Battle Belli

The international soap opera that surrounds the crumbling San Francisco landmark that was center stage for the incomparable "King of Torts," Melvin Belli

And it's rising.

Melvin Belli's bankruptcy estate is still collecting money from litigation in which the famous lawyer had an interest, and is still paying money to those he owed, and to the lawyers involved. The bankruptcy estate of his son and law partner, Caesar Belli, is still collecting and paying money. And three (read: half) of Melvin Belli's wives, two of his six children, and five of his law partners have all sued each other in various combinations. The Montgomery Street property has become a living monument to the legal wreckage that followed the death of its owner.

The Belli Building was the prize possession of Melvin Belli, the headquarters of his historic law career. For decades, the building held all things Belli, making it really more of a home than just an office to the great barrister.

Mel Belli grew up in Sonora and went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, staying to acquire a law degree at Boalt Hall. In 1933, Belli passed the California State Bar exam, barely, and began practicing law in San Francisco. And that was about as pleasant as relations ever got between Belli and the Bar. Belli influenced the law as much as any attorney in modern history, but annoyed a whole lot of people in the process.

Several decades ago, Life magazine dubbed Belli the "King of Torts," largely because he invented and refined the use of "demonstrative evidence"; that is, physical things he brought into the courtroom for the jury to see, hold, and occasionally smell, to make a point. For instance, Belli once tossed an artificial leg to a startled jury, so that they might better "feel the pulse" of his injured client. And Belli had a car dismantled and rebuilt inside the courtroom long before Johnny Cochran ever considered a bloody glove. Belli was a showman. And it paid off.

Melvin Belli pushed personal injury awards to new heights in a personal crusade against the big corporations he sued, the ones he jokingly called "Holy Grail Insurance Company." Later, Belli's name was attached to lawsuits over major disasters wherever they may have happened -- a toxic gas leak in Bhopal, India, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and major airline crashes around the globe. In all, Belli won his clients more than $700 million in awards throughout his career, a significant percentage of which came back into the Belli Building.

In 1944, he sued the Coca-Cola bottling company on behalf of a waitress who'd been injured when a bottle of Coke exploded in her hand. The case went to the California Supreme Court and helped set legal precedent for product liability.

He won awards for the families of black inmates shot by white guards during a 1975 riot at Soledad State Prison in Monterey.

Belli founded what would become the politically powerful Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and authored more than 60 books, including five volumes of Modern Trials, which was long considered mandatory reading for plaintiff's lawyers. He also held "The Belli Seminars" annually to educate lawyers and students in tort law.

Nonetheless, the American Bar Association remained unamused by Melvin Belli. It attempted to punish the barrister several times for his flamboyant behavior in and out of the courtroom, and a couple of times actually succeeded. His clients included the Rolling Stones (Belli appears in the Stones' documentary Gimme Shelter securing concert space at Altamont), and the Bar initiated disciplinary proceedings against Belli for being present when his clients hot-wired a car, which is a crime. Another time, the state Bar brought charges against Belli for appearing in a newspaper advertisement for Glenfiddich scotch.

Belli had little patience for the structure and rules of the American Bar Association. He created his own organization, something called "The Belli Society"; membership was available to lawyers who'd won more than $1 million in plaintiff's awards.

In 1958, Belli sued the San Francisco Giants for falsely advertising radiant heat in its seat boxes at Candlestick Park. Belli had purchased a box, which turned out not to be heated, and wanted his money back. He showed up in court wearing a parka, won the case, and threatened to fulfill the judgment by seizing Willie Mays -- unless Giants owner Horace Stoneham paid the $1,500 price of the box. Stoneham paid. But again, the lawyer's more traditional colleagues criticized Belli's use of the court system for what they perceived as a publicity stunt.

San Francisco loves larger-than-life characters so much the city tends to create them out of anyone who possesses the slightest bit of material to work with. Melvin Belli was an exception. Belli was a bona fide, wisecracking, stunt-pulling, headline-generating, one-of-a-kind character, wrapped inside a lawyer. He both worked and played hard, with clients who included celebrities from Mae West to Lenny Bruce. And San Francisco embraced him, whether he was holding court in a crowded bar, cruising around town in his black Rolls-Royce, or entertaining the press.

The city icon had a shock of white hair and thick, black-rimmed glasses for so long that no one seems to remember him any other way. His commanding presence was just as memorable. Yet almost when no one was looking, Melvin Belli aged. It wasn't something that came quickly. Belli worked nearly every day of his life, by his own choosing. If he'd stopped working, perhaps retired a decade or so ago, the aftermath might not have turned out to be so ugly. Alas, Belli could not step away from his beloved legal practice, despite common sense that dictated it was time.

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