In this episode, Scott talks with Vicki Slater, a dynamo trial lawyer from Mississippi. Vicki shares two phenomenal stories: one about making a difference in people’s lives, and the other about an unforgettable case against a corrupt judge and corrupt lawyer.
Transcript for Trial Lawyer Talk, Episode 21: Vicki Slater
Scott Glovsky: Welcome to Trial Lawyer Talk. I’m Scott Glovsky, and I’m your host for this podcast, where we speak with some of the best trial lawyers in the United States. First, I want to thank our exclusive sponsor, Tracey Kass. She provides settlement planning services to parties that are getting settlements in lawsuits, to help assure that they’re protected for as long as possible. And Tracey is the exclusive sponsor because she cares, just like the lawyers that we talk to on this show. I’ve worked with her for years, and I picked her personally to be the sponsor, and I’m very thankful.
Today, we’re very lucky to have with us Vicki Slater from Mississippi. Vicki is a dynamo of a trial lawyer, and a dynamo of a person. She’s gonna share with us two phenomenal stories. One about making the difference in people’s lives, the other about a case when she was facing, truly, a corrupt judge and a corrupt lawyer on the other side. And it’s a very, very interesting story.
I want to apologize that the audio quality is not what it normally is. And this is a one-time anomaly, but the story is so good that I really think you’ll enjoy it. And lastly, often I’m asked about some of the best episodes for people who are just coming on to the podcast, and trying to figure out what they should listen to. And they’re all truly wonderful people with great episodes. But a couple of the more popular ones have been Nelson Tyrone, Joe Fried, Michael Callahan, Colby Volkey … Are just some of them. And of course, Paula Estefan as well, that you might want to check out if you’re interested. Anyway, let’s get started. Thanks for joining us, and here we go.
I feel very, very fortunate today to be sitting with an amazing lawyer, an amazing human being that I’ve wanted to get to know for a long time. And I’m very happy that today I get the opportunity to spend a little time, and we get the opportunity to spend a little time with the great Vicki Slater from Mississippi.
Vicki Slater: Thank you. Thank you, Scott.
Scott Glovsky: Vicki is an amazing trial lawyer, an amazing teacher of trial lawyers, and a very important part of Trial Lawyers College.
Vicki Slater: Thank you.
Scott Glovsky: Thank you. Vicki, can you tell us the story of a case that had a profound impact on you?
Vicki Slater: Well, the earliest case that had a profound impact on me was not the biggest case that I had. But I remember this case so very well. I represented a woman named Ora May, and she had suffered a hip injury. She was riding on a bus for handicapped people, and the bus had a wreck, and she was on it. And so after that, her hip was just very painful and she really had a hard time getting around. And so I agreed to take her case, and so I took … The bus was owned by the county, so that was the party that we were trying to hold responsible for her medical bills and her injuries.
Well, I spent a lot of time and money meeting with her doctors, because when you go to meet with your client’s doctors, they may charge you $750 or $1000 just for the meeting with them. And I went and met with her doctors, and they were no help in establishing that the wreck was the cause of her hip injuries, even though she had to have the hip replacement.
And so I never could really get very far with the case for that and a lot of other reasons. It was a low impact case. So I remember that I called the lawyer that represented the county, and I explained to her the situation, and I was just very honest about it. Definitely it was a jury question, whether the accident caused her injury, with or without the doctor’s testimony. Because she didn’t have that injury before the wreck. She definitely had it after, something … You know, a jury could conclude that the wreck did, indeed, have something to do with it.
Scott Glovsky: Just maybe.
Vicki Slat: Maybe, but it was very low-impact. Because she’s on a bus, you know. And the bus had a wreck with a car, so it was hard. But anyway … So the attorney for the county … Oh, we basically just were very honest with one another and worked to get the case settled. And we got it settled for what most people wouldn’t consider to be a great amount of money, but my client was pleased with the results and everything.
Well, a couple of months went by after the case was over, and she called me. It was almost Christmas. And she said, “Miss Slater, you changed my life.” And I said, “How’s that?” And she said, “I was living without utilities before I got this money. And now I have a Christmas tree with lights on.” And I did not know that she was living without utilities. This was my client, and I didn’t even know that about her. I knew that she didn’t have a phone, because she would have to go to a neighbor’s to call me, and when I needed to get in touch with her … This was back in the day before cellphones, so I would call the neighbor and leave a message that I needed her to call me. And every year she called me at Christmas and thanked me, for probably ten years after that. And it really taught me that my clients are greater people than I am.
Scott Glovsky: Vicki, I see your tears. If your tears could talk, what would they say?
Vicki Slater: How lucky I was to be able to do something that made a real difference in somebody’s life, and how humbling it is that they were so grateful for what I didn’t consider to be that great of a case, or settlement. It wasn’t a headline maker. It wasn’t some unique legal theory that I could write articles about forever, or whatever. But it really opened my eyes to what being a trial lawyer is.
And it really brought home to me that many, many, many Americans live right on the edge of either making it, or not making it, you know? We may have a client who is … You know, they might miss a paycheck because of an injury. That could send the whole family over the edge, and so the work that we do is so important, and the delays that the insurance companies on the other side cause, over the least dispute, is very painful to American families. Because they may be going without a paycheck in the meantime, or they may be going without a car in the meantime, or … You know, through no fault of their own, they’ve been put into a financial hardship. And so I just think that sometimes as trial lawyers, we get so busy or so wrapped up in theories or whatever, that we always need to remember that our clients are real people with real problems. And the work that we do for them could mean the difference between a family making it or not making it.
Scott Glovsky: Vicki, I can feel the fight in you, and the pain in you.
Vicki Slater: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Scott Glovsky: Where does that come from?
Vicki Slater: I think that where that comes from is grieving over the difference between what the justice system should be, and what the justice system actually is. And the justice system is not always just. So that sort of brings me around to some other things that are also on my mind today, which … When I was a law clerk, I went with one of the attorneys that I worked for to court. And the deal was, this was on a case in Louisiana, and we were suing a man who was driving drunk and seriously injured our client. Well, it turned out the guy had five DUIs, but for some reason, none of the conviction orders made it to the Department of Motor Vehicle Safety, so his license was never suspended. He was politically connected in that state. That was in Louisiana. So that no matter how many times he got convicted of drunk driving, there really was no consequences for him.
And so I remember, we went to court. We had a trial date set, and I think we were like three months out from the trial date, and we really had the case ready to go, and it was a hands-down winner. Because the guy was definitely driving drunk. He had been convicted of drunk driving five times before. The criminal justice system, whatever was rigged in it, was not pulling his license, and so the only justice available against this guy was a civil jury. Because once that civil jury heard that this was his fifth DUI, and his license had never been suspended, then they were gonna enforce a penalty against him. And they were going to require him to pay our client’s medical bills and lost wages, all the damages he had caused.
So we go to court for a pre-trial hearing, and the judge is just ruling for the insurance company through the whole thing. So one of the insurance lawyers said, “Judge, you know, if you wanted to give them something that they have to take up on appeal right now, you could just rule in our favor, and make them appeal.” And all of this was so our client couldn’t have their day in court. And so the judge said, “Yeah, I think I do wanna give y’all something to appeal, so I’m gonna grant the defense’s motions, and y’all can just go appeal my decision.” So that knocked us off the trial calendar for like another year and a half.
And so when I left that day … And I was only a law student, because I was a law clerk … And I realized then that you’re not just representing your client as a trial lawyer against the insurance company or the … Whoever hurt them, even if it was an accident. You’re also representing them against the system that can go wrong when a judge is not determined to make sure justice happens. And so that was a big, huge lesson for me.
And I think that Americans do not realize, and even trial lawyers do not realize, the absolute extreme power that they have. Because everybody in the courtroom that day knew that we were gonna win, and they were so terrified of us telling our story to a jury that they would do all of these gymnastics to keep us away from a jury. Because a jury … The dynamic of a jury is to render justice. Because when power is invested in a judge or a president or a governor or a senator, that power will tend to corrupt. But when power is invested in a small group of people, who are called together to do justice in that one situation, they are not … They do not tend to be corrupt. They are ennobled to reach a just verdict. That’s why the jury system is so important. That’s why the Seventh Amendment right to a civil jury is so important.
And that’s why the corrupt system of government is so bound and determined to restrict the jury. It’s really a brilliant … A brilliant way to get justice. But you know, judges worry about not getting reelected, or for whatever reason, to not render justice.
Scott Glovsky: What does it feel like when you fight so hard to represent somebody, and then you run into a judge like this, or an arbitrator, or the source of power that shuts you down … And shuts your client down, and tells your client they’re not gonna get justice?
Vicki Slater: It can be frightening. It can be very frightening. And this is why I’m not really focused on one particular case. Because I practice law in Mississippi, and there definitely has been, over the course of my 23 years practicing law, a good ole boy system in place in certain courtrooms. And I can remember that I represented a guy who had been sued one time, and he was from out of state. And so the lawyers that sued him served him with papers by faxing him a copy of the lawsuit, which violates every rule in the book. It was not proper service.
And so I filed a special appearance, and went to say, “Your Honor, we’re not served. We’re not here.” So I went down for the motion hearing, and the judge set the case. He said, “We’re having a trial in two weeks.” Now, under the rules, even if my client had been properly served, he would have 30 days to answer, but we’re having a complete trial in two weeks. And so I had to file every kind of objection you can even imagine.
And the thing about it was that it was some local lawyers who were the plaintiffs, suing this guy that lived in Alabama. So it was the local lawyers that practiced in front of the judge, they were the plaintiffs. So obviously, the judge is trying to help his local lawyers out by bending the rules, and not even giving my guy 30 days. Under the rules, my guy would have 30 days to answer, 90 days to conduct discovery, at least. But we’re having a whole trial in two weeks.
So the only option I had was just to make a record of how wrong the judge was, and how unjust this was, and the judge was furious at me. And so we were set for trial. And so I told my client … Because he has still not been served with papers. We were still there under special appearance … I told him not to come for the trial, not to cross the state line, you know? And so I was just getting ready for this kangaroo court. I was just gonna go down by myself and fight for my client. And the night before the trial, one of the lawyers on the other side called me, and said, “Let’s just do a continuance and push this thing out, so that we can do discovery and all of that.” And I said, “Okay.”
So we sign an order of continuance, but then the judge just set another trial two weeks later. My guy still hadn’t been served. So I removed the whole case to federal court. Which, I usually do plaintiff’s law, so that’s a big no-no for a plaintiff’s lawyer to even think about removing to federal court, right, but I’m defending. And they all got furious at me for taking it to federal court, but the federal judge … And they were trying to set emergency hearings with the federal judge, that they wanted the case back in state court. And the federal judge was just ignoring them, because he’s got a lot of cases on his docket. He’s not interested in doing anybody favors. And so they ended up actually paying my client money. And the case went away, but after that I was considered an enemy by that judge until he died.
Scott Glovsky: I don’t think people realize how hard it is, how bad it feels when you have, even in a non-corrupt courtroom, a judge who’s focused on his docket, and moving the cases, and yells at you for something for nothing.
Vicki Slater: Right.
Scott Glovsky: And to have the defense lawyers, or lawyers on the other side of the case, constantly being aggressive, condescending, rude. And sometimes, I don’t know. I feel like it’s me and my client against the world.
Vicki Slater: Right. It’s very … Actually, if you’re not a little afraid or frightened, you don’t really realize what’s really happening to you. But most judges are fair. They don’t care. Most cases, you never even see the judge until the day of trial, because you work things out with the other side, and so you just roll with it. But when you get into a situation where the judge is not just, your client can get really hurt. Really hurt.
So for trial lawyers, it’s just a huge job. Every case is just huge. Even if it’s a small case, it’s huge. Because you really do need to know what your client’s going through, if they need help with anything. For instance, my client that was living without utilities, and I didn’t know that … You know, I could’ve found a church or somebody to help her get her utilities on. And of course, that was like my second year of having my office even open, but I would like to think today, I wouldn’t be that out of touch with what really is going on in my client’s life. You know, I’d go to their house and try to help them.
Scott Glovsky: We’ve been talking a lot about injustice. Can I ask you about the [Scruggs 00:24:20] case?
Vicki Slater: Yeah, the Scruggs case was a case … It was a bad faith breach of contract case. And the case lasted for a long, long time. The first judge that had it would just never give us a trial date. So when you’re in a lawsuit where the judge will never give you a trial date, you’re just in a mud wrestling contest. Because it’s like … Imagine if the Saints and the Falcons were playing. And there were no referees on the field, and nobody was running a clock, and the fans are in the stand. Just imagine what that would turn into, you know? That’s what a trial is like when the judge won’t set a trial date. It’s like starting a football game that’s never gonna be over. There’s no goal post, there’s no clock. There’s nobody calling first, second, third down. It’s just nothing. You’re just in a world of … A bizarre world of no rules.
And so I represented a lawyer who had been partners with another lawyer named Dick Scruggs. And when they split up their partnership, they knew that they were going to get settlement payments from the cases that they had worked together, for years into the future. So they signed an agreement that Scruggs would collect my part of the client’s fees for him, in trust, and disperse them to him. Speedily, efficiently, diligently, with an accounting. That didn’t happen. So the lawsuit started out, my client just suing for past damages under the contract, and to enforce the contract into the future. Sounds pretty cut and dried, doesn’t it?
Scott Glovsky: Sure does.
Vicki Slater: So then, when that judge retired, the one that wouldn’t give us a trial date for ten years, a new judge came in. And he set a trial date. And so, what had happened was, that Scruggs had used my client’s money to fund the national tobacco litigation. So under the theory of constructive trust, if you take somebody’s money and you invest it in something, you don’t owe them just the money back. They now are owners in the investment.
So in other words, if I stole your car … Let’s say your car was worth $2000, and I stole it and I sold it for ten. I don’t owe you two, I owe you ten. Because that takes the profit out of theft. That’s the theory, in the law. So if you steal $2000 from me, and you go buy Apple stock, and it quadruples, then I’m due everything that my money earned. That way you have no incentive to steal money from me again, right?
Scott Glovsky: Right.
Vicki Slater: And so we were talking about a lot of money. So basically what happened was, unbeknownst to me, when I would file a motion, the judge would read my motion, and he would make comments on it to the other … Not to Mr. Scruggs, but to the lawyers that represented him. And say, “Vicki has a real good point here. You might want to cite this case, and this case, and this case.” So he actually was representing the other side. So they would write their response according to my … What the judge told them, and then he would rule in their favor.
And so they … All of this was being done because he had given him a trial date. See, the first judge would never give us a trial date. Why? The jury. They could not let us get in front of a jury. Just like with the drunk driver in the other case I was talking about. Because a jury was gonna do justice, which would be, make him pay us what he owed under the contract. So the only thing they could do was keep us away from a jury. And so the second judge came along, and he decided to play that game, but to play it differently. And his theory was to give me a trial date, but to shut the case down before we got in front of a jury.
So they had promised … The lawyers for Mr. Scruggs had promised the judge this, that, and the other thing, to help him make me lose. And I didn’t know all this was going on. So I knew more about the case than anybody did, because I really knew that case. And so every time he would rule against one of my claims, I still was alive and well. I still had other claims that they didn’t know about, because they didn’t know the case. Because they didn’t learn the case, because they were just depending on the judge to help them win, so why should they worry about learning the case, right? So every time they thought they had me killed, I was like, “Hey, I’m still alive. We’re going to trial.”
And so the morning that we were supposed to start trial, I came into the courtroom, and the lawyer for the other side said … And I had talked about it with my co-counsel the night before, and we said, “What are they gonna do in the morning?” And so we said, “They’re probably going to come in with a new expert report that says that they owe us nothing.” Because that’s the only way they could try to not get in front of the jury. So we get in court the next morning that the trial is supposed to start, and the other lawyer walked up to me and he said, “I have a new expert report.” And I said, “I know you do, and it says you owe us zero.” And he was like, “Well, actually it does.” And I said, “Well, let me see it.” He said, “I don’t want you to look at it.”
And so I said, “Okay,” because I’m thinking, if you don’t show it to me, you’re not getting it into evidence, you know? So it was in a sealed brown envelope, and so the judge comes in, and he says, “Your Honor, we have a new expert report.” Unbeknownst to me, the judge already knew it. See, I didn’t know the judge was in on this. And he said, “We have a new expert report, and it says that we don’t owe them anything.” And the judge said, “All right, well let me see it.” So he hands the envelope to the judge, and I said, “Your Honor, I object to you looking at that report, because we haven’t seen it yet.” And the judge said, “Okay,” and he said, “Well, without opening the envelope,” … It could have been a crayon drawing of a rabbit in that envelope … He says, “The court finds that the expert report says that the defendants owe zero. So the court is going to adopt this report.” To this day, that envelope has not been opened.
So this was a judge that was determined for a certain outcome. So he wasn’t being a referee, like a judge is supposed to be. It would be like if Peyton Manning was playing, and the ref ran out on the field and grabbed the ball out of his hand and started running down the field with it, you know?
Scott Glovsky: Yeah.
Vicki Slater: That’s what it’s like when a judge is actively trying to work a result on a case. It’s a perversion of what it’s supposed to be. And so what ended up happening was, we ended up actually settling for some small amount that day, and thought the case was over, until the FBI got involved over a year later, no thanks to us. We weren’t even looking at anything. But through some other circumstances that happened, the FBI got involved and then it was revealed what had happened in the case. And that’s when we found out what the judge had done.
And so, the whole point of it is that there’s nothing more powerful than a jury in this country. And that’s how scared corporate America, or the big guys, or the good ole boys, or whatever the power structure is that you’re going up against … That’s how determined they will be to keep you from getting to that jury. Because if you get to that jury with the real story of what happened, they will lose. So many road blocks, tort reform statutes, some judges, some court rules are being designed to just gradually shut down the civil jury. Because the civil jury is where an ordinary person can get justice. It’s where the person who is not world famous, or rich, or powerful, can get justice against somebody who is. It’s where O.J. Simpson was brought to justice, even though the criminal justice system couldn’t or didn’t render justice on those same facts, under that standard.
So this is what grieves me, is that as that Seventh Amendment right … And it’s not just the Seventh Amendment right under the United States Constitution, it’s a right under every state Constitution, in every state … And that right for a civil jury trial, that people are unaware is being ripped out from underneath them.
Scott Glovsky: So what happened in the Scruggs case to the judge, to the lawyers, and anyone else?
Vicki Slater: The lawyers ended up going to prison, except for one, who turned state evidence early. And he lost his bar card, and I think maybe he was on probation or something. And the judge ended up going to prison. Everybody that was in the courtroom that day, except me and my co-counsel and my client, and the court reporter and the bailiffs, went to prison.
Scott Glovsky: And how was that revealed, ultimately?
Vicki Slater: They caught an attorney that was representing Mr. Scruggs in another case robbing another judge, and so that lawyer revealed the whole scheme in our case.
Scott Glovsky: And what some of our listeners may not know is, Dickie Scruggs was one of the most successful plaintiff’s lawyers in the country.
Vicki Slater: Yeah, he was … Well, he had represented Mississippi in many states in their litigation against the tobacco companies. And so that created a lot of notoriety and wealth for him. But our position was … Excuse me … You used our money to do that, without our permission.
Scott Glovsky: But isn’t there, also, I mean a betrayal. We are-
Vicki Slater: Total.
Scott Glovsky: We’re lawyers who fight for people-
Vicki Slater: Total. And see, this is another thing, is that Mr. Scruggs’ brother-in-law was a United States senator. He was the Senate Majority Leader in the United States Senate, at the time. And he actually was calling the judge to help rig the outcome in the case. So I come from a family that is definitely middle class. I’m like the first person in my family to graduate college. I’m the only person in my family … Well, no. My sister has a Master’s in Education now, but … I’m the only person in my family to go to law school. There’s no other lawyers in my family. So I’m just a woman attorney from Mississippi, and I have just filed this bad faith breach of contract case, and the Majority Leader in the United States Senate is so worried about what that jury is going to do to his brother-in-law, that he’s calling the judge. That is the power that a trial lawyer, who can get to a jury, has.
That is the power that an ordinary American, who hires a trial lawyer to get to a jury, has. Corporate America spends billions of dollars on Capitol Hill, and in every state capitol, to defeat the trial lawyer who’s trying to get his client justice from an American jury. They’re terrified. Terrified. Of a jury. And that is the power that a trial lawyer has, and that is the power that any client of a trial lawyer has. And that is that your client does not bear the burden of a wrong done by somebody else. It’s just making people be responsible for the harm they cause. It’s just so Mayberry. It’s just like, you know, on Andy Griffith, when Opie used to break a window, and Andy made him pay for it? That’s it. That’s all it is.
But these people want to not pay for the window. They just want to keep making money. So they shame our clients and us, because we ask for money. Well, let me ask you this: Let’s say, let’s take my client whose hip was hurt, injured. When did the county owe her money? When she filed the lawsuit? When the case was settled? Or, in the event that if we had gone to trial, when the jury rendered a verdict? When did the defendant owe her money? The day they hurt her. When did Mr. Scruggs owe my client money? The day he took a dime under that trust agreement. But we look like we’re doing wrong. No. They did wrong, and they don’t want to pay for it. They don’t want to accept responsibility for it. They are the debtor. We’re just the creditor, trying to get paid for what we’re due.
So it’s really very sad to me, that in a country where we all have liability insurance to take care of, “Hey, if I accidentally hurt you, don’t worry, I’ve got insurance,” right? So we have this wonderful system, but we’re being gamed. By the insurance companies, by the people in power, by the rich and famous. However you want to put it, we’re being gamed, because they don’t want to accept responsibility for their wrongs. They want the people that they hurt to bear the responsibility.
Scott Glovsky: So in the midst of this unfair system, certainly where you’ve described in Mississippi is tragic and disgusting. How do you find the courage to keep fighting?
Vicki Slater: Well, for one thing … And I really do want to emphasize not all Mississippi judges are like that. Most Mississippi judges, they come in, they don’t have a dog in the fight. You need a trial date? Let’s get you a trial date. Y’all ready for trial? Let’s go to trial. They just call the shots, like a referee’s supposed to. And I’m not putting down judges when I say they’re being referees, but that’s really what they’re there for. To make sure that the rules are followed, and that the playing field is even. So one thing, I’m encouraged because most judges are fair. And another reason is because I guess the bad things I’ve been through, I’ve lived through. And we have to be able to stand up for what’s right, even if everybody else around us is doing what’s wrong. You just … We have to.
So if my client … If I’m hired, and my client’s going into the lion’s den, I’m standing between them and the lion. In the case where the judge tried to make us go to court trial in two weeks, I told my client, I said, “Look. We’re gonna lose if we go to trial in two weeks, but we’re gonna appeal. And every … We’re gonna win, nine to nothing, in the Supreme Court. But you’re gonna have to have another lawyer when you go back in front of that judge, because he’s hating me. Because I’m calling him out on what he’s doing.” I’m not going along with the good ole boys. I don’t think it’s funny. Just because my client’s from out of state, doesn’t mean I’m gonna just lay down and not help him, you know? I’m gonna defend him. I’m gonna defend him if you hate my guts afterwards. And I’m gonna defend him if you love me. You’re beside the point, Your Honor. I’m sorry. I just need some justice here. Now, why aren’t you giving it to me?
So trial lawyers are up against a lot. And a trial lawyer needs to realize, you don’t need to fight with the judge, but you gotta protect your client. And see, criminal defense lawyers realize it a lot more than we civil lawyers do, because there is such a machine in place to just grind civil … I mean criminal defendants, you know. So we don’t really see that as often. So maybe we don’t recognize it when it’s happening to us. And we don’t really have to get between the devil and the dark blue sea as often.
Scott Glovsky: Well Vicki, thank you so much. On behalf of the clients you represent, who are very lucky. On behalf of the students you teach around the country. And on behalf of trial lawyers nationwide, for the wonderful, wonderful representation you give us through the American Association for Justice, and other organizations. It’s been a real treat for me to get to spend some time with you.
Vicki Slater: Thank you.
Scott Glovsky: Thank you.
Thank you for joining us today for Trial Lawyer Talk. If you like the show, I’d really appreciate if you could give us a good review on iTunes, and I’d love to get your feedback. You can reach me at scottglovsky.wpengine.com. That’s S-C-O-T-T-G-L-O-V-S-K-Y, dot com, and I’d love to hear your feedback. You can also check out the book that I published, called Fighting Health Insurance Denials, A Primer for Lawyers. That’s on Amazon. I put the book together based on 20 years of suing health insurance companies for denying medical care to people, and it provides a general outline of how to fight health insurance denials. Have a great week, and we’ll talk to you in the next episode.