Hoyt Tessener joined our firm this year and we are excited to have him on board. Hoyt has an enviable reputation among other attorneys as being tough, meticulously prepared, yet fair and honest. He worked as a defense lawyer for major large corporations before deciding to represent individuals. So he has a broad and unique perspective of both sides of the law. He has won multiple multimillion dollar verdicts* in many high-profile cases, and is currently leading our formidable Charlotte School of Law legal team.
We sat down with Hoyt to learn a bit more about what led him to become a lawyer, and why he chose the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin to continue his accomplished legal career.
Your reputation precedes you as a tough-minded, meticulously prepared attorney who has fought tooth and nail for clients on many large high-profile cases. That’s pretty flattering. What do you think makes you that way?
Hoyt: That is extremely flattering. Of course James Scott Farrin is already a successful firm and represents people well. I’ve been told I connect with people well. I think I have a good sense of people and what’s important to them and what they need as a result in trial.
I am very competitive and I like fighting for the underdog. I think my background has a lot to do with how I am today. I have represented very big companies – but they never once sent me a Christmas card!
When you represent the little guy who really needs your help, it’s more rewarding – and it’s necessary. The last trial I was in had 15 lawyers stacked against us. But they only get to speak one at a time.
Tell us about your clients, and how you connect with them. What do they need?
Hoyt: They need someone to guide them through the legal process. They are frightened, they’ve been hurt or wronged, and whatever resources they need, they may not have during this difficult time. People who have been severely hurt depend on me. They can’t do what they normally do like go to work and take care of their family. They didn’t get up that morning and realize they could be paralyzed that night. And all of a sudden without any preparation and through no fault of their own, their life is changed and they don’t know where to go or what to do. They need someone they can relate to and they know will fight for them and do the very best for them.
You mentioned your background. How did you grow up?
Hoyt: I grew up in Shelby, North Carolina – a textile town. My father died when I was 9. My mom remarried when I was about 14. My stepfather was the father in my life. He was a man’s man. He owned an auto body shop with his two brothers. Sports were important to him and to Shelby, so I grew up playing all sports.
During my senior year I applied to two colleges – NC State and UNC. For me, back then I didn’t understand the difference between a public college and a private one. Nobody in my family went to college. I had never been on either of the college campuses, but they seemed like the best schools, and tuition was only $300 a month. My mother saved every penny of the Social Security checks when my father died. She gave me that check every month and told me I was going to college. I had about $4,000 back then, and that was plenty of money to go to college. I applied at early admissions to State and Carolina and got accepted to both, and I had to decide within a week!
I thought the reason you went to college was to get a better job when you got out and went to work. There were a lot of textile mills in Shelby, and if you got a degree you could work in management in the textile mills. So I looked at that. And since you could get a Bachelor of Science degree in Textiles at State, I checked the box for State. When I arrived at State for orientation, it was the first time I had ever been there.
When you go to court, what are you to your clients?
Hoyt: I am their champion. I am there to champion their rights.
When you go to court, you are there to try to win that trial for your client and you need to do it with integrity. I will be prepared for everything. I always tell the truth good or bad. The jurors know that. If there is anything bad, they are going to hear it from me. I’m not going to hide anything from them.
Why did you make the switch from representing big companies to representing individual plaintiffs?
Hoyt: I started out representing banks, insurance companies, and corporations. I worked for a great firm with great people, but they did not represent the people I wanted to be a lawyer for.
When I was working at a textile mill in South Carolina, I had to lay someone off who had five kids and his wife had just died. He came to me crying, but I had to make that decision when I was just 22. So I watched how people’s lives were affected by big corporate decisions, and how their jobs and the decisions made for them defined them. When the textile business took a turn for the worse, I looked across at my boss who was 12 to 14 years older than me, married, with a mortgage. He was tied to that job. I thought to myself I have to do something else. My background was better suited for medical school because of my college courses, but my wife wasn’t interested in being married to a doctor. (She may feel differently now.) My father-in-law had his law degree and was a plant manager in Alabama. He’d gone to law school at night, graduated first in his law school class in Birmingham. And then the best law firm in Birmingham offered him $350 a month, and he was making $1200 as plant manager with a wife and two kids. He said he couldn’t afford to be a lawyer. But he told me that a law degree helps you think critically, see things objectively and manage fairly. He was successful, and he is a perfect example of how law school prepares you, so I decided to go to law school.
At the time, Campbell Law School made every student go through the trial advocacy program, and every part of that fit me to a tee. I won a lot of competitions, and litigation just seemed right. It’s funny, when I meet my friends from college or high school, every single person seems to think I found my exact calling.
What sort of strategic advantage does having worked for companies and banks give you now that you’re on the Farrin team and a plaintiff’s attorney?
Hoyt: Going to trial is a war of sorts. I tell my clients, “Look, if we go to mediation, everyone has to agree. It may not be everything we want or they want, but in the end we can’t make them do anything and they can’t make us do anything. So there is no reason to play mean, get upset, fight, or yell about this and that.” I’ve done it a few times, but I try not to.
But trial is a whole different ball game because a decision is going to be made, so you have to fight. The defense lawyers are serving at least two masters – their client and whoever is paying the bill. They might also be serving the boss too. When you are representing the plaintiff, the only person you answer to is the plaintiff. You make decisions on the case based upon your client and what they are going through, using all your experience. The defendants’ attorneys don’t get to do that.
I think having a background in both defense and plaintiff representation is really helpful. It can be reassuring to the client who’s in this terrible spot. It’s reassuring they know you lived on the other side of the curtain for some period of time. They realize, “Wow. This guy sat on that side of the table before and may know what they are thinking and what they are doing.” So I think it provides comfort and some security. I tell my clients, “I will always tell you what I think you should do. But what you decide is up to you. You’re hiring us to take this to court, and if you want to go to court on a matter of principle then we will go to court on a matter of principle, it is your right. I’ll tell you all the options and what I think you should do.” But in the end, the client makes the decision. In the end, if our clients are satisfied, then we have done our job.
At this point in your career you are obviously very accomplished. You’ve chosen to define yourself in part by coming to work at James Scott Farrin, so what is it about the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin that made it attractive for someone like you?
Hoyt: I think it’s a good marriage. This firm provides legal representation for people who may not get representation anywhere else. Insurance companies have made it very difficult to get a fair result without speaking with an attorney. In addition and especially in North Carolina, justice is tilted severely away from the injured. Many other law firms just cannot afford to represent many of the clients helped by JSF. JSF is so well organized and reaches so many people, that JSF can help. In my career I have tried cases throughout North Carolina. It is my belief that all cases must be prepared for trial. It is our hope that we can reach a fair settlement but that is not always the case. My skill set is valuing cases, planning strategy, and going to court. JSF gives me that opportunity along with the opportunity to mentor young attorneys. It is the highest calling for an attorney to represent those most in need. JSF recognizes that we are the last warriors for those in need and gives me the opportunity to continue to do what I have done for decades in a firm with integrity and sound management.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment within the courtroom?
Hoyt: The easy answer is winning* at trial when we were offered nothing. The next easiest answer is winning a case or settling a case where we not only made a difference in our client’s life, we made a difference by making the world a little safer. What I most remember can be summed up in the movie The Guardian with Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher is this young great swimmer. Kevin Costner is a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. That’s a very dangerous job. They bring you out in a helicopter and drop you into the water from 30 feet near a burning boat or whatever. Ashton Kutcher wants to be a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, and he’s a great collegiate swimmer. Kevin Costner’s character is a trainer. Ashton Kutcher keeps asking how many people he has saved, and Costner never answers. I don’t remember the number precisely but toward the end of the movie, Costner looks at Kutcher and says “36.” Here Costner has been a rescue swimmer for something like 30 years. Kutcher looks at Costner, and Costner says, “Oh are you not impressed?” And Costner repeats, “36. Those are the ones I lost.” He didn’t keep track of the ones he saved. Only the ones he lost.
I’m like Costner in that sense. I can tell you in vivid detail all the cases I’ve lost rather than the ones I’ve won. I don’t lose anything personally from losing a case, but my client could be going to bed hungry, can’t take care of their family and get the medical care they need, and possibly losing their self-respect. So the pressure is intense, because where else can they go?
How many times have you been to trial?
Hoyt: As best I can tell around 130 times with a verdict and another 50 or 60 times that settled. I only take a few cases to trial at a time now, because the types of severe injury cases I take now can take weeks to try. Clients need to know that when you go to trial they’re your only case, they have to be your focus. And that’s a great thing about being at a place like James Scott Farrin. You’ve got the resources to take your case to trial, try it against anybody, and utilize the firm’s vast technological resources to your advantage.
Jim Farrin: You have a tremendous amount of experience and we are happy to have you on board. I believe confidence and nerve also play a part in your success. There are some lawyers who try to take the easy way out and tell the client they’re getting a good settlement, just so they can be done with it and have the next weekend or few weeks off, and I’ve seen some lawyers at some firms do that. But it takes a lot of experience and guts to keep pushing for what you know your client may deserve.
Hoyt: I think you’ve got it analyzed very well, and I can tell you there have been times when I have gotten offers initially and said that’s reasonable. You must value your case based upon your experience including your experiences at trial. You then discuss the value with your client. If the opposing side offers the value, you should encourage your client to accept. However, if you do not get the value that you objectively discussed with your client, it is your professional duty to go to trial.
The one thing insurance companies do not like is uncertainty. And juries are not controlled by insurance companies so by nature a jury is an uncertainty for an insurance company. The one place that an individual still has a level playing field is the courtroom. Our judges are very good, but they don’t get to make the laws, they just interpret them. We want our cases in the hands of the jury where the field gets leveled. Jurors bring different life experiences and beliefs, and putting their whole emotional intelligence together to evaluate a case is the best way to get the right result.
At one time I heard you to say that you felt the jury selection process is a key component of your strategy.
Hoyt: Oh I think it’s the most important thing in the trial because it is the first time attorneys can talk to the jurors. It’s the one time plaintiffs have the advantage because we get to go first. The jurors make the decision about my client’s future. I look at it this way. The judge is the umpire but the jury decides the outcome. As a matter of fact, I have taught a course on jury selection at Campbell for the last 15 years.
Are you in touch with other lawyers on a national level?
Hoyt: Yes. I am part of several organizations around the country. These organizations are by invitation only to help each other address the overwhelming advantage large corporations and insurance companies have over the individual. I’ve worked with lawyers from North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, California, Kansas, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, Utah, Texas, Pennsylvania, and D.C. I’m also licensed in Georgia.
Who would you say has been of influence to you in some way?
Hoyt: Gene Boyce and Carole Gailor. Gene and Carole were my first bosses and the first attorneys I went to trial with. Carole and Gene understood the case, the other side, the judge, the jury and their clients. Gene is the absolute best civil litigator that has ever come close to North Carolina, in my opinion. Carole has the uncanny ability to know exactly what buttons to push. I was very fortunate.
What is one of life’s lessons you have learned from being a trial lawyer?
Hoyt: How precious life and health are. No one plans to be hurt, killed, or wronged. Most people gloss over the news reports believing it will never happen to them. That is exactly what the people in the news thought too – until it does. No matter how careful you are something bad can happen to you or yours.
*Each case is unique and must be evaluated on its own merits. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.