Lawyer in NH Exxon Mobil case has string of wins

Lawyer who won $236M verdict against Exxon Mobil in NH case knew what she wanted since youth

Associated Press
Lawyer in NH Exxon Mobil case has string of wins
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In this Wednesday, April 10, 2013 photo, Jessica Grant poses with her dog Maggie in Concord, N.H. Grant …

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- At age 11, Jessica Grant used to turn her bedroom into a courtroom and play at being a lawyer.

She's not playing anymore.

At age 44, she led the state of New Hampshire to a $236 million verdict last week against Exxon Mobil Corp. in a case over groundwater contamination by the gasoline additive MTBE. It is the largest verdict by far in New Hampshire's history and the largest of any MTBE case nationwide.

"It was an extremely hard-fought case," Grant said. "It was like doing hand-to-hand combat every day."

It wasn't her first dramatic courtroom victory.

In 2005, she secured a $172 million verdict on behalf of more than 116,000 Wal-Mart workers who challenged the retail giant's refusal to grant them breaks. In 2008, she successfully defended Intel Corp. against a $450 million breach of contract and patent claims case.

Three years ago, she was recruited by the San Francisco law firm of Sher Leff to try New Hampshire's MTBE case. Sher Leff has been at the forefront of many of the high-profile MTBE and water pollution cases in the country.

She told The Associated Press she agreed to take the case on two conditions: She would bring in her own team of lawyers and paralegals and be allowed to significantly restructure the case.

"We had to make it simple," she said.

She pared the state's lineup of expert witnesses from 17 to six. She narrowed the focus of the case from all wells with traces of MTBE to those at or above the maximum contamination level of 13 parts per billion. And she convinced a Superior Court judge it could be tried on a statewide basis rather than piecemeal.

For the past three years, Grant said, she has worked seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day.

"The amount of prep to try a case like this is Herculean," she said.

In hailing the verdict, Attorney General Michael Delaney called Grant "extraordinary."

Associate Attorney General Peter Head, who sat elbow to elbow with Grant throughout the trial, said her command of the facts and information was "remarkable, in terms of the quantity of information that had to be digested and presented."

Jurors, who sat through the three-month trial and delivered verdicts after just 90 minutes of deliberations, agreed.

"She was very straightforward and to the point," said Bryan Dunagin. "She didn't pull any punches."

"You could tell she was passionate about this case," Dunagin said.

Hanes Quinn, lead lawyer for Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil, declined to comment on Grant's performance. Exxon Mobil has said it will appeal the verdict.

American Bar Association President Laurel Bellows said Friday it's rare nationwide to see a woman as lead counsel in a major case, "and it's not getting a lot better."

"She is unusual," Bellows said of Grant.

Grant grew up in Orinda, Calif. Her father is an architect and founder of his own firm. Her mother taught English and Latin and wouldn't let Grant go out to play in the summer until she completed an essay assignment. She played on sports teams, including the Junior Olympics volleyball team.

"I'm extremely competitive," Grant said. "I love to win, and I hate to lose."

Grant received a bachelor of arts degree in rhetoric from the University of California at Berkeley in 1990 and her law degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law in 1995.

At age 11, she set three goals for herself: She wanted to be one of the top trial lawyers in the country. She wanted to adopt a fawn-colored greyhound and name her Maggie. And she wanted to adopt a child.

"I'm pretty precise," she said.

She rescued Maggie four years ago and calls her the trial team's "secret weapon." The dog flew out with her from San Francisco four months ago and spent days and much of the evenings in the team's rented office across from the courthouse.

"She was an emotional lift for me and the rest of the team," Grant said.

As for adopting a child, Grant concedes that part of her game plan is on hold for the time being.

"I really love what I do," Grant said. "For now it's just me and Maggs."

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