Amanda, her 16-year-old, just passed her driving test, he is ecstatic, promising to send flowers and go for a ride with her that afternoon.
That morning, Chesley is standing shirtless in the basement of his for-sale, $2 million Amberley Village home, waiting to get his hair cut.
Last year, Nick Picariello, his barber for 40 years, had to close his Corryville shop due to construction. So Chesley suggested Picariello move his barber chair – a gift from Chesley – to his empty basement. There, the Italian immigrant barber meets Chesley every Saturday for his trim and shave.
Perhaps it’s no surprise Chesley can talk with a straight razor to his neck, with a hot towel wrapped around his face and scissors up his nose. But this odd ritual appears to be more about friendship and loyalty than grooming. Picariello was one of a handful invited to celebrate Chesley’s 70th birthday at his home in March. Chesley kisses the barber on the neck, Sopranos-style, before leaving for his weekly stroll around Hyde Park Square.
ENJOYING LIFE MORE
Those who know him laugh at the suggestion that Chesley is mellowing, though many, including his wife, believe he is enjoying life more.
He is at least open to change. When they married in 1991, Susan Dlott says, her husband looked at her dogs “as if they were aliens.” Now, he adores the two King Charles Spaniels. Crumpet sleeps on his side of the bed; Dickens sleeps on her side.
“In the beginning, he didn’t negotiate with me at all,” Dlott says. “It was his way or no way. But he has softened. Now we make joint decisions.”
The couple met in 1981 during a Christmas luncheon at a judge’s home. Chesley separated from Suellen in 1979 and was divorced in 1981. President Clinton appointed Dlott U.S. District Court Judge in 1995.
The couple relax weekends at their 27,000-square-foot home on Camargo Road, once reported to be the most expensive house sold in Greater Cincinnati. They often go out to dine, including fried chicken at one of their favorites, the homey Schoolhouse Restaurant in Camp Dennison. On some Monday nights, they share chicken leftovers at home.
Since they’ve married, Dlott says, she’s grown to understand what drives her husband, and it’s more than his humble beginnings and his need to fight for the “little guy.”
“He never dreamt he would be this successful,” she says. “He’s very superstitious, and every time something good happens, he’s waiting for something bad.”
He will never retire, she says. When the family went to Florida for a week in March to celebrate his birthday, Chesley was antsy after two days, ready to return to work.
“I’m a better lawyer than I was 10 years ago,” he says.
When asked about his legacy, he bares another fear – that the Beverly Hills case and other victories will someday be forgotten.
“I’ve known a lot of great lawyers,” he says quietly in his office, sitting still for a moment. “And there’s nothing sadder than when they retire, because people completely forget about them.”
Chesley won’t be forgotten if he has his way. And for nearly 30 years, he pretty much has.
ABOVE ARTICLE BY CHUCK MARTIN | REPRINTED FROM CINCINNATI ENQUIRER MAY 28, 2006
Chesley’s high-profile cases
Stan Chesley has helped settle dozens of civil lawsuits over the past 30 years. Here are some of his most notable cases :
Beverly Hills Supper Club fire May 28, 1977, fire at Southgate, Ky., club kills 165 and injures 116. Club owners, utility company and product manufacturers agree to pay $50 million to the families, whom Chesley represents. His reported fee: $1.8 million.
Dow Corning breast implants Chesley represents women who claimed that silicone leaking from implants caused a skin condition, rheumatoid arthritis and other health problems. Drug company agrees to pay women more than $4 billion in early 1990s. Chesley’s reported fee: Unavailable.
Tobacco litigation Millions of people around the country file suit against tobacco companies, claiming their smoking addiction caused death and other health problems. Tobacco companies agree to pay them more than $360 billion in 2002 over 25 years. Chesley’s reported fee for representing the smokers: $1.25 billion, shared with other attorneys.
Meet Stan Chesley
Born: March 26, 1936
Residence: Indian Hill
Occupation: Attorney and president, Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley (joined firm in 1960)
Family: Wife, Susan Dlott (U.S. District Court judge); son, Rick, 45, and daughter, Lauren Cohen, 43; six grandchildren
Favorite television shows: “Boston Legal” and “The Sopranos”
Favorite law movie: “Erin Brockovich”
Quotes: “You never get more than you ask for.” “If you burn a candle at both ends, you get more light.” “Never dedicate an enemy; they may end up being a dear friend.”
Did you know …. ?
$11.9 million: Price Chesley and his wife, Susan Dlott, paid for their Indian Hill home in 2004
$2 million: Listed price for Chesley’s former home in Amberley Village
$67,500: Contributions made by Chesley to Democratic candidates and organizations, 2003-2006
$19,000: Contributions made by Chesley to Republican candidates and organizations. 2003-2006
$2,100: Largest contribution made to an individual candidate during same period (to Republican Pat DeWine, who lost in the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary in 2005)
1995: Year former President Clinton appointed him to U.S. Holocaust Museum Council
20-plus: Sports cars Chesley reportedly owns
6: Years he served as chairman of the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees (1988-92) 3: Fundraisers he hosted for former President Clinton
Other high-profile cases of Stan Chesley
Here’s a sampling of notable civil lawsuits that Stan Chesley has helped settle over the past 30 years:
MGM Grand Hotel fire: Las Vegas hotel fire in 1980 kills 85 and injures hundreds. Settlement is about $200 million for Chesley’s clients, the victims and families. His reported fee: More than $2.3 million.
Agent Orange: In 1983, Vietnam War veterans sue, claiming this chemical defoliant used by the U.S. military caused cancer. Settlement is about $200 million for the vets. Chesley’s reported fee for representing them: $800,000.
Bhopal: Poison-gas leak at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984 kills more than 3,300 and injures thousands of others. Chesley’s team negotiates $350 million settlement for the victims, but it’s set aside. Chesley drops out of case before $470 million settlement is reached. He reportedly lost as much as $2 million.
Arrow Air jet crash: Chartered jet crash in 1985 kills 248 Fort Campbell, Ky., soldiers in Gander, Newfoundland. Settlement is about $100 million for victims’ families. Chesley’s reported fee for representing them: More than $1 million.
Bjork Shiley artificial heart valve: Users claim defective heart valves made by Pfizer Inc. caused more than 310 deaths. Settlement in 1992 brings more than $200 million for the users. Chesley’s reported fee for representing them: Unavailable.
Fernald Nuclear Weapons Plant: Chesley represents workers and residents near this Hamilton County uranium-processing plant who claim radioactive exposure caused health problems. In 1994, attorneys reach settlement of nearly $100 million for Chesley’s clients. His reported fee: $15.6 million, shared with three other attorneys.
Pan Am Flight 103 Lockerbie crash: In a 1988 terrorist jetliner bombing over Scotland, 270 people die. Government of Libya agrees in 2003 to $2.7 billion settlement for victims’ families, whom Chesley represented. His reported fee: Unavailable.
Fen-Phen: Chesley represents Kentuckians who claim diet drug caused heart-valve damage and other health problems. In 2001, the drug company agrees to settle for $200 million. Chesley’s reported fee: $20 million
Sex abuse – Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington: More than 300 plaintiffs file class-action suit in 2003 against Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington. Church settles for $85 million early this year. Chesley’s reported fee for representing the plaintiffs: $18.7 million, shared with other attorneys.
Enquirer research by Sally Besten