Attorney Rex Carr remembered for legacy of hard work and ‘tenaciousness’

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Apr 30, 2015

Prominent plaintiff attorney Rex Carr, who was known for his “tenacious” cross-examination methods, died on Monday at the age of 88, following a battle with cancer.

Carr was remembered Wednesday for his intimidating, but skilled courtroom presence and dozens of multi-million dollar awards.

U.S. District Judge Staci Yandle began her career with Carr’s firm in 1987, where she worked as an associate attorney and then partner until 2007.

“He left an impression on all of us,” she said. “I will sorely miss him.”

Calling Carr a “father figure,” she recalled how he was a “willing mentor” and provided an excellent learning environment for young attorneys.

“I think the practice of law was a passion to him,” she said.

Yandle praised Carr as a hard worker and skilled trial lawyer, calling his methods “old school.”

She said he would handle his entire case from start to finish, including doing his own research and writing.

For that reason, he was always prepared at trial because he had read every piece of paper in the case. She added that he had the “uncanny ability” to memorize documents in a case.

“He was a brilliant attorney and he was just a great person,” she said.

Attorney Eddie Unsell of East Alton recalled his fondest memory was when he was in the courtroom when the jury returned a multi-million dollar verdict in favor of the plaintiff, who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. Unsell said he had the privilege of seeing a look of “pure bliss” on Carr’s face upon receiving the verdict.

“To him, hearing the verdict is what he lived for,” Unsell said.

Carr is best known for his “surgical” cross-examination skills. Yandle called it his “bread and butter.”

She said Carr would ask the same questions several different ways until he got the answer he was looking for.

“He knew what he wanted and he would keep at it until he got it,” Yandle said. “If they were avoiding him, he wouldn’t let them off the hook.”

“I think that he felt like that’s where cases were won and that’s true,” she added.

Unsell said Carr’s cross-examination practices were methodical and focused.

“His tenaciousness is just legend,” he said.

Yandle said those who didn’t know Carr found him intimidating, especially since he was always honest, saying whatever was on his mind.

“In a lot of ways, he didn’t have a filter,” she said. “He didn’t have much use for a filter.”

Unsell agreed, calling him a “shark” in the courtroom.

Carr was born and raised in East St. Louis, where he eventually opened his own firm, The Rex Carr Law Firm. Yandle said Carr never left East St. Louis, noting how he was a part of the community.

Carr began his legal practice after earning his law degree from the University of Illinois in 1949.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that after college, he was so poor that a judge allowed him to use his chambers as an office when the judge was in court, where he made just $500 in the first year.

His first year income is a far cry from the work Carr did as he established himself in the metro-St. Louis region.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Carr worked as a civil rights lawyer, fighting for equal rights for teachers and African Americans.

Yandle recalled how Carr was a driving force to end segregation in metro-St. Louis, which included leading sit-in protests.

In fact, Carr’s first law office was fire bombed in the 1970s because he hired an African American woman as a secretary, Yandle said.

Soon after, Carr began focusing his practice on personal injury and eventually expanded to medical malpractice, product liability and automobile accidents, among other tort claims.

Carr’s accomplishments as an attorney earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of Records on three separate occasions.

In 1976, Carr’s personal injury case Hooks v ITT in Washington, D.C., involving a swimming pool accident was named the largest personal injury verdict at the time. The jury awarded the plaintiff $7 million.

Then in 1981, his work with the Green v Alton Telegraph case in Madison County was named the largest libel verdict at the time.

In that case, two Alton Telegraph reporters received information linking real estate developer James Green to organized crime. The two reporters sent a memo detailing the allegations to a federal prosecutor on a strike force, who later sent the memo to federal bank regulators.

The federal bank began investigating where Green got his loans, and the loan company shut off his access to loans, costing Green business.

As a result, he sued the newspaper and was awarded a $9.2 million verdict - $6.7 million in business losses and $2.5 million in punitive damages.

The case was later settled for $1.4 million.

Also, in 1988, Carr earned the title of "World’s Longest Civil Jury Trial" after Kemner v Monsanto in St. Clair County lasted a total of 44 months.

In that case, Carr represented 65 residents of Sturgeon, Mo., who were injured when a tank car spilled. The car was carrying a dioxin contaminant in the wood preservative.

Monsanto refused to settle, and a jury ultimately ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, entering a $16.25 million verdict. However, the appeals court later reduced the sum to $1 million.

During the lengthy trial, Carr cross-examined a witness for six months and another for five months.

One of the last trials of his career put him on the losing end of a medical malpractice case. In 2013, a St. Clair County entered a verdict in favor of defendants Belleville neurologist Stephen Burger and Welch Neurology.

Burger’s attorney, Ted Dennis of Freeark Harvey and Mendillo, said that he didn’t have the opportunity to see Carr in his prime, but he was still a strong attorney near the end of his career.

“He was a powerful litigator all the way to the end,” he said. “Rex not at the top of his game was still quite an attorney.”

Dennis praised Carr’s “tremendous mind,” saying he came in with a clear understanding of even the most complicated information.

Carr also was well-known for having a strong work ethic.

“He was always working. He was the first one there and the last to leave. But he loved it. I don’t think it was work for him,” Yandle said.

But when he wasn’t working, she said Carr loved to run. Yandle said Carr would run every morning at Mt. Hope Cemetery, which is where he will be laid to rest.

In fact, Yandle said they used to joke that Carr would die right there in the cemetery and make it easy on them, as they could just pour dirt on him right there. But Carr joked back that he would die right there in his chair, doing what he loved.

Carr also had a passion for sailing and dogs. Yandle recalled one instance when Carr purchased a fence for the Belleville Humane Society. When he was being interviewed for a story on the donation, Carr was quoted saying that he prefers dogs to people. When his attorneys told him he probably shouldn’t have said that, he responded that while he didn’t mean it like that, he had to admit that dogs really are preferable.

Carr would take his dogs sailing with him and would even bring them into the office on the weekends. Yandle said it was common to come in to the office and find a new addition to the pack.

Visitation will be held from 4-8 p.m. on Friday at Kassly Mortuary in Fairview Heights. The funeral will be held the following day at 11 a.m.

Burial will be at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Belleville.

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