Louis Nizer was born in London in 1902. As a child, he and his family moved to New York, where his activities included singing in a choir and engaging in public speaking. Nizer attended Columbia University and Columbia Law School.
He became a distinguished, energetic American trial lawyer, who represented the rich and poor in a wide variety of trials, some of which broke new ground establishing new legal precedents, e.g., damage awards in defamation cases. Throughout his legal career, his clients included Johnny Carson, Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Eddie Fisher, Alan Jay Lerner, Mae West, Quentin Reynolds, and many more.
His passion for the courtroom and his clients inspired him to write a prayer: “I would pray, O Lord, never to diminish my passion for a client’s cause, for from it springs the flame which leaps across the jury box and sets fire to the conviction of the jurors.”
He worked hard on his cases, believing trials are a search for truth. “Diogenes and his lantern might well constitute a symbolic replacement for the blindfolded figure of Justice. The lawyers’ task is to reconstruct past events and adduce the persuasive facts for the client.” (“My Life in Court,” Louis Nizer, at 7)
One medical malpractice case he tried involved the death of his client’s wife and child during childbirth. The tragedy was overwhelming. The theory of the case was that, under particular circumstances, the attending doctor failed to call in a cesarean specialist as the delivery was not going well, notwithstanding the husband’s pleas to do so. (Id. at 350) Nizer described the case as the most difficult medical malpractice case he had ever tried and was prepared to take the case without a fee. (Id. at 347-48)
The defendant doctor, who had treated the family for many years, including delivering the wife’s first child by Caesarian, took the stand. Defense counsel elicited testimony from the doctor that a cesarean delivery was not necessary a second time for various reasons. While the patient was in the hospital doing well, the doctor received a call that the baby was about to be born, but the mother had collapsed, her pulse was poor and she had shortness of breath. (Id. at 353)
In the courtroom, Nizer displayed captivating advocacy skills, including skills in witness examinations. He cross-examined the doctor with the purpose of demonstrating the doctor was not a credible witness:
Q. When the patient was admitted to the hospital … she was taken directly to the delivery room, is that not so?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. … Well as far as you could see she was in pain, was she not?
A. No, sir.
Q. She was not?
A. Not as far as I could see …
Q. Do you recall testifying in an examination before trial in this action, Doctor?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. And do you recall being asked this question in that examination and making this answer:
“Q. What was her condition when she entered?
A. She was having false labor pains every 15 or 20 minutes …”
Q. Do you recall making the answer that she was having those false labor pains every 15 or 20 minutes?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. That was correct wasn’t it?
A. If I said that in the examination before trial, it is correct…(Id. at 354)
Another one of Nizer’s many cases, which took place in 1955, included successfully representing Quentin Reynolds, reporter and author, for defamation against Westbrook Pegler, a well-known columnist. This case resulted in Nizer obtaining a record judgment for Reynolds in the amount of $175,001. It was also the basis of the 1963 Broadway play “A Case of Libel,” later adapted into two TV movies.
Pegler had denounced Reynolds, asserting among other allegations that Reynolds was a coward in World War II. Nizer called many witnesses in the case, refuting Pegler’s false statements. For example, responding to the assertion that Reynolds was a coward as a war correspondent during WWII, Nizer asked Reynolds the following question on direct examination:
Q. Who was the last American correspondent to leave Paris before the Germans actually occupied it?
A. As far as I know, I was … (Id. at 40)
Nizer’s passion for the law included helping and teaching young lawyers, which was why he wrote for and talked to them about his trials. In addition to the best-selling “My Life in Court,” describing some of his significant trials, he also wrote “The Implosion Conspiracy,” about the Rosenberg spy case; “Catspaw,” about an innocent man wrongfully accused of murder; “Reflections Without Mirrors,” an autobiography; and “The Jury Returns,” describing more of his cases, including a domestic and murder case.
Louis Nizer’s career lasted 60 years. He passed away at the age of 92 in 1994, working almost to the day he died.
Paul Mark Sandler, trial lawyer and author, can be reached at [email protected].