Two days after Delta Air Lines Flight 191 crashed two weeks ago in Dallas, killing 133 passengers, the firm of San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli set up shop in a suite at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport Hilton, where victims' relatives were gathering.
At a nearby hospital, survivor Esther Ledford, 37, having endured the impact, the flames and a 15- or 20-foot fall from her seat to the ground, was in bed at 7:30 a.m. when her husband, Roger, turned away two representatives of the airline's insurance carrier who wanted to see her. They left their cards, the Ledfords' lawyer said, offered to pay her bills and urged that he call them.
A man who had flown in to identify his wife's remains was badgered by lawyers on both sides during his stay at the Airport Hilton, according to his friend, attorney F. Lee Bailey.
Such occurrences, recounted by victims' lawyers, friends and relatives, have triggered investigations by the Dallas County district attorney's office and the State Bar of Texas.
"The report I'm getting is that they are very resentful of being solicited," by either side, Bailey said of victims' families. "It's like invading Bhopal, India, [where a chemical leak from Union Carbide Corp. plant killed more than 2,000 people in December] before all the bodies have been buried."
Jousting by lawyers at mass disasters is not new but experts say it is becoming more public as the legal climate changes -- and even some who denounce the solicitation of clients say it sometimes serves the public interest. But critics and supporters agree that unseemly behavior by a few reinforces a stereotype of all lawyers as callous, money-grubbing vultures.
The brash Belli, 78 -- whom Life magazine once dubbed the "King of Torts" for his ability to win huge judgments in personal-injury cases -- has become a catalyst for public revulsion over big-time ambulance chasing. His prompt visit to the scene of the Bhopal disaster drew similar attention.
"I'd rather be an ambulance chaser than an ambulance filler," he said in a telephone interview this week. But he said he did not solicit clients directly in Dallas.
Belli has filed suit on behalf of 23,770 individual victims of the Bhopal disaster and has eight in the Dallas crash. He said that in Dallas, as in Bhopal and other major cases, he was brought into the case by other lawyers who know that "I'm damn good."
"We brought Belli into it," said Miami attorney Paul Siegel, who represents two survivors of the Delta crash: Ledford, of Ft. Lauderdale, and Annie Edwards of Pampano Beach. He said his firm -- Sinclair, Louis, Siegal, Heath, Nussbaum and Zavertnik -- has a 25-year relationship with the Belli firm.
Nonetheless, the speed with which Belli sent associates to Dallas has come in for criticism. "A lot of lawyers get calls in a case like this, but there's an appropriate way to act and an inappropriate way . . . ," said veteran plaintiffs' attorney Lee S. Kreindler of New York City, an air crash specialist who has been retained by the families of two people killed in the crash. "You don't have to rush to Dallas."
Belli said he dispatched his son, Caesar, 28, and another associate, Richard Brown, to Texas after the crash because Delta officials had closed off his telephone access to families they were housing at the Hilton. He said it is important for the victims' lawyers to get to the scene quickly to counter the insurance company agents, who always get there early.
Brown contends that if anyone was harassing the victims, it was attorneys for Delta's insurance carrier, who he said offered cash settlements to head off lawsuits.
Robert Alpert, an official of U.S. Aviation Underwriters Inc., which represents Delta's insurors, denied that his agents were trying to negotiate settlements. They were trying to "get the bodies identified and back home," he said.
The office of Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade has declined to comment on its investigation, which reportedly was prompted by a complaint from an attorney for Delta and is focusing on the activities of Belli's firm.
Wade's office is investigating under a seldom-used state "barratry" statute that forbids solicitation of clients by attorneys or their agents. The American Bar Association has a similar rule. But experts say the recent Supreme Court rulings upholding the lawyers' right to advertise have raised questions about the enforceability of such prohibitions.
"Where do you draw the line between soliciting and advertising?" Belli asked. "That line is very thin now." Proper solicitation is desirable and widespread, he added.
Brown said Belli's firm has lost several clients in the Delta case because of the adverse publicity stemming from Wade's investigation and is considering suing individual attorneys who complained to the authorities about Belli.
Wade was the prosecutor in 1964 when Belli defended Jack Ruby on charges of fatally shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy. In an angry outburst in the Dallas courtroom after Ruby was convicted and sentenced to death, Belli called the trial a "kangaroo railroad" and Dallas a "festering sore" and a "city of shame forever."
Both Belli and a source familiar with Wade's office said that that history has "very little" to do with the current flap.
In addition to the district attorney's investigation, the state bar's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee, a body appointed by the state Supreme Court, has been "looking generally into the situation without targeting anyone in particular," said bar spokesman Larry Fitzgerald.
Kreindler, considered a leading authority on aviation accident law, said that although he abhors soliciting clients and considers it demeaning to the bar, it has "potential public benefits."
"Clients can profit from solicitation," he said, if they listen and learn about rights they may not have known they had, and "if they are careful and don't jump to the first solicitor who comes along."
He said the competition for clients also "probably tends to bring the fees down in these cases." He recommended that the bar prepare an educational pamphlet to be distributed among the likely targets of solicitation.