He first gained international prominence in 1964 as the lawyer who defended Jack Ruby, the Dallas, Tex., businessman who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin of John F. Kennedy. Since then, lawyer Melvin Belli has specialized in winning multi-million-dollar settlements from corporations and individuals for clients injured by negligence or malpractice. Now, at 81, the controversial Belli is surrounded by a mounting array of problems himself. Forced out of his San Francisco mansion by the breakup of his marriage, Belli is also being sued by the U.S. government for up to $3 million in back taxes and is fighting six malpractice suits against him.
Over the years, Belli’s clients have included such celebrities as boxer Muhammad Ali, actress Mae West, comedian Lenny Bruce and the British rock group The Rolling Stones. And in a recent victory, Belli won $22 million in 1987 for the families of 16 American servicemen killed when a DC-8 jetliner crashed in 1985 at Gander, Nfld., with the loss of 256 lives. But in recent years, Belli has come under fire for his haphazard running of his own legal practice and for his flamboyant personal style. Last July, the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Trial Lawyers of America, which Belli helped to found, tentatively approved a resolution calling on members for restraint in talking to the media—an action that many lawyers interpreted as a direct rebuke to the outspoken Belli.
The family life of the man known as “the King of Torts” blazed into public prominence last July when his 39-year-old wife, Lia, filed for a legal separation, claiming that Belli physically and verbally abused her and wrongly accused her of infidelity. Forced out of the couple’s 25room house by a court order, Belli took up residence on his 105-foot yacht and publicly described Lia—his fifth wife—as “the Queen of Tarts.” The dispute took on the trappings of soap opera when Lia Belli called a news conference to refute accusations by her husband that she slept with household staff. Mrs. Belli produced character witnesses, including a young male secretary from the Belli mansion, who declared that he had never slept with her.
Belli is also facing a legal action that could erode his large personal fortune. The United States Internal Revenue Service claims that Belli evaded $3 million in taxes in 1981 when he transferred ownership of his law firm’s San Francisco office building to his son and daughter. At the same time, the growing number of malpractice suits against his law firm have eroded Belli’s legal standing. Three years ago, a San Francisco court found that Belli’s firm was negligent in the case of a motorcycle accident victim who subsequently accused hospital workers of damaging his spinal cord. Belli’s firm was ordered to pay the plaintiff $5.2 million.
Since then, six more malpractice suits have been filed against Belli by lawyers who worked for Belli’s firm in the past—the claims range from fraud to breach of contract—as well as several former clients who claim that Belli’s firm bungled their cases.
Despite Belli’s current difficulties, many legal experts credit him with changing the course of civil law in the English-speaking world by helping to establish that corporations and professionals such as doctors and lawyers can be held responsible for harm caused to their clients. In 1944, Belli represented a California waitress who was injured by an exploding soft-drink bottle. The case paved the way for scores of subsequent product-liability actions. Said James Jeans, a law professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City: “He had a greater impact on the plaintiff’s bar and the style of trying lawsuits than any one person in this century.”
During his long career, Belli broke new legal ground by using photographs, blackboards and other devices to introduce “demonstrative evidence” into civil and criminal actions. He also employed dramatic courtroom tactics to gain the sympathy of juries. In a now-legendary case brought by a woman whose leg had been severed by a San Francisco streetcar in 1941, Belli appeared in court with an oblong, butcher’s-paper-wrapped bundle and put it on the plaintiff’s table. During closing arguments in the case, Belli unwrapped the parcel as the jurors watched in horror, expecting to see the victim’s severed limb. The parcel turned out to contain the plaintiff’s new artificial leg, which Belli passed around the jury box. The woman’s $120,000 award was 10 times the usual amount at that time.
Belli says that he has no serious concerns about his current difficulties. Confronted by suggestions that he is no longer able to manage his firm’s work load—which currently totals more than 1,000 cases—Belli claims that his office still receives 50 calls a day from potential clients. He also insists that he will not let the trial lawyers’ association prevent him from talking to journalists. Declared Belli: “If the press wants to talk to me, I will talk to them.”
In the meantime, his highly publicized feud with his wife appears to have gained him new popularity with San Franciscans. When a dispute flared over custody of the couple’s Italian greyhound, named Wheldone Rhumproast IV, the San Francisco Examiner asked readers to vote on who should get the animal. Belli won by a 2-to-l margin. But victory may prove more difficult in the storm of legal and financial battles gathering around the legendary lawyer’s head.
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