Bob Buckley: A worthy and entertaining adversary
There was a picture in The Kansas City Star last Sunday of the Mission, Kansas City Council and mayor from 70 years ago. I noticed in the photo that the mayor was Sylvester Powell, who was mayor from 1955 to 1965, and from 1977 until his death in 2002.
I knew him as Sylvester Powell, lawyer, and had the privilege of trying two cases against him. When you practice law for 40 years like I have, you encounter many characters. Syl Powell was one of them.
He and his longtime partner, Richard Heilbron, had a law firm called Heilbron & Powell. They were actually employees of Farmers’ Insurance Company. My first and only experience with Mr. Heilbron was in a case involving an injury to a 10-year-old boy. Mr. Heilbron came to our offices to take his deposition and began the deposition in a chair about 30 feet from the boy and began talking to him like he was his grandpa. Mr. Heilbron was a true gentleman and treated the boy well and fairly. He looked like my grandpa and acted like him too. It was tough beating grandpa.
Mr. Powell had a different style. He was gruff and crotchety. I always enjoyed having a case with him, although I was initially intimidated because of all of the stories I had heard about him.
The first case we had involved an automobile accident in which my client injured her wrist. A ganglion cyst developed on her wrist, and her surgeon who removed it said it was caused by the accident.
The offer I had received before I filed suit was too low and so I recommended that we file suit. One of my law school classmates, Lance LeFevre, worked for the Farmers’ Insurance law firm and had told me that Farmer’s always low-balled you prior to the lawsuit and normally paid about 20 percent more if you filed suit. Therefore, we filed suit.
Mr. Powell called me up and told me that they were withdrawing all offers. We had no choice but to try the case. I beat him at trial, and he appealed the jury’s verdict. We ultimately settled the case. His defense was that my client was in good physical condition and she liked to do pushups and her pushups caused the cyst. I am surprised he did not do pushups in front of the jury.
I then had the opportunity to try his last jury trial. He probably tried over 500 cases. My client had been pumping gas and at that time you accessed the pump at the rear of the car. A lady did not have her car under control and ran into my client, pinning him between the two cars. He suffered a fractured pelvis, which caused him quite a bit of pain. I thought we would settle that case as liability was very clear. We tried it in Platte City.
Mr. Powell had my client examined by a doctor named Paul Centner. Dr. Centner was a long-time friend of Mr. Powell and was even his doctor. He had done countless examinations for him and had testified several times for him in court. Dr. Centner said my client was not hurt very much and was exaggerating his complaints. My cross-examination of Dr. Centner consisted solely of developing his long-time relationship with Mr. Powell to create the impression that he was biased. Mr. Powell did not like my cross examination and claimed the doctor was an honorable man.
When we argued the case in closing argument, I requested a reasonable amount. The medical bills were barely $4,000, so I thought that asking too much would turn the jury off although my client was a very nice man who had significant pain and disability years after the accident. When Mr. Powell arose to face the jury, he did what he always did. He almost climbed into the jury box, and he told the jury that I had asked for too much and that the jury should give him $10,000 because I knew that this was a reasonable amount. What was I to do? Stand up and tell the jury that it was not reasonable and that he should not speak for me.
I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall that the jury’s verdict was for my client’s medical bills and not a dime more. Platte County juries are normally stingy, but this was a tough loss.
My only other experience with him was when he represented a co-defendant in a lawsuit. Mr. Powell and the other lawyer were taking my client’s deposition. Mr. Powell was notorious for taking brief depositions. He learned a long time ago, as have I, that at some point you have read it and if you can accomplish your goals with a few questions, that is the best way.
He completed his questions in less than 30 minutes and the other lawyer began. He was tedious, which means he was long and slow. I hated having cases with that lawyer. In any event, Mr. Powell sat and listened for about 30 minutes, stood up and proclaimed that he had enough of that stuff; he did not say “stuff” by the way. He then walked out of the deposition. I wish I could have gone with him.
The community center in Mission is named after him. I am proud to claim that I tried his last case and the jury didn’t listen to either one of us.
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at email@example.com.