SANDUSKY - When the British Broadcasting Corp. put together a report on car crashes caused by sudden, unexpected vehicle acceleration, they came to this small Erie County resort community to interview a lawyer whose investigation is helping to identify why the problem occurs.
It is just one way in which Thomas Murray and other members of 69-year-old Murray & Murray are making waves far beyond the shores of Lake Erie.
The firm, which claims to be the largest family-run law firm in the nation, has won millions of dollars for clients nationwide in huge class action, securities, environmental, and personal injury cases.
More recently, however, the firm created an unwanted splash because of the involvement of Mr. Murray's cousin, Dennis Murray, Sr., in bankrupt insurer Conseco, Inc. A member of that company's board of directors for six years until his ouster in December, 2000, Dennis Murray, Sr., used a Conseco program to promote stock ownership among executives and directors to buy nearly $100 million in Conseco's now worthless shares with loans backed by the company.
His son, Dennis Murray, Jr., said in an interview here recently that the incident has had little impact on the law firm. “We're still doing exactly the things we always do,” the younger Mr. Murray said.
By all accounts, Murray & Murray lawyers are successful at what they do.
“They have a national practice and are very effective on behalf of their clients,” said Professor Vern Traster, a trial law expert at Ohio Northern University, Ada, Ohio.
“I think most lawyers will tell you that Murray & Murray is a preeminent law firm in Ohio,” added Columbus lawyer Frank Todaro, who is president of the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers Association. “Their reputation is that they do top quality work. They have probably handled some of the most complicated cases lawyers in our field encounter.”
The firm's opulent glass and stone headquarters is perched along Sandusky Bay. It includes a glass-enclosed, water-front conference room. Seated at a marble-topped table, adversaries brought in to answer questions under oath in preparation for trial can see peaks and valleys of the mammoth roller coasters at Cedar Point amusement park across the bay.
Family members are consistent donors to Democratic political candidates, including Congressmen Marcy Kaptur, of Toledo, and Dennis Kucinich, of Cleveland.
Proud of their Irish Catholic heritage, they have affixed a shamrock and flag of Ireland to their headquarters. They are major supporters to the church locally and at the diocesan level in Toledo.
Thomas Murray, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress twice in the 1980s, has a keen interest in Russia and its culture and can sometimes be seen reading a Russian-language bible at church.
He is a friend of former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and worked with him to raise funds for a $10 million maternity clinic near Moscow.
Mr. Murray and his wife, Ann, contributed $250,000 in 1992 to establish a visiting professorship in Catholic thought at the University of Toledo.
Charlie Murray, who at 37 is among the younger family members in the firm, recently built a four-bedroom 9,200-square-foot castle-like home along the shores of Lake Erie that won a design award from the Toledo chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
He is one of 10 family members who practice at Murray & Murray. The business includes eight other lawyers.
The firm is dwarfed by full-service Ohio firms such as Baker & Hostetler, Jones Day, and even Toledo's Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick LLP, which have large corporate practices.
But Murray & Murray and similar firms - which specialize in filing lawsuits on behalf of individual consumers over issues like securities fraud, insurance company abuses, and wrongful death - tend to be smaller, according to legal experts. The firm does no defense work.
Murray & Murray's Web site lists three dozen “landmark cases” in which it won or obtained jury awards of nearly $460 million on behalf of clients.
That doesn't include $600 million recovered in a shareholder's suit in which the firm participated but was not the only law firm.
Thomas Murray has more than 20 lawsuits pending against Ford Motor Co. nationwide involving sudden, unexpected vehicle acceleration.
The suits argue that the car maker knew about the problem, which plaintiff lawyers say continue to affect some models but was especially bad in Crown Victoria and Lincoln models produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Ford insisted that the problem, which often happened when the ignition was started, was the result of drivers mistakenly pressing the accelerator instead of the brake pedal.
Members of his firm say Thomas Murray was among the first lawyers to assemble evidence showing the problem was caused by a random electrical fault in the computer logic of the cruise control.
Ford and other automakers continue to insist they had no advance knowledge of any defect and even dispute that there is a defect.
In northwest Ohio, Murray & Murray has represented plaintiffs in a number of high profile cases including a medical malpractice suit filed by the late Roger Bone, former president of the Medical College of Ohio; a shareholders' suit against the failed Towne Bancorp; and the terrace collapse at Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island in 2000.
Despite a national backlash against trial lawyers, members of the firm offer no apologies.
“In a way, we're economic cops,” said Dennis Murray, Jr., who is 40.
“A lot of countries have elaborate bureaucracies to do what the trial bar does in this country. It keeps the system honest.”
He is critical of efforts to reform the system, especially limits on jury awards. Such caps don't work, he claimed.
He acknowledged that there is a problem with skyrocketing premiums for medical malpractice insurance, but blames the problem on insurance companies.
Dennis Murray defends his father's role in Conseco.
“This story is a long way from being closed,” he said.
While many media reports about the company's problems have focused on the stock-purchase loans, Conseco would still be thriving if it weren't for the acquisition of Greentree Financial, which specialized in making loans to mobile-home buyers.
Conseco, an insurance and finance company, struggled ever since that acquisition, as the mobile-home business soured, leaving the firm with a growing number of bad loans.
The stock-purchase loan program, he said, was developed by Conseco - with the backing of the firm's banks - in response to criticism that corporate directors didn't have enough stake in the company's they were leading, Mr. Murray said.
Dennis Murray, Sr., declined to comment on the subject.
Ironically, he was asked to join the board after suing Conseco. A long-time shareholder, Dennis Sr. objected to a plan by executives to buy the firm and take it public. He felt that deal was unfair to shareholders.
The proposed sale was dropped after the suit was filed, and Dennis Sr. was invited to join the board, his son said.
Three of his children work with the law firm. Besides Dennis Jr. are Charlie and Margaret.
The brothers and sister said they enjoy working together. “It's a very competitive environment among siblings,” said Charlie Murray.
The siblings and their families also often vacation together. Most recently, there was a ski vacation to Colorado.
The firm has an informal leadership structure, without a managing partner.
“We get together every two weeks to make sure everyone is on the same page,” Dennis Jr. said. “We do lots of communicating using voice mail and e-mail.”
Murray & Murray was founded in 1934 by brothers Emmitt and Thomas Murray.
Between them, they had six sons who joined the firm and continue to work there.
The firm includes four members of the third generation, with two more in law school.
Toledo attorney Stephen Collier, who has worked with members of the firm in the Lonz winery collapse, said Murray & Murray is large for a plaintiff's business.
“They have a reputation as being very hard-working people who will take on larger cases than the ordinary small firm can take on,” said lawyer Robert Reno, president of the Erie County Bar Association.