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Melvin Belli (1907 - 1996)

Early Legal Career

Belli set precedents for litigation methodology as the first attorney to use demonstrative evidence in a civil case.He is praised and respected for his pioneering efforts in large, socially and politically implicated cases, even those that were only near or partial successes. Most famous among these is his pro bono representation of Jack Ruby, the Lee Harvey Oswald's assassin, even though the plead of insanity was overturned. He was also willing to take on cases that cost his firm: although he was victorious in the class action lawsuit of 800 women against breast implant manufacturer Dow Corning, the defendant’s bankruptcy cost Belli’s firm millions of dollars.

Belli, Melvin. 14" x 19". 2005. Collection of Lesti Structured Settlements Inc. Los Altos, CA.

Belli’s dedication to civil law, growing fiercely through his work in the 1940s and 1950, helped build the foundations of modern consumer rights laws. His first legal work began as counsel for the Catholic priest in San Quentin Prison immediately after entering the California Bar in 1933.  The legal and moral challenge of representing men on Death Row was formative and directed his interest and knowledge to personal injury suits. 

However, his first major legal victory came through a personal injury lawsuit for an injured cable car grip man, which ended up setting the course of his career. Here, Belli set precedents for litigation methodology as the first attorney to use demonstrative evidence in a civil case and began his legacy of raising the standard for personal injury settlement awards.

Melvin Belli.jpg

Belli, Melvin. 25" x 33". 2005. Collection of Estate of Gary B. Pillersdorf. New York, NY.

Associations and Legacy

In addition to his ground-breaking work in the court room and judicial system and dedication to consumer’s rights, Belli helped establish the California Trial Lawyers Association (now Consumer Attorneys of California). The organization was formed to provide legal education for individuals in consumer lawsuits against large corporations. Belli also authored the six-volume textbook, Modern Trials, on the methodology of presenting demonstrative evidence so that future generations of lawyers could learn his techniques. His career even inspired the creation of the Melvin M. Belli Society, which aims to “promote the international exchange of ideas among lawyers through meetings and education.”

In addition to a passion for the law, Belli had a love for acting in television and film. His passion fatefully overlapped with his legal career, which inspired a number of productions in which he appeared, including the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, which featured his representation and facilitation of The Rolling Stones' staging of the disastrous Altamont Free Concert on December 6, 1969.

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