To view original article click here
The Fayetteville Observer (NC)
June 22, 1997
Author: Marc Barnes, Staff writer
The chocolate-brown Lear jet dropped through the cloud cover and landed at Grannis Field in Fayetteville. Two cars from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department awaited the only passenger. And at the Cumberland County Courthouse, an anxious assistant district attorney named Wade Byrd watched the clock. More than two decades later, in the restored Victorian house that is now his law office, Byrd, now 49, enjoys telling the tale of how he almost lost a case and $3,000 of his own money in the same day. The tale is vintage Byrd.
Alternately drawing on a Tareyton and doodling on a pad in front of him, Byrd tells about how the man who was given the treatment normally accorded to rock stars and corporate chieftains was instead a witness in a Cumberland County first-degree murder case. Earlier, he had been given a two-way plane ticket to come to Fayetteville and testify, but had partied away the weekend and used the ticket to go back home, instead of showing up for court. “He was THE witness in the case,” Byrd said. “He saw the defendant come home, covered in blood, to take a shower.”
It got worse. Superior Court Judge James H. Pou Bailey told Byrd bluntly that he would either have his witness in court the next morning, or the case would likely be dismissed. “I called out to Fort Bragg and tried to get the general to arrange transportation,” Byrd said. “He said that `I couldn’t get a plane this quick for me.’ ” In short order, Byrd located a firm in Houston that had a Lear jet and was willing to fly the witness back. The general at Fort Bragg agreed to order the military police in San Antonio to put him on the plane.
Byrd walked into court at 9:30 a.m. and asked for a short delay. By noon, he told Bailey that his witness was somewhere over Memphis, Tenn., with all air traffic cleared to Fayetteville. By 1 p.m., the witness was on the stand testifying.
Byrd got a conviction and the District Attorney’s Office decided that mistake wouldn’t be made again: Now, out-of-state witnesses are given a ticket to get to Fayetteville, but aren’t given a way to leave until after they testify. But there was a problem: The state didn’t want to pay the $3,000 tab.
Byrd says his uncle, who happened to be the chairman of the Republican Party in Cumberland County, convinced Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser that his nephew couldn’t afford to charter a Lear jet on an assistant district attorney’s salary.
“I was worried about that one,” Byrd says.
A PROBLEM SOLVER
The Lear jet incident early on illustrated a willingness by Byrd not to wring his hands over a problem, but to plunge in and try to come up with a solution. In recent years, that has extended into efforts on behalf of his hometown of Fayetteville and to the fundamental right to a trial by jury of the people he represents.
Byrd says that’s part of the reason that he has developed an interest in politics, having served this past year as president of the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers. He is considering running for the presidency of a national lawyers’ group.
And using money earned from his law practice, which concentrates on medical malpractice and personal injury cases, he has donated roughly $150,000 to various Democratic Party interests, including Harvey Gantt, Gov. Jim Hunt and Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell, according to published reports.
“I don’t like the fact that money has such importance in politics,” Byrd said. “I can either sit back and complain about it and let big business control the agenda or I can try to have an impact on the behalf of the people I represent.” Byrd said that “there are incredibly decent people” who sacrifice personal income to run for public office.
“I try to spot people who I believe have the ideals that I think are important and primarily, to give ordinary working people a fighting chance against big business,” he said. “I don’t want a leg up, I just want an even playing field. But what I give is like a one-story building next to the Empire State Building, compared to banks and big business.” Byrd paused.
“My wife thinks I’m a damned idiot for doing this and she may be right.” Tom Hendrickson would beg to differ. Hendrickson, a Raleigh businessman, serves as national chairman of the Democratic Business Council for the Democratic National Committee.
“Fairness in the way people are treated.”
Hendrickson said that he and Byrd have had many conversations about politics and other issues. “All are related to `how is the party doing?’ ” Hendrickson said. “He has never approached any of that in terms of `what is in it for me?’ His approach is `how can I help?’ I think he gives because he thinks it is the right and good thing to do.”
Jerry Meek, chairman of the Cumberland County Democratic Party, said one reason that Byrd gives to the Democratic Party is that he wants to see improvements in Fayetteville, but isn’t necessarily looking to get the credit. “There are people who contribute and who want to receive recognition for it,” he said. “Those are the ones at receptions and banquets. He is more likely to contribute but to shy away when it comes to the recognition. He doesn’t want a lot of fuss made about it.”
Byrd was born the second of seven children to Bill Byrd, who had a life insurance and real estate business, and Helen Byrd, a private-duty nurse. He grew up on Westmont Drive, across the street from Snyder Memorial Baptist Church, carried a paper route for the Fayetteville Observer, attended Fayetteville High School.
“I didn’t grow up with money,” he said. “I probably identify more with the `have-nots’ than with the `haves,’ who are most of my clients.”
On Saturdays, there was time enough to ride his bike to the Haymount Theater for a feature, two cartoons and a serial. And every time the church across the street opened its doors, the Byrd family was there. The Rev. James Cammack and his wife, Judy, were Byrd’s godparents, and their son, Chris, was and is his best friend.
Snyder was part of the reason that Byrd became a lawyer, because he grew to respect and admire longtime Fayetteville lawyers Harold Downing and Richard Wiggins, both of whom taught Sunday school.
Another part of the equation was that Snyder was where Wade Byrd sometimes misbehaved.
He remembers the times that the family dog would wander into the sanctuary, providing him an excuse to leave and search for cigarettes that others had thrown out near the door. And there were times he would get caught sneaking out by crawling under the pews — and the memorable day he was caught swimming in the baptistry.
“I had a stern disciplinarian for a father and I was constantly called upon to talk myself out of trouble,” Byrd said.
But Byrd says today that it was his father who encouraged him to become a professional, because of how hard Bill Byrd had to work as a salesman.
“I guess we all want something better for our children,” he said. “I graduated from college with a degree in political science and what was I going to do? What I ended up doing was going to a technical institute really. I went to law school to learn a trade, a profession.”
Byrd went to Wingate Junior College for one year, then transferred to Methodist College here, working his way through by selling shoes. He went on to law school at Wake Forest, where he worked three jobs: night librarian, clerk for a law firm and tutor.
Byrd joined the office of the district attorney, right out of law school, and spent 3-1/2 years there. During that time, he tried 75 cases through to a verdict. By comparison, he estimates he has tried 40 or 50 cases in the past 20 years.
Byrd moved into private practice to learn what being a lawyer was about. He didn’t have to look far for his first medical malpractice case, when a court reporter’s father-in-law almost died of a misdiagnosed head injury. “I handled the case and it was successful,” he said.
Several cases followed, including the case of a baby with brain damage that was settled for $1.2 million. Another case led to a $3.5 million verdict, again for a baby who had suffered brain damage, and still another came in for $800,000 for a 76-year-old Macon County man who died of throat cancer.
Then there was Delbert Muse III. Muse was 16 years old when he swallowed an overdose of antidepressants that killed him, 17 days after he was discharged from Charter Hospital of Winston-Salem.
His parents, Delbert and Jane Muse of Fayetteville, filed suit alleging that the private psychiatric hospital had discharged their son not because he was better, but because his insurance had run out. The jury agreed, awarding the couple $7.1 million.
The state Court of Appeals ruled that the trial judge, Thomas Ross, had erred in some of his jury instructions. A new trial on the issue of punitive damages was ordered, but the case was later settled. Byrd won’t say for how much. The verdict was the first of its kind in Guilford County and the highest medical malpractice verdict in the history of the state.
Byrd says that his decision to concentrate on medical malpractice was not about money — it was about a challenge. “The doctors had the best lawyers in the state; they had access to any expert they wanted and the statistics showed that the doctors won those cases 80 to 90 percent of the time,” Byrd says. “The challenge was huge and it attracted me to that area.” And Byrd said that is the reason, ultimately, that he has gotten involved in politics.
“These people need a voice,” he says. “I represent injured people, injured workers, brain-damaged babies, people with cancer which has advanced too far to do anything in time, people who have been injured by defective products. The defendants in all of these cases have lobbyists in Congress and in the General Assembly.”
But what about the critics of malpractice lawyers, about the allegations that lawsuits are frivolous, that lawyers are in it just for the money and that good doctors are unfairly targeted?
Byrd said that with contingency fees, in which the lawyer only collects a percentage of the award if he wins, only a fool would bring a frivolous lawsuit.
“One-third of zero is zero,” he said. “And that’s the best deterrent there is.”
He also says that the lawyer for the insurance company defending the doctor gets paid, no matter what.
And as for taking on a popular and trusted physician, Byrd stresses that he sets the tone early in a case that the lawsuit isn’t personal.
“In jury selection, I say, `I want you all to understand something. This is not a criminal case. The physician is not going to lose his license. It is just like if you or I run a stop sign and injure somebody, we are responsible for their injuries. You would not go to jail and you are not going to lose your license. The same is true of physicians. He is a good doctor and a nice person, but that’s not the issue. The issue is: did he do what he should have done in the care of this patient and if he didn’t, that’s negligence.”
Byrd said that he is proud to be a lawyer and what that means — both in the courtroom and in the legislature. And now that the races to which he contributed have ended, some in victory and some in defeat, he is looking forward to supporting new candidates. He has some in mind, but he isn’t ready to talk about that just yet. Political races, like legal contests, are often won or lost based on how good your timing is.
Record Number: 374705
Copyright 1997, 2002 The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer