‘I haven’t gotten anything’: Behind lawyer Thomas J. Henry’s billboard touting a $1.25B court judgment
The billboard towers over Interstate 35 just north of downtown San Antonio, trumpeting a $1.25 billion “verdict/judgment” that personal-injury lawyer Thomas J. Henry secured for an alleged victim of sexual assault. A court ruling that large normally would generate reams of publicity.
Yet the San Antonio case escaped attention for almost three years — until Henry suddenly began promoting the result on the billboard and elsewhere. Henry likely never would have publicized the 2018 judgment if the State Bar of Texas had not eased its rules governing how lawyers advertise. Since July 1, lawyers no longer have to disclose in advertisements how much a client received from a verdict or settlement. That allowed Henry to omit from the billboard that he didn’t actually put anything in his client’s pocket.
The client, who was 6 at the time of the alleged assault and is now 22, said he has never received so much as a penny from the judgment.
“I haven’t gotten anything,” he said, adding that he found the billboard “upsetting.”
Henry is well-known for his many advertisements on billboards, television, online and in newspapers. He spends millions annually promoting his legal prowess in scoring big results for clients injured in car wrecks, workplaces, operating rooms and elsewhere.
Henry recently put out a press release to announce he had filed “a massive $2 billion lawsuit” against rappers Travis Scott and Drake and others on behalf of nearly 300 people who attended Houston’s Astroworld Festival last month. Ten people died as a result of a crowd surge at the event.
Henry’s release listed the $1.25 billion judgment among other “recent results,” which included the amounts clients actually received. They ranged from $5.6 million to $27 million.
Longtime San Antonio lawyer Ricardo Cedillo said Henry is touting the $1.25 billion figure to gain an edge over rival attorneys — even though the client mentioned on the billboard hasn’t received any compensation.
“I don’t compete with lawyers who advertise, but people Thomas J. Henry is competing with may be at a disadvantage,” said Cedillo, the lead lawyer in a business dispute that resulted in a more than $700 million jury verdict — the largest ever in Bexar County — in 2018.
“It’s an unfair advantage to Thomas J. Henry to say, ‘I got a $1.25 billion verdict,’” Cedillo said.
San Antonio personal-injury lawyer Jeff Davis, for example, currently is advertising a “recent result” of $6 million.
“Well, if you’re the general public, which number looks more impressive?” Cedillo said. “The public goes for the sizzle as opposed to the steak sometimes.”
Neither Henry nor his publicist responded to requests for comment. His San Antonio-based law firm employs more than 200 attorneys.
Jane and John Doe
Henry and one of his firm’s lawyers, Travis Venable, filed the civil case cited on the billboard on behalf of the alleged sexual assault victim and his mother, using the pseudonyms John Doe and Jane Doe. The suit was filed in June 2016 in state District Court in San Antonio.
The defendant was Ralph Chavez, an Air Force technical sergeant who coached John Doe’s baseball team in a Catholic Youth Organization in San Antonio at the time of the alleged incident in 2006.
According to the lawsuit, Chavez organized a sleepover at his home for John Doe with Chavez’s two young sons.
During the sleepover, the complaint said, Chavez invited John Doe into his bedroom, where the alleged sexual assault took place. Chavez has denied the allegations.
The lawsuit didn’t specify the amount of damages the plaintiffs were seeking from Chavez, but their claims included gross negligence and infliction of physical and emotional distress. John Doe has “suffered irreparable harm,” the suit said.
The civil action was filed exactly a year after a Bexar County grand jury indicted Chavez on five counts of aggravated sexual assault of a minor, a first-degree felony.
John Doe had kept the alleged assault to himself for nearly a decade before tearfully telling his then-28-year-old cousin about it while she was driving him home after school. That sparked a criminal investigation by the San Antonio Police Department and later the 2015 indictment.
Chavez was released on $75,000 bond after his arrest. He hired Joe Gonzales and Christian Henricksen as his defense lawyers. Gonzales is now Bexar County’s district attorney. Henricksen is the DA’s chief of litigation.
The case never went to trial. A judge granted then-Assistant District Attorney Rita Spiegel’s motion to dismiss the charges.
“Insufficient evidence to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Spiegel said in the motion.
Jane Doe, who is an attorney, said the prosecutor told her the DA’s office needed more victims to take the case to trial.
“This case was dismissed under a previous administration and the prosecutor has since retired,” said Nicole Perez, a spokeswoman for the DA’s office. “Neither Mr. Gonzales nor Mr. Henricksen can recall the specific facts of the case at this time.”
Jane Doe said she had sensed the DA’s office planned to drop the case and, at the recommendation of a lawyer-friend, had gone to see Henry about filing a civil lawsuit.
At the initial meeting, she said Henry told her he intended to include the Archdiocese of San Antonio as a defendant in a lawsuit.
Ultimately, the Archdiocese was not named. Jane Doe said Henry told her “it would be a difficult case.”
The Archdiocese did file a court document in the case opposing the release of its records to the plaintiffs. Cedillo’s law firm was one of two that represented the Archdiocese in the matter.
A judge ordered the Archdiocese to turn over documents related, among other things, to background checks and any sexual abuse complaints or incidents involving Chavez.
The trial was held on Dec. 10, 2018, court records show. By then, the lawsuit had been amended to drop Jane Doe as a plaintiff because her son had turned 19 and was legally an adult.
Both Henry and Venable were present.
Venable opened by telling state District Judge Antonia Arteaga that neither Chavez nor his attorney was present for the trial, the court transcript shows.
Chavez, in an interview, said he did not know his lawyer hadn’t appeared for the trial. Chavez couldn’t get away from work to attend, but he said his lawyer assured him he didn’t have to be there.
“If I would have known that my lawyer wasn’t going to show up, I would have showed up,” Chavez said. “I did not know he wasn’t going to show up.”
John Winter, Chavez’s lawyer, said he could not comment. Winter never filed a motion to withdraw from the case, records show.
Venable told the judge he was pursuing a default judgment, meaning the plaintiff would automatically win because the other side did not contest the case.
Both John Doe and the cousin he confided in took the stand to testify. Venable also read highlights from the deposition testimony of the detective in charge of the criminal investigation and submitted the transcript from a deposition of a forensic psychiatrist who examined John Doe.
Venable played for Arteaga a 20-minute video of Chavez’s deposition, which was conducted by John Doe’s attorneys.
Henry later told the judge that Chavez “was asked every critical question about the nature of his conduct, pled the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer those questions.” A person has a constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment not to incriminate himself or herself.
‘A massive deterrent’
Henry recounted for the judge John Doe’s emotional and physical problems caused by the alleged assault, including depression, chronic headaches and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Henry then asked the judge to award his client $250 million in compensatory damages and $1 billion in punitive damages. He cited the thousands of child abuse cases in Bexar County from 2013 to 2017.
“I believe a $1 billion judgment against Mr. Chavez will send a message and resonate and be a massive deterrent,” said Henry, who in 2014 donated $350,000 to the anti-abuse nonprofit ChildSafe of San Antonio. “And it will bring some change somehow, some way to the next child in this county and in this state.”
Henry had an order and final judgment ready for Arteaga to sign, with the damage amounts $250 million and $1 billion already written in.
The judge didn’t hesitate to approve the damages, telling John Doe, “There’s not enough money in the world to compensate you for what you’ve been through.”
At the end of the proceeding, Henry asked the judge to make public the name of the plaintiff, who was identified in court records only as John Doe. Henry said his client wanted to be a voice for other abused children.
Ten days later, a different judge granted a motion to release the plaintiff’s name.
John Doe said Henry urged him to appear in a television commercial promoting the lawyer’s practice.
“They wanted me to do stuff for them that I didn’t want to do,” he said. “Now they’re trying to turn around to make it to their benefit. It’s just not right.”
John Doe ultimately declined to appear in a commercial or otherwise publicize the case.
“You could tell they were upset,” he said. About a week later, he said, Henry’s firm returned his case file and informed him and his mother that it was “closing the case.”
Henry’s firm apparently has not done anything to enforce the judgment.
After winning a monetary award, lawyers commonly file an abstract of judgment, which creates a lien on certain types of property owned by a defendant.
No abstract of judgment against Chavez could be found on the Bexar County Clerk’s website.
Chavez, 53, said he has not paid any money on the judgment. He also said he’s never received anything directing him to make payment — not that he has that kind of money or assets.
“I don’t have a million dollars,” he said. “I don’t have anything worth a million dollars.”
Reminded that the judgment is for $1.25 billion, he replied, “Billion dollars. Whatever it is, I still don’t have that ridiculous amount of money.”
‘A paper judgment’
Henry waited almost three years to advertise the judgment. Changes to the State Bar’s rules on “communications concerning a lawyer’s services” appear to have provided the opening for him to put up the billboard.
Previously, the rules stated that an advertisement was deemed false or misleading if it contained any reference to past successes or results obtained — unless the amount involved was actually received by the client.
Attorneys also had to disclose their fees and litigation expenses when the gross amount of the award was part of an advertisement.
Those requirements were removed effective July 1. Lawyers no longer have to disclose the “net to client” in their advertisements. Nor must they disclose attorney fees or litigation expenses.
The rules were changed to make them more uniform for all lawyers, said Gene Major, director of the State Bar’s Attorney Compliance Division in the Advertising Review Department.
“Disciplinary rules have to apply to all lawyers,” Major said. “And it gets a little bit trickier to try and apply a rule like that to, let’s say, a transactional lawyer and, let’s say, a defense lawyer.”
The State Bar asked Henry to substantiate the judgment touted on the billboard.
“Mr. Henry provided us with the order and final judgment on this case,” Major said. “It is a factual statement that he did get the judgment. The dollar amount was verified. So he complied with the rule.”
The billboard is neither false nor misleading, Major said.
Yet while technically accurate, the ad may not paint a complete picture for the public, Houston attorney Dale Jefferson said. His practice focuses on legal ethics, and he advises lawyers on how to comply with rules governing their conduct.
“Advertisements like this might lead to a false impression if what is being advertised was the result of a default judgment…in which the underlying client not only didn’t get any money, but has no hopes of getting any money,” Jefferson said.
A default judgment signifies that a case wasn’t adjudicated on its merits, he said.
“In this case, there’s a $1.25 billion judgment but the defendant never showed up at the courthouse,” Jefferson said, “so this is a paper judgment as opposed to an actual judgment.”