John O’Quinn (1941-2009) and his environmental philosophy

This morning, Houston attorney John O’Quinn died instantly in a car crash on Allen Parkway.  O’Quinn was a controversial and flamboyant attorney, who made hundreds of millions of dollars representing plaintiffs, and was particularly noted for his breast implant lawsuits and representing the state of Texas in its successful suit against tobacco companies.  Many, particularly those who believe that trial attorneys who use contingency may be making money illegitimately, were highly critical of his life’s work.  However one views him, some of his work and beliefs deserve mention in this column.  In addition to his purchases of land that for natural preservation, O’Quinn also established the A.L. O’Quinn Chair in Environmental Law, named after his father, a farmer and naturalist.  As the first holder of the O’Quinn Chair at the University of Houston Law Center, I felt it important to understand the motivation behind the O’Quinn Chair before I accepted it.  John’s answer was simple.  He said his father (and he) worried a great deal about the “little man,” and that no one was protecting the public from environmental harms.    While I have never had the vision that environmental law is about “big industry” vs. the “little guy,” I have noted in my career that we often lose sight of the fact that the environment belongs to all of us – that business, industry, government, and individuals can use the environment, but only to the extent that this use does not interfere with the rights of others.  Thus, harming the air is not always prohibited, but harming it to the detriment of others is (at least without compensation).

This also applies to climate change.  There has been a particularly heated argument among readers of this blog about whether the earth is “really” warming, and I will not add anything else to what I have already said, but given my belief that it is (which I believe to be well informed) it is incumbent that we deal with this problem fairly to protect everyone’s rights to be free from environmental harm.  I know that John O’Quinn agreed.

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